Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. Can the kids step it up without Manny?

With the Manny Ramirez situation still unresolved, the team has otherwise slashed payroll by allowing most of the key free agents to leave. If management isn't completely convinced that the nucleus of young players will collectively continue to improve, at least it's willing to give them all a chance at the start of the season, reserving the right to change course as needed. As much as some fans want big-name signees, this franchise is committed to building from within.

2. Will Rafael Furcal stay healthy?

He's been hurt two of his three Dodgers seasons, but they rolled the dice and gave him a three-year contract only months after his back surgery anyway, because that's how important he is to this lineup. He fills two key roles as the shortstop and leadoff hitter, so the club is doubly hurt when he is hurt. He came out of winter ball in one piece, but back injuries tend to be chronic.

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3. Who's the closer?

Takashi Saito and his brittle elbow are gone. The ninth inning was inherited last season by setup man Jonathan Broxton, who was unhittable at times as Saito's replacement but just erratic enough to leave management unconvinced. James McDonald is the intriguing option, as his fastball was electric once moved to the bullpen and he just might have the unflappable makeup a closer needs. Hong-Chih Kuo has the stuff to close, but his elbow won't allow daily use.

2008 record
84-78, first place, National League West

Projected batting order
1. SS Rafael Furcal:
  .357 BA, .439 OBP, 573 SLG, 5 HR, 16 RBI in 2008
2. CF Matt Kemp:
  .290 BA, .340 OBP, .459 SLG, 18 HR, 76 RBI in 2008
3. RF Andre Ethier:
  .305 BA, .375 OBP, .510 SLG, 20 HR, 77 RBI in 2008
4. 3B Casey Blake:
  .274 BA, .345 OBP, .463 SLG, 21 HR, 81 RBI in 2008
5. 1B James Loney:
  .289 BA, .338 OBP, .434 SLG, 13 HR, 90 RBI in 2008
6. C Russell Martin:
  .280 BA, .385 OBP, .396 SLG, 13 HR, 69 RBI in 2008
7. 2B Blake DeWitt:
  .264 BA, .344 OBP, .383 SLG, 9 HR, 52 RBI in 2008
8. LF Juan Pierre:
  .283 BA, .327 OBP, .328 SLG, 1 HR, 28 RBI in 2008

Projected rotation
1. Chad Billingsley, 16-10, 3.14 ERA in 2008
2. Hiroki Kuroda, 9-10, 3.73 in 2008
3. Randy Wolf, 12-12, 4.30 in 2008
4. Clayton Kershaw, 5-5, 4.26 in 2008
5. Jason Schmidt, did not play in 2008

Projected bullpen
Closer: Jonathan Broxton, 14/16 saves, 3.13 ERA in 2008
RH setup man: Cory Wade, 2.27 ERA in 2008
LH setup man: Hong-Chih Kuo, 2.14 ERA in 2008

The new guys
Brad Ausmus: He'll be 40, but he's like having a coach on the roster with his experience and knowledge. It's also hoped his catching skills are still sharp enough that manager Joe Torre will be comfortable giving Martin more days off, although that always seems to sound better in concept than it works in reality.

Mark Loretta: The former All-Star has accepted a utility role and the way Dodgers infielders tend to drop, he could get some playing time. He's also insurance if Blake DeWitt falters as the replacement for retired second baseman Jeff Kent.

Guillermo Mota: Back in the day, he was a lights-out setup man for Cy Young closer Eric Gagne. Mota has since shaken off a steroids suspension and rehabbed his reputation as a solid journeyman reliever.

Claudio Vargas: He's in the mix for the fifth starter spot, although being released twice last year isn't great for the resume.

Wolf: He's no mystery to the Dodgers, having pitched well for them two years ago until his shoulder went bad and he missed the second half. He'll slide into the middle of the rotation and provide veteran leadership for a relatively young crew, as long as last year's full season didn't take too much of a toll.

Prospects to watch
Ivan DeJesus Jr: No doubt he's got the bloodlines as the son of a Major Leaguer and seems very comfortable with his profession. In the past year his offense has caught up with solid defense and he's already demonstrated leadership ability. If Furcal isn't healthy, DeJesus could bypass Chin-lung Hu as the replacement.

Scott Elbert: The curious divorce from Joe Beimel will be easier to take if Elbert emerges as a reliable second lefty in the bullpen. A former first-round pick, he's overcome shoulder problems to reach the Majors and occasionally looked unhittable, but also raw.

A.J. Ellis: Seems to get overlooked, but it's hard to fault anything he's done, particularly that .321 batting average last year before a September callup. The Dodgers, however, seem loaded with backup catchers in Ausmus and Danny Ardoin.

Andrew Lambo: He has first-round talent and was recently ranked as the top prospect in the system by Baseball America. He has a sweet left-handed stroke and isn't a liability in a corner outfield position.

Lucas May: He was supposed to be the next Martin, right down to a position conversion. But he flopped as a hitter last year and now must have a bounce-back season.

