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Dodgers line up the firepower to get it done

DODGERS

In a break with team tradition, they find themselves in better shape offensively, but with many holes in the pitching staff.

April 06, 2009|Dylan Hernandez

What a difference a Manny can make.

With Manny Ramirez batting third for the Dodgers, Russell Martin no longer has to concern himself about being the big bat in the lineup. Neither does Andre Ethier.

And like that, the Dodgers, who were maddeningly inconsistent when it came to producing runs last season, suddenly have what might be one of the best lineups in the National League.

"We're starting the season with a better offensive club than we had last year," Manager Joe Torre said. "You go one through eight with us, we don't have a soft spot."

How potent can these Dodgers be?

Consider this: Third baseman Casey Blake, who has averaged 21 home runs over the last six seasons, probably will be the No. 8 hitter in their season opener today in San Diego.

"Casey Blake, me, Russ, Matt [Kemp], any of us can hit eighth," said Ethier, who is scheduled to bat cleanup on most days. "Our lineup can be as good as it looks on paper, I think."

The increased firepower might be necessary for the Dodgers to be competitive. Their pitching might be that bad, threatening to turn them into this season's version of the Texas Rangers or Detroit Tigers.

The same hitters who were the subjects of private complaints by pitchers last season could, ironically, find themselves wondering this year whether the pitchers will do their jobs.

"A work in progress," General Manager Ned Colletti called the pitching staff.

The off-season departure of Derek Lowe left the Dodgers without a clear-cut ace. They're also short on quality arms, evidenced by how they scrapped plans of starting the season with James McDonald in the bullpen because they had no one else to be their fifth starter.

But the rotation appears stable compared with the bullpen.

The Dodgers don't have a long reliever such as Chan Ho Park, who kept them in numerous games last season when the starters faltered. What they do have are two pitchers who live on the edge of the disabled list -- left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo and right-hander Cory Wade -- setting up for an inexperienced closer in Jonathan Broxton.

The composition of this team breaks from the tradition of the Dodgers, who won their long-ago World Series titles on the strength of their pitching.

Fielding the kind of lineup that can compensate for substandard pitching isn't only new to franchise, it's also new to Torre, who has made it clear he would prefer to avoid venturing into the chaotic world of high-scoring games and blown leads.

"I've never liked to rely on [offense], even when I had the explosive clubs with the Yankees," Torre said. "In order to win, you have to be consistent. To be consistent, you have to have your pitchers keep you in every game."

At least the lineup is expected to be more consistent.

That's because the team will have Ramirez and Blake the whole year and Rafael Furcal back, as well as adding Orlando Hudson, Ethier said.

Ramirez wasn't acquired until July 31. The Dodgers traded for Blake five days earlier.

Furcal was leading the majors in hits and runs scored when he went down May 5 because of a back injury that required surgery and sidelined him for 4 1/2 months. When he got hurt, the Dodgers stopped scoring and started losing.

Hudson is a three-time Gold Glove second baseman whom the Dodgers managed to sign at a bargain price of $3.38 million because of concerns about his surgically replaced wrist. He was hitting .305 when he was hurt in early August.

Like Furcal, Hudson is a switch hitter. They will bat 1-2 in the lineup to set the table for Ramirez, Torre said.

The Dodgers never had a set No. 2 hitter last season, using Ethier, Martin, Kemp and Blake, among others, in that spot.

Behind Ramirez are "the kids" -- Ethier, Martin, Loney and Kemp.

If the lineups in the Dodgers' final weeks of the exhibition games were any indication, they will hit in that order on days they face a right-handed pitcher. Martin and Kemp could respectively switch places with the left-handed Ethier and Loney when a left-hander is on the mound.

Ranging in age from 24 to 26, they are entering the stages of their careers when their numbers are expected to match their perceived talent.

"I've always called them 'the Franchise,' " Ramirez said. "They did tremendous work last year."

Ramirez, who quickly earned a reputation as a tireless worker in Los Angeles, said he is particularly impressed with the way those in the group go about preparing themselves. Like him, they often showed up early to the Dodgers' training complex this spring. Like him, they spent countless hours in the batting cages.

Ethier might be the most polished hitter of the bunch, leading the Dodgers last season with a .305 batting average and 20 home runs.

Kemp, a favorite of scouts because of his extraordinary athleticism, put up solid numbers last season.

He hit .290 with 18 home runs and 76 runs batted in, but he struck out a franchise-record 153 times. He updated the prescription of his contact lenses this spring and said he can better see the ball.

Loney's 90 RBIs were the most on the team. He hit only 13 home runs last season, and management is anticipating that his power will increase as he gets older.

Martin is coming off what was considered a down year, as he hit .280 with 13 home runs and 69 RBIs. He reported to camp claiming to be a spiritually changed man, one wiser and less anxious.

Ramirez's presence will help them, third base coach Larry Bowa said.

"You put him on any team and he makes them better," Bowa said. "He's a force in the middle of the lineup. It's going to elevate everyone's play."

Enough so, Bowa said, that Ramirez won't have to duplicate his offensive output from last season to get the Dodgers to the playoffs as long as the pitching is adequate.

"He's not going to have to hit .400," Bowa said.

--

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

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