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03/20/09 10:47 AM ET

In reversal, pitching is Dodgers' issue

Always a strong suit, rotation, 'pen are question marks in '09

PHOENIX -- Conventional wisdom on the Dodgers this year is opposite of the norm: the Manny Ramirez-led offense should score enough runs, but will they have enough pitching to win?

"It's always been the other way around," said instructor Maury Wills, whose first year in the organization was 1951. "This is a new wave for the Dodgers."

Indeed, the foundation of the Dodgers organization for more than a half-century has been pitching. Since the club moved from Brooklyn in 1958, the Dodgers have finished in the top half of the league in team ERA 45 of 51 years, but in the top half of the league in runs scored only 20 of 51 years.

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Only twice since 1958 have the Dodgers ranked in the top half of the league in runs scored and the bottom half in team ERA in the same year -- 1979 and 1990.

The Dodgers led the league in team ERA last year, but lost eight pitchers from that staff, including key contributors Derek Lowe, Takashi Saito and Joe Beimel.

"Maybe we have a good pitching staff and nobody knows it yet," said Chad Billingsley, a 16-game winner last year. "We've got a good lineup, nobody can deny that. The pitching staff? We've got a good group. It's a different rotation than in the past as far as the veterans on the staff, not as much as in the past. Unknown? I guess you could put it that way.

"The way I look at it, it will be nice to have those runs. It will be easier on us. At the beginning of last year, with all the injuries, sometimes you'd feel you have to throw shutout ball. In the second half, guys got healthy and we got Manny and Casey [Blake], and we were able to relax a little. If you let in one or two runs the first four or five innings, just keep it there and we'd have a chance to win."

Hiroki Kuroda, named the Opening Day starter, is the veteran of the rotation in age (34), although this is only his second season in the Major Leagues after a decade of quality service in Japan. Randy Wolf is the Major League veteran among the starters, entering his 11th season.

"At the beginning of the season, every team has question marks," said Wolf. "It's like the team with the highest payroll, it doesn't mean they are going to win. When people pick winners before the season, they're generally wrong. The Rays were in the World Series. Who thought that? When you have a certain part of a team with question marks, I feel every part of the team is a question mark. With the Dodgers, if there are lower expectations of the pitching staff, I feel we can surprise people. At this point, it's just stay healthy."

Billingsley is only 24, but he's followed in the rotation by Kershaw, who turned 21 on Thursday. Being the youngest, Kershaw was asked about the suspicion in some quarters that the Dodgers' pitching could be the weak link.

"That's definitely the perception," he said. "On paper, we should have one of the best offenses in the league. Obviously, there are a lot of questions the pitching staff has to answer. I have a lot to prove this year. I have to stay in there long enough each game to give us a chance to win. With our offense, you give up a couple runs and you shouldn't have to panic. Everybody is aware of the lineup we have. It's sort of unspoken that we'll have enough offense.

"I don't look at the staff as inexperienced, other than myself. There's a difference between being young and being inexperienced. Both apply to me. Jonathan Broxton's young, but he's in his third year. I don't think we're as inexperienced as everybody thinks."

The bullpen, having lost closer Takashi Saito, figures to be even less experienced than the rotation, with the back end consisting of Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo and Cory Wade. Broxton has been out of camp most of the spring at the World Baseball Classic, while Kuo and Wade only recently returned to game action after slow starts because of sore arms.

"We knew coming in the toughest chore for us would be to get 12 guys," said manager Joe Torre. "Pitching is the most important thing to me. We've improved our defense with Orlando Hudson at second base. Now the trick is to get the pitchers to get ground balls."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.