McDonald: Nobody in the front office would be surprised if he evolved into a closer or an ace starter. In addition to his physical ability, he seems to have the makeup to succeed. The fact that his fastball picked up about four miles per hour when used in relief has prompted the club to consider him first in the bullpen this year, especially with the closer role uncertain.

Xavier Paul: He's rebounded from health problems with three seasons of steady progress. Now a center fielder, he's a line-drive hitter with a power-throwing arm and above-average running speed.

Travis Schlichting: Once a shortstop in the Tampa Bay system, later released by the Angels, the Dodgers found him pitching in independent ball and he had a breakthrough with his delivery last year at Double-A, then continued it in the Arizona Fall League. He hasn't pitched much professionally, but he's intriguing.

On the rebound
Tony Abreu: He's been a two-year enigma with a series of injuries, but he said he's healed from last year's hip surgery and ready to go. Ideally, he would be Furcal's backup at shortstop. He has the tools to play all over the infield and his bat has some life. If he can just stay healthy.

Billingsley: First, there was the NL Championship Series debacle of two losses to the Phillies. Then he broke his left leg in a slip-and-fall on ice at home. He's the incumbent ace of the staff, but with a couple asterisks because the role's inherited and questions still need to be answered.

Furcal: Back injuries usually don't just go away, even with surgery. The hope is that Furcal's will be manageable. He showed glimpses of his old self in the NL Division Series against the Cubs, but looked stiff and sore in the NLCS against the Phillies. He played winter ball and the club was convinced enough of his health to give him a three-year contract.

Schmidt: Too much was expected last spring, when Schmidt was coming off major shoulder surgery. Now he's coming off a less involved surgical procedure and an entire season off, so nobody's expecting much. He was signed to be an ace. If he could just be a fifth starter, at this point the Dodgers would take it.

Delwyn Young: He had offseason surgery on his right elbow and said it still isn't completely healed and he can feel it when he extends batting left-handed. The club is hoping the switch-hitter can become a productive pinch-hitter with a full Major League season under his belt.

Long gone
Derek Lowe: He was the workhorse of the staff for the past four years and those innings won't be easy to replace. His durability is regrettably rare nowadays. For those who wonder why the Dodgers didn't show interest in bringing Lowe back, it was more the other way around. Lowe never showed interest in coming back, apparently having soured on the organization and its ownership.

Kent: He became the first 40-year-old in franchise history to open a season as an everyday starter, but everything seemed to be slowing down and finally his knee broke down. For all the knocks on Kent, his desire and work ethic could never be faulted. Even at his age, he was one of the most reliable Dodgers run producers this decade.

Brad Penny: Like Lowe, Penny soured on the organization after an injury-riddled season and the organization seemed to feel the same, paying him $2 million to leave. There was frustration with an injury that could never be pinpointed and he left in a bitter separation with renewed criticisms that he doesn't work hard enough to fulfill his potential. He'll have a chance with Boston to prove those wrong.

Andruw Jones: Penny's divorce was nothing compared to Jones', who was paid $21.1 million by the Dodgers to go away, pulling the plug on the worst free-agent signing imaginable.

Greg Maddux: Before slipping into retirement, Maddux spent a second stint as a Dodgers hired gun and gave another illustration of professionalism by accepting a postseason role as a mop-up reliever without a complaint. For his impact as a mentor as much as a teammate, he will be missed.

Saito: Management didn't want him to get away, it just wanted protection if his elbow injury is worse than it seems. But negotiations went a little sideways after he changed agents and before the Dodgers knew it, he was with the Red Sox.

Beimel: Management's lack of interest in keeping Beimel is a little puzzling because he's left-handed, durable and effective. Some speculation touches on his celebrated bar injury before the 2006 playoffs or his original asking price for a situational player, although just as likely is the fact that Torre clearly preferred Kuo when he wanted a lefty out of the bullpen.

Chan Ho Park: He became the latest reclamation success story, but he was never happy with his role, considering himself a Major League starter. Dodgers management didn't feel his arm was durable enough to pitch deep enough and preferred him as a middle reliever. Park made the decision that he'd rather try to start for the Phillies.

Scott Proctor: He's coming off elbow surgery and the Dodgers are tired of rehab projects.

Jason Johnson: He had a standout season starting at Triple-A as insurance, but even when he got promoted, he rarely pitched.

Nomar Garciaparra: He still has the bat speed and eye-hand coordination to be an offensive contributor, but also has a genetic disposition for leg injuries and is getting tired of the demanding treatments that are now necessary to get his body into playing condition each day.

Angel Berroa: An unsung midseason addition who stepped in and solidified shortstop when Furcal was out. The club made an attempt to keep him.

Pablo Ozuna: Another midseason addition who had a limited impact.

Gary Bennett: He was supposed to spell Martin behind the plate, but it turned out he had a mental block about throwing the ball back to the pitcher, then he suffered a lingering foot injury.

Mark Sweeney: A real pro and proven pinch-hitter, but he suffered through the worst season of his career.