01/31/2003 3:25 pm ET
Dodgers Spring Training preview
Additions strengthen already strong team
By Ken Gurnick / MLB.com
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LOS ANGELES -- There are always questions when teams approach a Spring Training camp, but this spring Dodger manager Jim Tracy likes the direction those questions seem headed.
The progression has been steady. His first camp was literally his first camp as a big-league manager, and if that wasn't reason enough for scrutiny, he had to deal with the Gary Sheffield mess.
"Then last year, we had pitchers coming off arm operations," said Tracy. "We didn't have a closer. We didn't have a center fielder or leadoff hitter. So while we have some questions to answer this spring, I'm a little more comfortable going in than I was last year. And much more than the year before that.
"This year, I know who my closer is (Eric Gagne). Everybody in the game does. Dave Roberts is the center fielder and leadoff hitter. One year ago, people were saying the Dodgers have so many questions they have no chance. About half of the big questions have gone away."
Of course, there's the uncertainty of the franchise being for sale, but Tracy said that will be for others to deal with.
The winter priority on the field was to reshape the right side of the infield, so Eric Karros and Mark Grudzielanek were traded. Fred McGriff, counting down to 500 home runs, was signed to boost production at first base, and Tracy said he is leaning toward a middle infield by committee with rookie Joe Thurston and veteran Alex Cora, who also will share time at shortstop with Cesar Izturis.
Tracy said the spring will decide whether he keeps a left-hander in the bullpen, whether Roberts will be allowed to face left-handed pitching, whether he will carry three catchers, who bats cleanup (McGriff or Brian Jordan) and who will fill the final two bench spots.
There are, of course, lingering questions about the starting pitching. Four of the five projected starters were shut down when the season ended, most notably Kevin Brown, who has had three wins and two operations since September of 2001.
What becomes of Brown if he's not Kevin Brown anymore? That's one question the manager of the Dodgers dodges.
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it and deal with it," said Tracy.
General manager Dan Evans inherited Brown, but if Brown isn't the ace the club acquired him to be, Evans is prepared to deal with it. Brown went 18-9 and pitched 252 1/3 innings in his first season as a Dodger. His victory and innings totals have decreased in each of the following three years.
"With our experience from last year, and my experience over a lot of years, you just don't put all the eggs in his basket," said Evans. "You can't categorize a guy who's been hurt the last two seasons to come in here and expect him to be the difference maker. It's not fair to Kevin. And it's not fair to us. We go to camp this year not knowing what we'll get from him. But you don't guarantee a guy like that will be able to be 100 percent until he proves it."
In Evans' first spring as general manager a year ago, Brown struggled in his return from elbow surgery and then blew out his back, needing another operation. He rushed his return but finally surrendered to the pain.
"Hopefully, he'll be ready," said Evans. "If not, it won't be a situation where we are counting on him so much that we can't succeed. Darren Dreifort has a real good chance of being healthy. But he's another one we're not completely counting on.
"With (Hideo) Nomo, (Odalis) Perez, (Kazuhisa) Ishii and (Andy) Ashby, we feel pretty good. Out of the other two (Brown and Dreifort) and Wilson Alvarez (signed to a minor league contract), we're protected in the fifth spot. We just can't allow emotion or need to factor into our thought process. If they aren't ready, they just aren't ready."
Maybe Dreifort can pick up the slack, but he's had elbow and knee surgery since his last competitive pitch. Alvarez, a $35 million bust in Tampa Bay, hasn't pitched more than 160 innings in a season since 1996. Evans is hopeful Alvarez can be the new Omar Daal, who took his 11 wins to Baltimore.
"We've won 178 games and been in races the last two years and it wasn't good enough, but both years we didn't have Brown or Dreifort or Ashby down the stretch," said Tracy. "To get the rotation back to where we thought it would be is exciting for us. We've learned the hard way about going down the stretch when your pitchers are not healthy."
The bench has been completely rebuilt, with a goal of more power (Daryle Ward and Todd Hundley) and versatility (Terry Shumpert). The bullpen is so deep with right-handers (Gagne, Paul Quantrill, Paul Shuey, Giovanni Carrara, Guillermo Mota), Tracy said he might not keep a lefty. The offense should be better with McGriff, and Tracy believes Paul Lo Duca will be a better player without the player rep distraction of a labor crisis.
"We won 92 games last year and it's a hard pill to swallow to know that we didn't get it done and we weren't good enough," said Tracy. "There's still work to be done."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This article was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.