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It's the Meet Part of Lineup

Introductions are in order for a Dodger team with only 14 players back from the 40-man roster of a year ago. Chemistry is a key issue.

February 18, 2005|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

VERO BEACH, Fla. — Remember when spring training was about longtime teammates loosening arms, tightening abs and strengthening bonds? Now everybody arrives in top shape, but nobody knows anybody else.

Certainly for the Dodgers, the six weeks preceding opening day will be an extended get-acquainted session. Only 14 players remain from the 40-man roster of a year ago, including only two position players expected to make the team -- shortstop Cesar Izturis and catcher David Ross.

General Manager Paul DePodesta began the transformation slowly last spring, then, undeterred by a National League West title and strong team chemistry, accelerated it this off-season.

The result isn't precisely the team he envisioned -- that would have included Nomar Garciaparra and Brad Radke, both of whom the Dodgers failed to sign, despite hot pursuit -- but it will do for now. Another blockbuster deal is only a DePodesta reverie away.

"I don't think there is any team that ever gets their Plan A going into the winter," he said. "You end up having to go to various options. I like the team in general. It has come together largely as expected. There are always players you'd love to have that you didn't get. We certainly fall in that category."

The players he did get will spend the spring trying to recapture that elusive chemistry so enjoyed by dearly departed Dodgers Jose Lima, Adrian Beltre, Shawn Green, Steve Finley and Alex Cora.

Jeff Kent must mesh with Milton Bradley. Jeff Weaver must bond with J.D. Drew. Derek Lowe and Ricky Ledee must find common ground.

Not that these are insurmountable tasks. Most players are used to it by now because nearly every team retools, regardless of where it finished the year before. Look at all the changes the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals made shortly after the confetti landed.

"It's exciting, putting together a new team, everybody coming together for a common purpose," Drew said. "It seems like every team has a lot of turnover every year. The spring is when you start getting on the same page."

The value of a positive clubhouse atmosphere, while hard to quantify, is undeniable. Lowe says so, and he should know, coming as he has from the champion Red Sox.

"If you learn anything from last year's Red Sox team, it is that team chemistry is absolutely for real," he said. "We had the most unbelievable group of 25 guys and coaching staff, we all got along so well. No one rooted against anyone.

"So that is something you can bring to the next organization. I saw firsthand how it works. There are people who say chemistry is overrated, but I'll be the first to say it's important."

Lowe knows not a soul on the Dodger roster. Never played with any of them. Never had extended chats with those he faced. But that will soon change.

"In six weeks we'll become a team," he said. "New guys are excited to be here and guys who have been here are excited about showing us the way."

Pitchers and catchers report today and hold their first workout Saturday. The first full-squad practice is Thursday and Grapefruit League games begin March 2.

Most players in the first wave are familiar with one another. The only major change on the Dodger pitching staff is that Lowe -- signed for four years at $36 million -- has replaced Lima.

Lowe joins Weaver, Odalis Perez, Brad Penny and either Kazuhisa Ishii or Edwin Jackson in a rotation that lacks a clear No. 1 starter but has the potential to get the Dodgers to the seventh inning in reasonable shape more often than not.

Especially if Penny is sound. The Dodgers say the right-hander obtained from the Florida Marlins at the trading deadline last summer has had no setbacks in his recovery from a nerve injury to his right arm that kept him from contributing down the stretch.

Penny will be brought along slowly, and left-hander Wilson Alvarez and right-hander Elmer Dessens are prepared to step into the rotation if necessary.

The back of the bullpen is set with closer Eric Gagne and right-handed setup reliever Yhency Brazoban. Duaner Sanchez and Giovanni Carrara also return.

The fight for the last spot on the staff could be spirited because the Dodgers invited to camp several pitchers with major league experience. Look for a situational left-hander to make the team from a group of candidates headed by Frank Brooks and Kelly Wunsch.

Another newcomer who will be watched closely is catcher Dioner Navarro, obtained from the Arizona Diamondbacks in the trade that sent Green to Arizona. The Dodgers publicly say Navarro, who turned 21 on Feb. 9, will start the season in triple-A, but privately they would love to see him step up and win the job.

Otherwise, a platoon of right-handed hitting David Ross and left-handed hitting Paul Bako will mind the shop until Navarro is ready.

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