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03/31/10 10:00 AM ET

Dodgers' young core looks to next level

LA eyes third straight NL West title, playoff breakthrough

LOS ANGELES -- Can the Dodgers get past the Phillies in the playoffs?

Yeah, yeah, the season hasn't even started. But that's really the question. A third consecutive first-place finish in the National League West would be unprecedented in franchise history. So would another elimination in the NL Championship Series.

The Dodgers haven't reached the World Series since winning it in 1988. The 22-year drought is the longest for the franchise since, uh, ever.

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So if this is Joe Torre's last season as manager, and Manny Ramirez's last season as a Dodger, they can write the final chapter in dramatic style. But for a team that made no major changes in the offseason -- while the Phillies were adding the likes of Roy Halladay -- is it too much to expect?

More to the point: Do the Phillies have the Dodgers' number?

"It's too early to say there's some sort of stigma, that we've come so far but can't do this," Torre said. "Our club last year felt we had the chance to do something special beyond what we did. We had the ability to go a little further. We just weren't good enough."

It's hard to say the Dodgers are any better than they were a year ago, but with essentially the same club, they shouldn't be worse. While the organization has the cloud of an ownership divorce hanging over it and the presumption that there's no money to spend, the strategy in recent years has been to sit out the winter free-agent auction but pounce at the Trade Deadline for players that can fill holes at crunch time.

"People can say, 'We need this pitcher' or 'We need that bat.' But to say we didn't have enough talent to win the last two years is making excuses," right fielder Andre Ethier said.

"We've got the talent to win with what we had. To be that close, one out or one game away -- we just can't lose the feeling and the emotion like we did. When things go wrong, you have to rebound and come back and play through the series instead of letting down."

Management is hopeful that the young core of the club, which isn't so young anymore, will show the maturity and toughness to reach a higher level.

Los Angeles Dodgers
Projected Opening Day lineup
1 SS Rafael Furcal
2 C Russell Martin
3 RF Andre Ethier
4 LF Manny Ramirez
5 CF Matt Kemp
6 1B James Loney
7 3B Casey Blake
8 2B Blake DeWitt
9 P Vicente Padilla
Projected rotation
1 RHP Vicente Padilla
2 LHP Clayton Kershaw
3 RHP Chad Billingsley
4 RHP Hiroki Kuroda
5 RHP Charlie Haeger
Projected bullpen
CL RHP Jonathan Broxton
SU LHP George Sherrill
SU RHP Ramon Troncoso
MI RHP Jeff Weaver
MI RHP Ramon Ortiz
MI RHP Carlos Monasterios
Full 25-man roster | Depth chart

"Everybody tries to compare us to young guys, but we've been through enough things, you can't label us young guys," center fielder Matt Kemp said.

"Playoffs two years in a row, we've played on the big stage and we know what everybody expects from us. Every team we played against we were equal or better. Just not good at the right time. We beat a Cardinals team last year in the playoffs, I think they always have our number during the season. That speaks on our team right there."

Jeff Weaver, a World Series hero with St. Louis in 2006, agrees that the current club should be seasoned enough to take the next step.

"It's up to the player himself, with the way it ended the last two seasons, to figure out what he needs to do to get to the next level," Weaver said. "Winning the division is the first step, but only the first step."

Spring Training has been relatively tame in preparation for the Dodgers' division defense, although they've had their share of anxiety. Vicente Padilla will be the Opening Day starter, but only after healing from an accidental gunshot wound in his right thigh and only because there is no true ace.

Catcher Russell Martin pulled a groin but healed well ahead of schedule. Reliever Hong-Chih Kuo has had -- surprise -- a sore elbow. And reliever Ronald Belisario never showed up because of visa problems.

The bullpen was the club's greatest strength last year and the uncertainty of Kuo and Belisario leave it vulnerable. But Ramon Ortiz resurrected his career to claim one spot on the staff and Rule 5 pick Carlos Monasterios seems to be a keeper.

Torre deflects criticism about the lack of a staff ace by insisting that the rotation goes four-deep as well as any club with Padilla, Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda. He'll need his fifth starter spot to do as well as last year's, as the team went a remarkable 30-16 when someone other than Kershaw, Billingsley, Kuroda and Randy Wolf started.

With Blake DeWitt, Ronnie Belliard and Jamey Carroll, there's enough talent for second base and the bench. Garret Anderson looks like he's still got some life left in him, softening the blow from losing Juan Pierre.

And then, there's Manny. He showed up on time, went into a media blackout shortly after declaring this would be his last year in Los Angeles and presumably has the intensity cranked all the way, as he's done every year he's about to be a free agent.

Look at his performance when he's in the final season of a contract:

• 2000: 118 games, 38 HR, 122 RBI, .351 average, 1.154 OPS
• 2008: 153 games, 37 HR, 121 RBI, .333 average, 1.031 OPS

Granted, Ramirez wasn't 37 going on 38 in those seasons. But if he can just be something between what he was in 2008 and what he turned into in 2009, the Dodgers would take that. And if he comes closer to his previous walk years, the Dodgers could have the most productive outfield ever, with Kemp and Ethier giving them three outfielders with the potential to go 30/100.

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