PHOENIX -- Rafael Furcal was on time for the Dodgers' first full-squad workout Thursday saying he's healthy, ready to lead off and, by the way, signing Manny Ramirez would be a good idea.

"When you're a leadoff hitter, everybody wants to be in front of Manny," said Furcal, the Dodgers' shortstop and catalyst who missed most of the 2008 season with back surgery.

"You get on base and see Manny coming up, he's the best with runners in scoring position. I think pitchers get a headache when Manny Ramirez comes to bat. The kind of hitter Manny is, he showed last year. He can drive in runs. Everybody knows what he can do. If he comes here, I love to play with him. If we don't score runs, we don't win."

And is that what would happen without Ramirez in the Dodgers' lineup?

"I don't know," said Furcal, whose locker is next to the one being saved for Ramirez. "He brings a big difference last year. He hits 18 home runs, maybe 60 RBIs in two months. I think we need that."

He thinks?

Of course, the Dodgers showed last year that they need Furcal, too, and proved how much over the winter by winning a nasty bidding war against the Atlanta Braves with a three-year, $30 million deal.

That represented a significant pay cut from the three-year, $39 million contract he signed three years earlier, but the fact that he could land anything close after a season in which he spent almost five months on the sideline indicates his value when he's perceived to be healthy.

Now, the question is, is he healthy?

"I feel much better than last year," Furcal said. "I played in the Dominican Republic in winter league and don't feel anything. We'll see what happens. I feel stronger. Right now, my back doesn't bother me. You never know when you get on the field."

Manager Joe Torre said he intends to give Furcal a day off each week early in the season to minimize the chances of further back problems. That means the competition for backup shortstop should be intense among Chin-lung Hu, Tony Abreu, Juan Castro and Ivan DeJesus Jr.

"We'll keep an eye on it, for sure," Torre said of Furcal's workload. "The plan is to probably slip in a day off here and there early on, maybe once a week. A big part is how Raffy feels. It's not if he wants to play. I'll address it with him."

For the first five weeks last year, Furcal did little wrong on the field. He was hitting .366 with 12 doubles, five homers, a .448 on-base percentage and a .547 slugging percentage. But on May 5 against the Mets, he ranged far to his right to backhand a grounder from David Wright, twisting across his body to throw him out. He didn't feel anything on the play, but two innings later his back stiffened up and his ordeal began.


"Right now, my back doesn't bother me. You never know when you get on the field."
-- Rafael Furcal

Actually, Furcal hurt his back similarly at the end of the 2007 season, missing the final 12 games, but played a winter-ball stint with no problems. This time, though, every time he appeared close to a return, he suffered a setback. On July 3 he underwent a microdiscectomy performed by Dr. Robert Watkins, followed by a grueling rehab program designed to get him back on the field by Sept 1.

Again, Furcal's back didn't cooperate with the timetable, finally returning Sept. 24 to play four games the final week of the regular season. Despite the long layoff, Furcal was added to the postseason roster. He went 4-for-12 with three walks against the Cubs in the National League Division Series but 4-for-19 with three walks against the Phillies in the League Championship Series that ended with a three-error disaster while playing with a stiff neck when the Dodgers were eliminated in Game 5.

Furcal played winter ball in his native Dominican Republic, mostly at second base to reduce the physical demands, one game at third base just for fun. Furcal is one of the more fun-loving ballplayers in the game, but he conceded that being hurt took all the fun out of the game for him. After one setback last summer, Furcal felt so useless he planned to go home but was talked out of it by Dodgers staff.

"A lot of players feel the only way to earn your stripes is by being on the field every day," Torre said. "Even if you're hurt, you feel like you've let people down. It's a pride factor."

Said Furcal: "I didn't want to be around doing nothing."