The Days Dwindle Down to the Opener

The Dodgers expect to be among the better teams in the National League again this season, but spring training has shown a few vulnerable aspects to this club. Spring performances from Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley eased some of the rotation worries, but until either emerges as a legitimate ace, nobody is about to exhale. An injury to a position player could prove to be disastrous.

The Dodgers put together a nice bench with veterans like Ronnie Belliard, Garret Anderson and Brad Ausmus. But will any of them be able to play every day for an extended period if Casey Blake, Manny Ramirez or Russell Martin goes down with a serious injury?

Even the bullpen had its issues, as Ronald Belisario's visa problems made him a very, very late arrival.

The rotation will be fine if the four set starters -- Kershaw, Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda and Vicente Padilla -- deliver as expected. Finding a consistent fifth starter is a concern as well, but they were able to piece things together in the No. 5 spot last season.

Padilla's assignment as the opening-day starter seems to be motivational in nature. If he didn't know already, the right-hander, who was cut loose by the Rangers seven months ago, has learned that big things are expected of him.

The plan at the outset is to get Ramirez and Blake even more rest than they received a year ago. If you have a ticket to a Dodgers day game, don't be disappointed to see Reed Johnson or Anderson in left field and Belliard at third.

The bullpen might be a work in progress all season. The Dodgers already know that Belisario won't be on the opening-day roster. He will have to work himself into shape whenever he shows up in the United States. An early sign on the status of the bullpen will come with the performances of George Sherrill and Ramon Troncoso, who had disappointing outings in spring training.

THE DODGERS WILL CONTEND IF ...: RHP Chad Billingsley turns into the kind of pitcher he was in the first half last season (9-4, 3.38 ERA) and not the second half (3-7, 5.20) ... RHP Ronald Belisario finds his form quickly after his return to the United States and shores up a bullpen with plenty of question marks.

PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: LF Manny Ramirez should do something better with the pitches he sees this year. Ramirez's aura of invincibility has faded, with a sure sign being the 11 walks he received in spring training last year in 24 at-bats, compared to his four walks this spring through his first 28 at-bats.

ON THE DECLINE: SS Rafael Furcal had the lowest batting average (.269) of his career last season and the lowest number of stolen bases (12). One sign of hope was the leadoff man's six steals over the final three weeks of the 2009 regular season.

--1B Doug Mientkiewicz will not make the Dodgers' opening-day lineup, the veteran was informed March 27. He was batting .292 through 15 spring games, but the team apparently will go with OF Garret Anderson as its left-handed pinch hitter.

--RHP Eric Gagne asked for and was granted his release from the organization on March 21. Gagne signed a minor league contract and was invited to big-league camp, but he struggled in spring games to the tune of a 20.25 ERA in three outings. Six days after he agreed to be reassigned to minor league camp, he had a change of heart and left the club.

--RHP James McDonald couldn't land either a spot in the Dodgers rotation or a role in the bullpen, and he was optioned to the minor leagues on March 20. McDonald started the 2009 season as the Dodgers' fifth starter, was demoted when he struggled but regained a bullpen role and pitched in 45 games. The move to the minors came a day after he gave up six runs in 1 2/3 innings against the Padres.

--LHP Hong-Chih Kuo is dealing with a sore elbow for the second time this spring and is in danger of not making the opening-day roster. Kuo first felt pain on the Dodgers' March 12-14 trip to his native Taiwan. He returned to throw an impressive 1 2/3 innings March 19, but he has been dealing with soreness ever since. Kuo has had surgery on his left elbow four times.

--LHP George Sherrill continues to struggle in spring training games, but the Dodgers aren't going to worry about it. Sherrill has a history of poor spring performances before correcting himself when the season begins. He had given up seven hits and four walks in his first 3 2/3 innings of the spring. Only two of his five runs allowed were earned.

--Manager Joe Torre decided to suspend talks on a contract extension fearing it would be a distraction with opening day looming. Both Torre and owner Frank McCourt are interested in adding another year to Torre's deal, which expires at the end of this season. Torre said he isn't sure how much time he will be willing to contribute in an advisory role after he is done managing in 2011.

--C Russell Martin is experiencing a fast recovery from a groin injury that was supposed to keep him out four to six weeks. Martin played in a simulated game March 22 and a minor league game March 26 and 28. The Dodgers are now saying that Martin has a chance to be ready for opening day.

