With leading hitter Rafael Furcal and opening-day starter Brad Penny already on the disabled list, the Dodgers learned Tuesday that they will be without closer Takashi Saito until at least late August.
Saito, 38, was diagnosed by team physician Neal ElAttrache with a sprained ligament in his right elbow and will be put on the 15-day DL when the Dodgers resume playing Friday in Arizona. He will rehabilitate in Los Angeles for an estimated six weeks, after which he will be reevaluated.
General Manager Ned Colletti said in a statement that acquiring a replacement for Saito before the July 31 trading deadline would be difficult, noting that closer, like shortstop, is "a premium position and most teams don't carry an excess."
The Dodgers, who were already in the market for a middle infielder to replace Furcal, started looking for bullpen help not long after Saito was forced to make a premature exit in the ninth inning against the Florida Marlins on Saturday because of what he described as abnormal tightness in his elbow.
Colletti said in the statement that the Dodgers had "candidates within the staff" -- a sign that hard-throwing 24-year-old setup man Jonathan Broxton could get a shot at closing.
Other internal options include Hong-Chih Kuo and Chan Ho Park, who have been surprisingly effective as middle relievers but have injury-riddled pasts that could make Manager Joe Torre wary of increasing their workload.
If the Dodgers opt to replace Saito with Broxton, who has a 3.40 earned-run average and 46 strikeouts in 39 2/3 innings, they would have to find someone to take over Broxton's eighth-inning duties. Torre said Sunday that Kuo was an option to set up, though his four elbow surgeries made him a less-than-ideal candidate to pitch on consecutive days, as is often required. Situational left-hander Joe Beimel is also a possibility, Torre said.
Saito is 3-3 with 17 saves and a 2.18 ERA in 39 appearances. He has saved 80 games in his three seasons with the Dodgers, including 39 last year, when he was an All-Star.
"Obviously, it is not easy replacing someone like him," Colletti said.
Citing his age and extensive battles with injuries over 14 seasons pitching for the Yokohama BayStars of Japan, Saito earlier this season said that he thought the end of his career could be near.
"I want to play as long as I can," Saito said in May, "but I'm always thinking that my next game could be my last."
Saito had a serious scare last July when he experienced discomfort in his right shoulder, saying at the time that he had similar symptoms when he had disk problems in Japan. The issue turned out to be relatively minor, as Saito missed only a week.
Saito said that on Saturday, he felt no pain striking out Cody Ross and John Baker to start the ninth inning. But on the first pitch to Wes Helms, Saito said he was "hit with a sudden tightness." Saito threw three more pitches and later said he felt the discomfort increase with every pitch.
Saito said he thought at the time, "This isn't normal tightness."
James Loney has less than two years of major-league service time but will be working with his fourth big-league hitting coach when the Dodgers resume playing on Friday in Arizona.
Don Mattingly is in and Mike Easler is out, the latter moving onto the list of coaches past that includes Eddie Murray and Bill Mueller.
"We'll adjust," Loney said.
But the 24-year old first baseman admitted that he will miss Easler, who remains in the organization as a roving instructor. Loney and Easler worked together last year in triple-A Las Vegas.
"He had tremendous energy," Loney said of Easler, who worked with players in the batting cages several hours before the start of games. "There's definitely a part of me that will miss him. He'll be missed by a lot of guys."
Matt Kemp worked with Easler even more extensively than Loney, as he and Easler were together in double-A Jacksonville in 2006 and in Las Vegas last year.
"He's the reason I'm here today," Kemp said. "We started out in double A. He got me here."
Easler didn't hide the way he felt about the Dodgers' young players, saying he hoped management kept the group intact.
"They need to, as much as possible," Easler said. "I know you've got to make a trade here and there. But if you keep these kids together, you'll have another Lopes, Russell, Garvey. You've got that in the making right now."