Dodgers-Ramirez in a Stare-Down

For the Dodgers, the start of spring training will be something of a fork in the road -- and no, that isn't a reference to the possibility of getting lost at their sprawling new complex in Glendale, Ariz. If the Dodgers re-sign Manny Ramirez, they will boast one of the strongest lineups in the National League.

If not, they might be stuck with the same, much more weak attack they featured before they acquired Ramirez last July 31.

As far as on-field battles, the most prominent one figures to be for spots in the rotation, and it isn't clear yet as to how many of those spots will be available. The only locks so far are Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw, Hiroki Kuroda and Randy Wolf, who signed on Feb. 6.

That would leave a rehabilitated Jason Schmidt, a promising James McDonald, offseason free agent acquisition Claudio Vargas and non-roster invitee Shawn Estes to vie for the fifth spot.

There also could be a battle in the bullpen, but as the team prepared to go to camp, there actually weren't enough proven players to fill out the group. Closer Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo, Guillermo Mota, Ramon Troncoso and Cory Wade are the only locks. The club figured to sign another free agent reliever.

Other than left field, where the Dodgers might look at free agent Adam Dunn if they can't re-sign Ramirez soon, the rest of the positions are set.

Where and When: First exhibition game is Feb. 25 against the Cubs. Firs home game at Camelback Ranch, Glendale, Arizona will be March 1.

Top Candidate to Surprise: RHP Jason Schmidt hasn't appeared in a major league game since June 2007, and his anticipated return last season from surgery to repair three separate issues with his right shoulder never materialized. No one is counting on him, but he is expected to be at full strength by the start of camp and could be in the rotation by Opening Day.

Top Candidate to Disappoint: 2B Blake DeWitt was the feel-good story of the season last year, going from minor league camp to the starting lineup on Opening Day, and he stayed in the lineup for much of the season. But DeWitt arrived in the majors at least a year ahead of schedule, and despite his solid makeup, the dreaded sophomore jinx could be a factor.

Authority Figures: Joe Torre brought his Bronx magic west with him, guiding the Dodgers to a division title despite a less-than-eye-popping 84-78 record in his first season. He then led the Dodgers to their first postseason series victory in 20 years. This will be the first full season for hitting coach Don Mattingly, who had a major impact on the team's approach at the plate.

Notes and Quotes
--OF Andre Ethier still doesn't appear close to agreeing to terms with the Dodgers, so a Feb. 17 arbitration hearing is beginning to seem inevitable. Ethier is seeking $3.75 million, while the Dodgers filed at $2.65 million. A first-year arbitration-eligible player, Ethier made just $424,500 last season.

--LHP Randy Wolf will rejoin the Dodgers. He agreed to a one-year contract for a guaranteed $5 million that could go to $8 million if he pitches 200 innings. Wolf pitched for the Dodgers in 2007, going 9-6 with a 4.73 ERA in 18 starts. He pitched for the Padres and Astros last season, going 12-12 with a 4.30 ERA in 190 innings.

--LF Manny Ramirez was offered a one-year, $25 million contract in early February, but the deal was turned down less than 24 hours later. It was the Dodgers' second offer to Ramirez this offseason. The club offered him two years and $45 million, with a $15 million club option for 2011, in November, but Ramirez and his agent, Scott Boras, never responded to that one.

--INF Luis Maza, who re-signed a minor league contract with the Dodgers this winter and was invited to big-league spring training, had a solid showing in the Venezuelan winter league. He hit .306 with four homers and 25 RBIs in 43 games, then went 5-for-17 with a pair of doubles in Venezuela's first four games of the Caribbean World Series. Maza made his big-league debut last season, hitting .228 in 45 games for the Dodgers, and he also hit .378 in 63 games for Class AAA Las Vegas.

--LHP Shawn Estes, who will be in camp on a minor league contract, is a dark-horse candidate for the Dodgers rotation. He has battled injuries for much of the past three seasons, and there is some question as to what he has left. Estes spent last season with San Diego, going 2-3 with a 4.74 ERA and missing more than three months with a broken thumb.

By The Numb3rs: 37 -- Home runs, on average, that free agent LF Adam Dunn has hit in his eight full major league seasons. Manny Ramirez has averaged 36 during the same time span. Although Ramirez is a better clutch hitter and a more electrifying player, the Dodgers could turn their attention to the still-unsigned Dunn if negotiations with Ramirez continue to drag.

Quote to Note: "Everybody is conscious today about being modest. You want to keep things in perspective. Everyone is struggling, and when a player of that status (rejects that offer), it's naturally going to create some dissent among people that might be enthusiastic about him." -- Sports psychologist John F. Murray, to the Los Angeles Daily News, on possible fan reaction to Manny Ramirez's decision to turn down a one-year, $25 million offer from the Dodgers.

Roster Report
The Dodgers' offseason was almost as much about "goodbye" as it was "hello." For starters, they overhauled the personality of the clubhouse, as 2B Jeff Kent retired, enigmatic RHP Brad Penny signed with Boston and the oft-discontented RHP Derek Lowe landed in Atlanta. Although many of their acquisitions were less than marquee -- backup C Brad Ausmus, utility INF Mark Loretta -- particular emphasis was placed on players with reputations for being consummate professionals and good teammates.

Arrvivals: RHP Guillermo Mota (free agent from Brewers), RHP Claudio Vargas (free agent from Mets), C Brad Ausmus (free agent from Astros), INF Mark Loretta (free agent from Astros), LHP Shawn Estes (minor league free agent from Padres), INF Juan Castro (minor league free agent from Orioles), LHP Randy Wolf (free agent from Astros).

