Dodgers Hope a Veteran Earns Fifth Slot

The Dodgers are not saying it, but they are hoping the Hong-Chic Kuo, Esteban Loaiza, Chan Ho Park, Jason Johnson or someone steps up to take the fifth starters slot. And not for the normal reason. They really don't want to be in a position to promote Clayton Kershaw.

Not that the kid couldn't fit right in. He could and that is a big part of the trouble. No one wants to rush a youngster who turns 20 on March 19, into the National League West pressure cooker.

A premature injury to Kershaw would be traumatic. But by the same token, he could be injured pitching for Jacksonville or Las Vegas and the Dodgers know that quite well.

The club will not need a fifth starter during the month of April with four open dates. That will give whomever they choose a month to impress before the crucial decision has to be made.

But have no doubt, if they can't find an adequate fifth starter, Kershaw will get a plane ticket to LAX and an introduction to the real baseball world.

Manager Joe Torre said the Dodgers were "not really looking at that" when asked if Kershaw was competing for the fifth-starter spot, but then, too, Torre also didn't deny it.

He said the No. 1 priority is Kershaw's "well-being," but acknowledged that "you never know for sure the best way to proceed."

Torre mentioned the pretty good changeup Kershaw throws to right-handed hitters, and referred to a Dodgers Hall of Fame left-hander who survived with just a fastball and curve.

"There was a left-handed pitcher in this organization with only a fastball and curve and he was pretty good," said Torre. "But I don't want to put that kind of pressure on him. He's not too far away from the changeup. He's got it; it's a matter of locating it."

Dodger players almost to a man feel the kid is ready now and are beginning to realize what such an impact player might have on the season.

A video of Sean Casey is curculating as Kershaw's curve drops off the table into Martins glove for a third strike. The look on Casey's face is worth a thousand words.

Martin pointed out, "He keeps his fastball down and knee high. There's not really much you can do with a 96-mile-per-hour fastball knee high. And he has that tremendous breaking ball. The hitters have to pick one because if they're sitting on one, they can't hit the other.

"He's pitching like a big-league pitcher. You can just tell by how the hitters are reacting to his stuff, getting jammed, buckling on curveballs.

A number of Dodgers have bypassed their minor league youth to pitch in The Show. Of course, the aforementioned Sandy Koufax was one.

On that subject, Koufax should have pitched a great deal more. Don't talk about his "wildness." He could have been run him out there every fourth or fifth day in 1958 as the team bounced in and out of the league basement all season long and not hurt the club's chances while adding extra experience for the obviously remarkable young man.

Don Sutton is another who jumped into the battle with relatively few minor league innings and handled everything pretty well.

Right now, there is no argument he is better than any of the alternatives the Dodgers have.

It will be interesting to see if they can somehow keep themselves from adding a pitcher who would probably be a #2 or #3 starter (at least) from the moment he first put his foot on the Dodger Stadium mound.

The Contenders
Park Chan-ho (his proper name) returned to Los Angeles earlier this year as a non-roster player looking to revive his career. ?

?The 34-year-old South Korean, who worked three hitless innings in Ft. Myers Monday, is battling veterans Esteban Loaiza, Hong-Chic Kuo and Jason Johnson.?

?"With Jason Schmidt not expected to be ready for opening day, we have at least three in the mix for the fifth spot in the starting rotation," manager Joe Torre said. "Esteban Loaiza is considered the favorite to win the spot."?

?Loaiza seemed to help himself after three solid innings against the defending World Series Champion Boston Red Sox on Sunday.

The 13-year pro, who won 21 games in 2003 with the Chicago White Sox, started for the Dodgers and tossed three scoreless innings, lowering his spring ERA to 3.86.?

?Unheralded non-roster pitcher Jason Johnson has also been drawing attention from the coaching staff. The 34-year-old native last took the mound in the majors in 2006 with the Cincinnati Reds, and has allowed no runs in three appearances against the Baltimore Orioles, Braves and Cardinals.?

?Kuo worked only his third inning March 8 against St. Louis and is just rounding into shape.?