Five Questions: Los Angeles Dodgers

They should be basking in the glow of their young talent and the strength of their veteran pitching, but instead, the Los Angeles Dodgers retain something of a schizophrenic air.

The Dodgers are a tense mix of old and new, patience and impatience, respect and derision. It’s still the kind of team that could have the best record in the National League in July 2007 but settle for fourth place in the NL West by October.

Already, 2008 has been anything but uneventful for the Dodgers. Whether you are fan or foe, you’re wrong if you think you’ve got them pegged. With these boys, there’s no way yet of knowing.

1. How goes L’Affaire Pierre?

At this point, anyone who follows the Dodgers knows they have four outfielders vying for three starting roles: Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, Juan Pierre and new acquisition Andruw Jones. With Jones guaranteed a starting spot in center field (despite a physical presence that almost recalls Al Gore at his most Taftian), the debate has been over how the Dodgers should divide the playing time among the other three.

Unlike past cause celebres like Paul DePodesta, Hee Seop Choi and J.D. Drew, this controversy hasn’t really divided over Moneyball lines. Though some members of the minority occupy some prominent places, you’ll struggle to find very many making the case for Pierre over Ethier or Kemp, whether you follow the stats or scout their abilities. Speed is Pierre’s primary attribute, but Kemp also has it to burn (along with a compelling power stroke), while the slower Ethier has numerous other skills that more than compensate.

Though it shouldn’t have come to this, Ethier’s dominance of Pierre during spring training has helped turn even more heads and further weakened the case for Pierre. Because exhibition stats are ultimately meaningless, that doesn’t mean that left-hander Pierre won’t start on Opening Day over left-hander Ethier against the San Francisco Giants and left-hander Barry Zito. But at a minimum, it’s become almost impossible to imagine that Pierre won’t begin some games on the bench. And once that wall has been breached, who knows how much it can tumble?

Of course, knowing the Dodgers, someone will get hurt, and the problem will more than take care of itself.

2. Why are you so convinced someone will get hurt? Could it have to do with, say, third base…

Yep. What was shaping up as another Old School-New School battle between Nomar Garciaparra and Andy LaRoche to start at third base for the Dodgers disintegrated when both were injured in the same exhibition game March 7. LaRoche won’t be back until May at the earliest. Garciaparra might not be ready for the season opener, and hasn’tstarted more than 122 games since 2003.

The primary backup to LaRoche and Garciaparra (as well as second baseman Jeff Kent, who has also been hurt this spring) is Tony Abreu, who himself has battled injuries for the past eight months. It’s entirely possible that Chin-Lung Hu (a slick-fielding shortstop with 38 home runs in five professional seasons), Blake DeWitt (45 career games above A-ball) or even Ramon Martinez (um, he’s Ramon Martinez) could log significant time at third base.

With Ethier, Kemp, Kent, Jones, Rafael Furcal, James Loney and Russell Martin filling out the rest of the Dodger starting lineup, the Dodgers can afford to bury their third baseman in the No. 8 hole—indeed, Garciaparra, for all his decline, is a fairly intriguing bat to have there (though not as exciting as LaRoche, whose power potential arguably outstrips Loney’s). But if health or managerial choices sideline players like Ethier and Kent, the Dodger lineup weakens in a hurry. At least for the first two months of the season, third base is a bigger concern for Los Angeles than the outfield.

3. …or maybe, the starting pitching?

Yep. The Dodgers maintain that the recovery of Jason Schmidt, who was limited by injuries to 25 2/3 innings (72 ERA+) last season, remains on pace, but the team has never really disclosed when they expect him back. Schmidt himself has expressed impatience, suggesting on March 14 that he will pitch through pain, a harbinger of doom if I’ve ever heard one.

Even if Schmidt proves the naysayers wrong and doesn’t make things worse by not taking it slow, the Dodger starting rotation of Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, Chad Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda will still need understudies. September waiver pickup Esteban Loaiza is the veteran in line to get the first chance. If he falters early, non-roster invitee/prodigal son Chan Ho Park, a candidate to start the season as the long reliever, could get his chance. So could Hong-Chih Kuo, also bullpen-bound, if his health lasts beyond March. Beyond that, minor leaguers James McDonald and attention-grabbing Clayton Kershaw will be on the short list.

Overall, the Dodger starting pitching should be the envy of most teams in baseball. But the success of the moundsmen will depend on the choices the manager makes, namely how long he sticks with any given underperforming arm.

4. Are you excited about having Joe Torre as manager?

In the offline world that I’m occasionally welcomed back into, I’ve gotten this question more than any other in the offseason. And what I’ve often said is, “I’m hopeful,” a response that usually seems to disappoint.

Torre has become a legend, but we’ve got no shortage of legends in the Dodger organization. Torre has managed World Series champions, but his last was seven-and-a-half years ago. Torre is touted to bring peace to a combustible clubhouse, but how often have I heard that one before?

None of this is meant as a putdown of Torre; none of this is meant to take anything away from his accomplishments. But you want to know what excites me? The prospect of Billingsley, Jonathan Broxton, Ethier, Kemp, Loney and Martin building on the promising starts to their careers. The prospect of Furcal having a healthier and more fulfilling season than he did last year. The hope that the miraculous Takashi Saito can extend his dominance another season. The chance to hear Vin Scully do another year of games, while hoping it’s not his final year. These things and others all excite me more than the presence of Torre, who might in fact help the team, but is almost guaranteed of being the subject of second-guessing once the glow of his arrival burns out.

Managers, I’m afraid, are not that exciting.

5. What does this all add up to for the Dodgers in 2008?

The noteworthy injuries and the lineup questions definitely leave one with an uncertain feeling for the Dodgers that, depending on your mood, could overwhelm one’s enthusiasm for the wide array of healthy talent. Arizona and Colorado have exciting young teams, and San Diego, per usual, will probably give the Dodgers fits. The defending NL West champion Diamondbacks are worthy of favorite status in the division heading into 2008, but there are plenty of reasons the Dodgers could crash the playoff party.

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