03/28/08 10:00 AM ET
Torre tries to turn LA in right direction
Several challenges await manager in first year at Dodgers' helm
By Ken Gurnick / MLB.com
They made it through the transition to a new manager and away from an historic spring home. They made it all the way to the Great Wall and back, got a preview of Cactus League life and a flashback to the way it was with a game scheduled at their former Coliseum home.
Now ready or not, the Dodgers embark on a 50th anniversary season in Los Angeles starting against the bitter rival Giants at Dodger Stadium on Monday, with Brad Penny taking the ball and owner Frank McCourt having already thrown out a high-and-hard first pitch this spring when he declared: "It's time to win."
Easier said than done.
The Dodgers are coming off a fourth-place finish last year, when the manager left after the clubhouse unraveled. Clearly a better atmosphere currently exists under the respected Joe Torre, but that's not too tough before a game is lost.
Torre is now the face of the franchise, but his four World Series rings haven't made the math any easier to divide four outfielders into three positions. He hasn't pulled a third baseman out of thin air or kept Jeff Kent's 40-year-old body in one piece or Nomar Garciaparra from suffering another freak injury.
Torre has some challenges, not the least of which is becoming familiar with an entirely new organization -- from players and coaches to front-office personnel and scouts and equipment personnel. It was made all the more difficult by missing almost a week of exhibition games while on the goodwill trip to China.
One week before Opening Day, he was asked if he had the knowledge to make tough personnel decisions.
"Somewhat," was his lukewarm answer. "I missed a lot of games. I'm starting to get the feel right now."
Torre has said it's all about the pitching, and nothing is more important than getting the last three outs. That said, he has a 38-year-old closer slowed in the spring by a calf injury. And even though Takashi Saito is an All-Star, he's not an eight-time All Star and future Hall of Famer like Mariano Rivera, who was as much a reason for Torre's jewelry as anybody.
But the starting rotation -- headed by Penny -- is deep, and the bullpen is experienced. The offense has Rafael Furcal healthy again, and in Russell Martin, its first Silver Slugger behind the plate since Mike Piazza.
General manager Ned Colletti attempted to address the lack of power by signing Andruw Jones, but even after Spring Training, the Dodgers aren't sure what they have. Jones still looks like a 10-time Gold Glove center fielder, justifying the dislodging of Juan Pierre.
As long as the James Loneys, Matt Kemps and Andre Ethiers continue to improve, the Dodgers don't believe they need an MVP season out of Jones, as nice as that would be. They'd be happy if he lands somewhere between the 26 homers he hit last year and the 51 he had two years earlier. Even 26 would have easily led the Dodgers last year and be considered an upgrade, especially when added to his run-saving defense.
Torre had Jones batting fifth most of the spring, behind Kent in the few games they appeared together. Kent has been relatively unprotected during his three seasons in the Dodgers' lineup.
Japanese import Hiroki Kuroda was signed to bolster the rotation, and he's not being asked to be a Dice-K ace, just an innings-eating grinder. Although Jason Schmidt isn't ready to help after major shoulder surgery, it is hoped that either Esteban Loaiza or Chan Ho Park can handle the fifth-starter spot while 20-year-old sensation Clayton Kershaw puts the finishing touches on his game. Kershaw's arrival is now being anticipated in a matter of weeks or months instead of years.
With the spring emphasis on fundamentals and baserunning, it is presumed this Dodgers club will show some improvement. The aggressive Kemp alone could send third-base coach Larry Bowa over the edge with a repeat of some of last year's gaffes.
LAD: RHP Brad Penny (16-4, 3.03 ERA in 2007)
Penny has earned ace status with back-to-back 16-win seasons.
SF: LHP Barry Zito (11-13, 4.53 ERA)
Zito's looking to rebound and justify his megadeal.
Penny has had trouble with the Giants' outfielders, as Dave Roberts is 11-for-32 lifetime against him, while Randy Winn is 10-for-30 with three homers.
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Tuesday: Giants (Matt Cain, 7-16, 3.65) at Dodgers (Derek Lowe, 12-14, 3.88), 7:10 p.m. PT
Wednesday: Giants (Tim Lincecum, 7-5, 4.00) at Dodgers (Chad Billingsley, 12-5, 3.31), 7:10 p.m. PT
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.