Dodgertown - Training Officially Opens

The Dodgers' 61st (and final) season in Vero Beach officially got underway Friday. Pitchers bullpens included Brad Penny, Esteban Loaiza, Hiroki Kuroda, Eric Hull, and Chad Billingsley, as well as non-roster invitees Tanyon Sturtze, Tom Martin, Jason Johnson, Mike Koplove, Brian Falkenborg, Hong-Chih Kuo, Mike Myers, Brian Shackelford, Matt Riley, Greg Miller, Greg Jones, and Fernando De La Cruz.

Manager Joe Torre will take an eclectic group of players on his upcoming visit to China. He revealed the names of the frontline position players who will actually make that trip for exhibition games against San Diego on March 15-16, and the list was remarkably brief: Andruw Jones, Nomar Garciaparra and Matt Kemp.

"We have a list already predetermined," Torre said. "That isn't to say we won't fiddle with it here and there. We will try to give it an Asian influence." Which will mean reliever Hong- Chih Kuo and infielder Chin-lung Hu, who are Taiwanese, and non-roster reliever Chan Ho Park, who is Korean, will make the trip.

It also probably means closer Takashi Saito, who is Japanese, is going but Japanese import Hiroki Kuroda will stay in Florida, along with most of the rest of the team's marquee players.

"The most important thing is that the people we keep back and the people we take with us get their work in," Torre said. "You probably won't see a lot of pitchers because we are only playing two games, and that is a long way to go just to throw in the bullpen."

Outfielder Juan Pierre, with the question about whether or not he will land a starting spot in the outfield, stopped by Dodgertown to, among other things, talk to Torre. But they didn't discuss playing time.

"We just said hello," Torre said. "I talked to Juan during the offseason. Obviously, I couldn't make any promises because I'm not in a position to do that. When the season starts, I would like to think the people who are in the lineup will be the people we have our best shot with at that point in time. I think we'll have to wait and see."

But then he made a chilling comment:

"I have always been fond of experience," Torre said. "A lot has to do with what each person brings to the table and what our needs are. Juan Pierre is a gamer. You realize over the years the type of players you feel will fit into a winning situation, and he is obviously that type of guy.

"I've always been one to favor experience," said Torre, who will decide between Nomar Garciaparra and Andy LaRoche at third base and has only two outfield spots open with Juan Pierre, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier competing.

"A lot has to do with what each one brings to the table. Juan Pierre brings so many things. He plays all the time, he gets 200 hits, steals 60 bases. We know he has no power, but he's a gamer. He's the type of player that fits into a winning situation."

Oh, My!

Kuo Ready to Go
Hong-Chih Kuo, cut down last season by his fourth elbow surgery, has completed his rehabilitation and will begin spring training on the same program as the rest of the Dodgers' pitchers. Although he probably is assured a spot in the bullpen if he stays healthy, Kuo said he is taking nothing for granted. "I think I'll have to fight it out," he said. "I'm just trying to make (the team). It doesn't matter whether it's as a starter or reliever."

Kuo might be the club's only hope for a lefty to fit into an otherwise all-righty starting rotation, but it would require something unforeseen like an injury, or a poor Spring Training by Loaiza, who is the early favorite for fifth starter with Jason Schmidt's ongoing rehab from surgery.

And, too, Kuo is out of options, so if he doesn't make the staff as a starter or second left-handed reliever, he could be lost off waivers.

Schmidt May Not Be Ready to Go
After being signed to a three-year, $47 million contract last winter Jason Schmidt was limited to six starts before going in for surgery June 20 to repair an inflamed bursa, a torn labrum and a frayed biceps tendon in his right shoulder. He's been rehabilitating ever since, and he's not putting a timetable on his recovery. "I'm still in rehab mode. It may not happen by Opening Day. I'll have to deal with that."

Schmidt, a three-time NL All-Star, went 58-28 with a 3.33 ERA over 122 starts with the Giants from 2003-06, making him one of the most attractive free-agent pitchers before he signed with the Dodgers.

"If he's not ready when the season starts, he'll be real close," Torre said of Schmidt. "Right now, the most important thing is to make sure he's pitching on a regular basis. Jason might be right there. We're just going to put him on the back burner."

How They View It
At the end of a lengthy interview, Jon Weisman of Dodger Thoughts asked Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times and Diamond Leung of the Riverside Press-Enterprise to fill in the blank ... The Dodgers' fate in 2008 depends mostly on --------.

Diamond: It depends mostly on whether or not the kids fulfill their potential sooner than later. Matt Kemp, James Loney and Chad Billingsley have already shown they can be front-line major league players, so imagine if they kept it up over a full season. Add the All-Star play of Russell Martin, starts from Andy LaRoche and solid contributions from Andre Ethier, and the Dodgers would be in great shape. They made strong free-agent signings and have former All-Stars in their lineup and rotation. The kids playing everyday would also result in a veteran bench. The big question is how much of an opportunity the youth movement will get to thrive at the onset under Joe Torre, who inherits the tough task of easing the transition.

Dylan: The health of the pitching staff. The addition of Jones, coupled with the return to health of Furcal, would seem to indicate that this team will be better offensively than last year's. Pitching, as Torre has said repeatedly, is the key. The start of last season's slide coincided with that period when Randy Wolf, Hong-Chih Kuo and Chin-hui Tsao went down. The freefall started when Brad Penny and Derek Lowe suffered their respective abdominal and hip injuries.

Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa
Gary Bennett, the Dodgers new backup catcher, was operating on a sore knee in 2003 and, as a last resort, used human growth hormone, a fact that came out in the Mitchell report on drugs in baseball.

"With it all coming out, it was very embarrassing," he said on the day pitchers and catchers reported to the Dodgers training camp. "Going into it, I knew it was wrong. It was a situation in '03 that I was on the DL for 6½ weeks with a partially torn MCL in my right knee. It got to a point where I was extremely frustrated, my knee was hurting. That led me to make a stupid decision.

"It was two, three months worth of HGH. I don't remember the exact breakdown of how and when I took it. The biggest question I had was, 'Did it help me?' I have no idea. I have no way of knowing whether it did or didn't help. It still hurt after that. It got better as the season went along.

"Was what I did wrong? Absolutely. Do I regret it? Absolutely."

The Dodgers signed the 35-year-old catcher to a one-year, $875,000 contract with a club option for a second year as a backup to All-Star Russell Martin two months ago -- less than a week after the Mitchell Report was released.

Bennett has a .242 lifetime batting average with 21 homers and 188 RBIs in a 12-year- career with Philadelphia, the New York Mets, Colorado, San Diego, Milwaukee, Washington and St. Louis. Bennett played in 59 games for the Cardinals last season, hitting .252 with two homers and 17 RBIs.

Dodger Blue Notes-- Catcher Russell Martin (25) and Ron Cey (60) celebrated their birthday Friday in Dodgertown. Right-hander Ramon Troncoso celebrates his 25th birthday today....Dodgers left-hander Greg Miller was selected as a compensation pick in the 2002 draft for the loss of free-agent righ-thander Chan Ho Park, who signed with Texas. Now they are both trying to make the Dodgers Opening Day roster. Miller is hoping to make his big league debut.

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