Dodgers to Rely on Strong Offense

Thanks largely to the re-signing of Manny Ramirez, which not only bolstered their lineup but lengthened it, the Dodgers head into the season with one of the National League's most feared offenses. But in a direct clash with Dodgers tradition, it is that offense that will have to carry the club, because the team appears to be short on pitching.

The batting order is deep and versatile, with switch-hitting speedsters Rafael Furcal and Orlando Hudson in the top two spots and Ramirez and a host of now fully developed young stars stacked up behind them. The addition of Hudson also makes the Dodgers must better defensively than they were with Jeff Kent at second base.

As for the pitching, the rotation doesn't have a true ace, although Opening Day starter Hiroki Kuroda did pitch a couple of shutouts last year and displayed the ability to dominate when healthy. He is followed by Randy Wolf, Chad Billingsley and a still-developing Clayton Kershaw, all of whom are solid but none of whom is dominating.

The fifth spot has been a spring-long free-for-all, with rookie James McDonald a slight favorite as spring training entered its final week.

The bullpen is, to put it mildly, a question mark. Jonathan Broxton, who has been inconsistent, takes over as the closer after the departure of Takashi Saito. Hong-Chih Kuo, who underwent Tommy John surgery twice while he was still in the minors and who is always an injury risk, takes over Broxton's eighth-inning role.

Second-year big-leaguer Cory Wade and newcomer Guillermo Mota will fill the seventh-inning role, and perhaps veterans Claudio Vargas, Jeff Weaver and possibly Shawn Estes or Eric Milton rounding out the group.

Depth could be an issue, especially given the number of players the Dodgers have who possess injury histories. The club is expected to carry only four outfielders out of the gate. That's partly because the Dodgers have several infielders with the ability to play in the outfield and partly because both Furcal and Hudson are coming off injury-plagued seasons, so the team needs as many infielders as it can afford to keep.

Newly signed backup catcher Brad Ausmus and backup infielders Mark Loretta, Juan Castro and Doug Mientkiewicz are all veterans who are expected to be leaders in the clubhouse.

THE DODGERS WILL CONTEND IF ...: Their front four starters not only stay healthy, but pitch better than their own track records suggest they will. RHP Hiroki Kuroda had shoulder problems last year that now appear to be behind him. LHP Randy Wolf is a year further removed from Tommy John surgery than he was in his last stint with the Dodgers in 2007. RHP Chad Billingsley led the team with 16 wins last year and has to continue to throw strikes and pitch deep into games.

PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: OF Andre Ethier finally overcame his tendency to fade down the stretch, hitting .462 last September. This year, he has a good chance to step into the cleanup role that was vacated when 2B Jeff Kent retired. With SS Rafael Furcal, 2B Orlando Hudson and LF Manny Ramirez hitting in front of him, Ethier should have endless RBI opportunities. He also matured last season, cutting back on his legendary on-field temper displays after making outs.

ON THE DECLINE: RHP Jason Schmidt is entering the final season of his infamous three-year, $47 million contract and still has made only six starts during that time. Although he allegedly is healthy now and competed early in camp for the fifth spot in the rotation, he appears tentative about letting loose with his surgically repaired shoulder. Because of that, he is expected to begin the season on a rehabilitation assignment.

--OF Delwyn Young probably will be waived before the end of spring training. He is out of minor league options, and the Dodgers' tentative plan to carry only four outfielders doesn't leave room for him. Young is a switch hitter who can play all three outfield spots and second base and thus probably will be claimed off waivers by another club bur right now he is sidelined by a sore elbow.

--RHP James McDonald put himself at the head of the class in the battle for the vacant fifth spot in the Dodgers rotation. Since manager Joe Torre said McDonald would get a longer look for the spot because none of the other candidates had distinguished themselves, McDonald has made two starts and pitched six shutout innings, allowing two hits. The rookie also made six scoreless relief appearances, playoffs included, after receiving his first big-league call-up last September.

--LF Manny Ramirez appeared to have no lingering effects from the hamstring tightness that sidelined him for about a week. In his first three games back, he went 2-for-7 with a home run and played in the field in one of those games with no physical problems. Although manager Joe Torre has yet to announce a batting order, Ramirez probably will bat third this year behind switch-hitting speedsters Rafael Furcal and Orlando Hudson.

--INF Blake DeWitt remains a difficult proposition for team management. While he became an accidental regular as a rookie last year because of injuries to other players, this spring's acquisition of 2B Orlando Hudson seemed to push DeWitt out of the picture. Even as his spring average was hovering around the .300 mark as camp entered its final week, the concern for club officials was whether he would get enough at-bats as a super-sub that his development wouldn't be hindered. He will probably open the season at Albuquerque.

--RHP Chad Billingsley suffered a right groin injury on March 23 against the Angels. Although the injury wasn't believed to be serious, his next start will come in a simulated game on the back fields just to make sure he doesn't have any lingering effects. Billingsley is slated to fill the third spot in the rotation, and the Dodgers don't appear to have much in the way of starting-pitching depth.

--LHP Scott Elbert was sent back to the minors to get more innings under his belt. Torre said he is certain he will see him later this summer but didn't know if it would be as a starter or a reliever.

BY THE NUMBERS: 10 -- Players among those who are expected to be on the Dodgers' Opening Day roster who were drafted and developed within the organization. That number would increase to 11 if INF Blake DeWitt makes the team. RHPs Chad Billingsley, Jonathan Broxton, James McDonald and Cory Wade; LHPs Clayton Kershaw and Hong-Chih Kuo; C Russell Martin; 1B James Loney and OFs Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp all are homegrown products.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's depressing thinking about going to Albuquerque. I might as well go pitch on the moon." -- Veteran LHP Shawn Estes after being reassigned to minor league camp on March 22. Estes was given time to decide whether to accept the assignment or be granted a release, but club officials later allowed him to compete for a situational-lefty spot in the bullpen if he were willing to pitch on the minor league side for the rest of the spring.

ROOKIE WATCH: RHP James McDonald looks like a strong bet to begin the season as the Dodgers' fifth starter, but he might be simply holding down the fort until RHP Jason Schmidt comes off the disabled list. RHP Josh Lindblom, the Dodgers' second-round pick in last year's draft out of Purdue, has a good shot of being in the majors sometime this year after being promoted to major league camp on March 19.

RHP Jason Schmidt (right shoulder surgeries in June 2007 and September 2008) was pitching in games in late March, but he wasn't comfortable completely cutting loose in his delivery. He likely will begin the season on the disabled list.

RHP Chad Billingsley (right groin tightness) is expected to be ready by the start of the regular season despite having his penultimate spring start reduced to a simulated game.

INF Mark Loretta (right groin tightness) was expected to miss four or five days in late March, but club officials were hopeful he would be ready by Opening Day.