BY THE NUMBERS: 3 -- Times C Russell Martin was hit by a pitch in a March 22 simulated game as he attempted to rehab a groin injury. Both times, Martin was plunked by Dodgers minor league RHP Tim Corcoran. Martin was removed from the game when Corcoran hit him above the left wrist. He was also hit in the back, but neither pitch added to his long-term injury woes.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm supposed to cut back on dangling participles, and I'm not allowed to split any infinitives for at least another week." -- Dodgers Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully, upon returning to the booth March 21, three days after suffering a head injury in a fall at his home.

The Dodgers bullpen was supposed to be the most worry-free part of the club, but it has been anything but with visa problems, struggles and injury. The starting staff looks solid, though, thanks to Chad Billingsley's return to form and the fifth-starter battle, which has been spirited. C Russell Martin's groin is the only injury of note from the position players.

1. RHP Vicente Padilla
2. LHP Clayton Kershaw
3. RHP Chad Billingsley
4. RHP Hiroki Kuroda
5. RHP Charlie Haeger or RHP Ramon Ortiz

ROTATION ANALYSIS: One justification for having Padilla start on opening day at Pittsburgh: His 18 road victories since the start of 2008 are tied for second best in baseball, trailing only the 20 posted by Cliff Lee.

Kershaw will start the second game of the season, meaning that the 22-year-old will get to start the home opener April 13 at Dodger Stadium. Billingsley looks to have solved the mechanical issues that led to a 5.20 ERA in the second half last season. Haeger has looked good this spring as have veterans Russ Ortiz and Ramon Ortiz, but he is out of minor league options and would undoubtedly be claimed on waivers if he didn't make the team.

RHP Jonathan Broxton
LHP George Sherrill
RHP Ramon Troncoso
RHP Charlie Haeger
RHP Jeff Weaver
RHP Carlos Monasterios RHP Russ Ortiz or RHP Ramon Ortiz

The Dodgers had experienced nothing but trouble trying to put together a bullpen, starting with RHP Ronald Belisario's visa troubles in his native Venezuela. The standout rookie from a year ago will not start the season with the club.

LHP Hong-Chih Kuo was 50-50 for the opening-day roster due to elbow soreness, but has been shut down. Broxton had supplied the only stability with a solid spring as he appeared to be in midseason form.

Sherrill and Troncoso will need to pick things up after unimpressive springs.

1. SS Rafael Furcal
2. CF Matt Kemp
3. RF Andre Ethier
4. LF Manny Ramirez
5. 1B James Loney
6. 3B Casey Blake
7. 2B Blake DeWitt
8. C A.J. Ellis

LINEUP ANALYSIS: Kemp will start the season in the No. 2 hole, giving the Dodgers plenty of firepower at the top of the order. The NL MVP candidate -- he finished 10th in the 2009 voting -- won't be asked to give himself up despite batting in a spot typically reserved for situational hitters.

After Ramirez's struggles last season, the Dodgers are prepared to get things done on offense even if he is unable to deliver.

The left-handed Loney and the right-handed Blake will alternate spots depending on whether there is a left-handed or right-handed starter. When C Russell Martin returns from a groin injury, DeWitt will slide down to the No. 8 spot.

C Brad Ausmus
INF Jamey Carroll
INF Ronnie Belliard
OF Reed Johnson
OF Garret Anderson

The Dodgers' biggest worry is that Belliard and Anderson are asked to play a significant amount of time. Neither figures to be able to handle the pounding of playing every day.

Ausmus, 41, and rookie A.J. Ellis will be leaned on heavily until Russell Martin returns from a groin injury. Johnson, a Riverside native and Cal State Fullerton alum, is marking his return to Southern California.

Carroll will be the Dodgers' jack of all trades and could see significant time at second base if DeWitt fails to pan out there.

ROOKIE WATCH: RHP Carlos Monasterios will have to step up, otherwise all the new acquaintances he made this spring will be for naught. As a Rule 5 pickup from the Phillies, he must be offered back to his former club if he fails to stay on the big-league roster. He figures to start the season in the bullpen, taking a spot that should have been occupied by his good friend Ronald Belisario, who just arrived from Venezuela after visa problems.

--C Russell Martin (groin pull) was supposed to miss up to six weeks following his March 5 injury, but he was making steady progress in rehab and has played in two minor league games.

--LHP Hong-Chih Kuo (left elbow soreness) will probably start the season on the 15-day disabled list. Kuo has had four previous elbow surgeries, and the Dodgers are amazed he is still pitching.

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