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The State

Playoff-Bound Dodgers Already Thinking Ahead

With a mix of veterans and rookies, L.A. hopes it is situated for success for years to come.

October 02, 2006|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — It was Sunday morning in the baseball clubhouse set between Willie Mays Plaza and McCovey Cove, on the outskirts of the Dodgers' season.

Russell Martin, the Dodgers' 23-year-old rookie catcher, stood smiling, his hands wrapped in his shirttails. He'd have a rare day out of the lineup. Ned Colletti, the 52-year-old rookie general manager, stood beside him, and together they looked over the shoulders of hitters studying their swings on video screens.

"You know what, Ned?" Martin said.

Colletti cocked his eyebrows.

"We're just getting started," Martin answered.

"I'm glad to hear you say it," Colletti said. "I've been telling people the same thing."

They were looking ahead to the playoffs, beginning with a best-of-five division series against the New York Mets that opens Wednesday at Shea Stadium, and to what baseball, if any, might follow.

But if they understood each other, their meaning ran further.

They spoke as well to future seasons, presumably together, and to the possible rebirth of a franchise that has won a single playoff game in the 18 years since Game 5 of the 1988 World Series.

The Dodgers won two World Series in the 1980s, and were perennial contenders in the 1970s, when they assembled and maintained the long-running infield of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey.

Since the 1988 World Series of Kirk Gibson's home run, however, the seasons of mediocrity have outnumbered the promising ones. A seemingly capable 2004 team won the National League West title, but was dismembered in the off-season. It brought another transformation, and its failure ultimately led to then-general manager Paul DePodesta's termination a year later.

But the Dodgers are renovated again, this time with the likes of Martin and other rookies, such as outfielder Andre Ethier and relief pitcher Jonathan Broxton, alongside the towering veteran presences of Greg Maddux, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Lowe and Jeff Kent. This, Martin said, has the feel of something lasting.

"I'd like to think so," he said. "I know we have a lot of young players that have the potential to become great players.

"You never know what's going to happen, but we have a lot of young talent. I'd really like to think so."

They won their final seven games and nine of their last 10, qualifying for the playoffs by winning Saturday afternoon on the diamond of their most traditional rival.

"If you're going to clinch it," former Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda said through a wry smile, "you've got to clinch it against the San Francisco Giants."

Four consecutive home runs in the ninth inning of a Sept. 18 game against the San Diego Padres stood out. Garciaparra's two game-ending homers in that week stood out. When they lost 13 of 14 games in midsummer, they awoke by winning 17 of the next 18, and then winning just often enough.

So they arrived in the playoffs as the wild-card entrant with 88 victories, 17 more than a year ago. It is an imperfect team, only less imperfect than last season, and in the playoffs will not be favored to advance past the Mets, runaway winners in the National League East. It would take another month like September, at least.

"I think you can consider it a success to a certain degree," Colletti said. "Is it ultimate success? Not yet. But can you measure progress? Can you see progress? There's not a question about that for me."

The Dodgers came from 91 losses and fourth place a year ago. They came from a squirrelly winter in which first the manager, Jim Tracy, was fired, and then the general manager, DePodesta, who at the time was interviewing candidates to replace Tracy, was fired as well.

The front-office turnover meant the same for the roster. The fact that owner Frank McCourt had stripped the names from the backs of players' jerseys the year before -- for tradition's sake, he explained -- served as a suitable metaphor for the now annual replenishment of players.

Stalling for a handful of talented prospects playing its way through the Dodgers' farm system, DePodesta had pieced together a thin roster that ultimately was undone by injuries and lack of ability.

His successor, the San Francisco Giants-trained Colletti, chose a bolder course. He sought proven players, some near the ends of their careers, who had both won before and, by virtue of their standing in the game, would lead the same prospects for whom DePodesta had hungered.

Beginning with the mid-winter signing of shortstop Rafael Furcal, Colletti made over the Dodgers by adding Garciaparra, the Whittier-raised former batting champion whose career had been slowed by injuries, and Kenny Lofton, a former All-Star center fielder and stolen base champion. He signed an unknown pitcher from Japan, Takashi Saito, who began the season in the minor leagues and ended it in Eric Gagne's place as the team's closer, and traded for an outfielder -- Ethier -- who spent most of summer as a rookie-of-the-year candidate.

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