Departures: RHP Brad Penny (free agent, signed with Red Sox), RHP Derek Lowe (free agent, signed with Braves), 2B Jeff Kent (retired), RHP Greg Maddux (retired), INF Angel Berroa (non-tendered, signed minor league deal with Yankees), RHP Jason Johnson (non-tendered, signed minor league deal with Yankees), INF Nomar Garciaparra (free agent, unsigned), CF Andruw Jones (released, unsigned), INF Pablo Ozuna (free agent, signed minor league deal with Phillies), RHP Chan Ho Park (free agent, signed with Phillies), RHP Scott Proctor (non-tendered, signed with Marlins), RHP Takashi Saito (non-tendered, signed with Red Sox), LHP Joe Beimel (free agent, unsigned), INF Mark Sweeney (free agent, unsigned).

Spring Focus: Partly because of the economy, this will be a spring like no other, and with so many positions already set, the Dodgers' focus could be as much off the field as on the field. The club figures to go to camp with the Manny Ramirez situation still unresolved, and that could dominate the headlines.

   PROJECTED ROTATION:
   1. RHP Chad Billingsley
   2. LHP Clayton Kershaw
   3. RHP Hiroki Kuroda
   4. LHP Randy Wolf
   5. RHP Claudio Vargas
Vargas is the favorite for the fifth spot, but he is far from a lock. If RHP Jason Schmidt is healthy, he'll compete, as will LHPs Eric Stults and Shawn Estes. Billingsley took a major leap forward last year. He suffered a spiral fracture of his left fibula in an offseason accident at home, but he is expected to be recovered by the start of camp.

Kershaw is one of the league's top young pitchers, and he'll benefit from the addition of the veteran Wolf, who has more major league service time than Billingsley, Kershaw and Kuroda put together.

   PROJECTED BULLPEN:
   RHP Jonathan Broxton (closer)
   LHP Hong-Chih Kuo
   RHP Guillermo Mota
   RHP James McDonald
   LHP Eric Stults
   RHP Ramon Troncoso
   RHP Cory Wade
The club was still hoping to add a veteran reliever before the start of spring training, something that figured to happen quickly once the Wolf signing was complete. If it's another lefty -- say, Dennys Reyes -- that could push Stults to the minors.

Broxton will take over the closer's role full time this season, and while he has overpowering stuff, he is a bit of an adventure at times. If he falters, Kuo would be a candidate to take over the job at some point, but he also has issues, what with his history of elbow problems and two Tommy John surgeries while in the minors.

   PROJECTED LINEUP:
   1. SS Rafael Furcal
   2. RF Andre Ethier
   3. C Russell Martin
   *. LF Manny Ramirez
   4. CF Matt Kemp
   5. 1B James Loney
   6. 3B Casey Blake
   7. 2B Blake DeWitt
   *8. LF Juan Pierre
If the Dodgers re-sign Manny Ramirez, Pierre would be pushed back to the same, fourth-outfielder role in which he finished last season. Ramirez probably would then hit third, with everyone else dropping a spot.

The Dodgers weren't very good offensively before Ramirez arrived on July 31, but even if he isn't re-signed, all might not be lost. The club showed a dramatically different approach at the plate after the midseason arrival of new hitting coach Don Mattingly, who should be around for a full season this time.

   PROJECTED RESERVES:
   C Brad Ausmus
   INF Mark Loretta
   INF Juan Castro
   OF Delwyn Young
   OF Jason Repko
Repko will be another odd man out if Manny Ramirez returns, but the consolation prize will be that he'll receive $500,000 to play in the minors thanks to the wonders of the arbitration process. Castro will have to beat out Tony Abreu and Chin-lung Hu, but neither of them has done much to distinguish himself the past couple of years, so the job is Castro's to lose.

Ausmus won't play much behind Martin, but he was brought in as much for mentoring purposes as anything else. He and Loretta are on the down sides of their careers, but they are key pieces in the front office's effort to create a more professional clubhouse environment.

Top Rookies: OF Andrew Lambo is one of the organization's top prospects, and although he is probably at least a year away and isn't expected to be invited to big-league camp, GM Ned Colletti and manager Joe Torre undoubtedly will want to look at him in a couple of Cactus League games. He hit .389 in a brief, end-of-the-season promotion to Class AA, hitting three homers and driving in 12 runs in eight games.

OF Xavier Paul had a strong season at Class AAA Las Vegas (.316, 28 doubles, nine homers, 68 RBIs and 17 steals) and a decent one in the Mexican winter league. But with Delwyn Young out of options and Jason Repko making big-league money, Paul's best bet might be to get traded to another organization.

Medical Watch
RHP Chad Billingsley (left fibula fracture in November 2008) has been right on schedule in his recovery after slipping on ice at his home in Pennsylvania. He is expected to be healthy by the start of camp and ready to take his place at the front of the rotation.

RHP Jason Schmidt (right shoulder surgeries in June 2007 and September 2008) hasn't pitched in the majors in almost two years, and club officials are adamant about the fact they aren't counting on him. But he was expected to begin throwing off a mound shortly before the start of camp, and he should be fully capable of at least competing for a bullpen spot.

INF Tony Abreu (right hip surgery in May 2008) missed all of last season, but he was feeling fine by the time he got to Instructional League in the fall. He has been working out all winter at the team's facility in the Dominican Republic.

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