VERO BEACH, Fla. -- With a deep rotation and a lineup that blends seasoned veterans with kids already battle-tested, the Dodgers are positioned to take it to the next level after getting swept out of the playoffs last year.
They're still sorting out what seems to be a pitching surplus and, more than anything, keeping fingers crossed that they can avoid a rash of injuries like the one that hit midway through last season.
The biggest question marks are the fifth starter, whether Wilson Betemit is the answer at third base and what to do with James Loney.
Team strength: The Dodgers seem to have too much pitching, if there is such a thing. The fifth starter competition now has at least three legitimate candidates and the losers will drop into the bullpen, creating a traffic jam there. The club believes the depth of the top four starters -- Derek Lowe, Jason Schmidt, Brad Penny and Randy Wolf -- will create favorable matchups, particularly against the back end of opposing rotations.
Achilles heel: The lack of a power bat in the middle of the order that opposing pitchers fear remains the one apparent missing ingredient, which is why general manager Ned Colletti made runs (or was willing to) for Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Vernon Wells and Manny Ramirez (sort of). The Plan B is to hope for the return to health of Jeff Kent, and additional power from Andre Ethier and Russell Martin in their second seasons.
Top newcomer: That needs to be Schmidt, who surpassed Kevin Brown as the highest-salaried pitcher in Dodgers history. A healthy Schmidt should make the starting rotation the deepest in the division. His experience and cool demeanor should overcome the common tendency of free agents to justify their signings and press.
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
Ready to make the leap: Can there possibly be anyone more ready to take the final step than Loney, last year's Minor League batting champion? Whether he has a place to play is another story after the re-signing of first baseman Nomar Garciaparra. Outfield would be an option, except the signing of free agents Juan Pierre and Luis Gonzalez set up a road block for Loney there, too.
On the hot seat: That would be Betemit at third base. He has serious power, but a slow start in Spring Training raised concerns that he isn't the answer. Management considers those 18 home runs he hit last year no fluke, but there is the option to move Garciaparra across the diamond and open up first base for Loney. Stay tuned.
You can bank on: There was nobody more consistently productive last year than Rafael Furcal, who overcame nagging injuries early to hit .300. He again was bothered by a sore shoulder in camp, but manager Grady Little thinks so much of Furcal that he wouldn't move him out of the leadoff spot after the signing of Pierre.
Litmus test: The Dodgers need Penny to be the pitcher he was in the first half of 2006, when he earned the All-Star Game start. And they need Kent, at age 39, to be the one bat that opposing pitchers fear. Up and down the rotation and lineup, the club appears pretty deep.
Games you don't want to miss:
May 14-16 vs. St. Louis Cardinals: The world champions come to town.
June 11-13 vs. New York Mets: A rematch of the NLDS, the Mets bringing with them a handful of former Dodgers.
June 15-17 vs. Los Angeles Angels: It's Freeway Series time with the Angels in an Interleague series.
Sept. 28-30 vs. San Francisco Giants: The season ends against Barry Bonds, perhaps with a home-run record on the line and former teammate Schmidt on the mound.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.