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Dodgers' biggest question: Where's Manny?

Ramirez's status could change the complexion of spring training, but team's pitching appears to be much weaker.

February 14, 2009|Dylan Hernandez

Staff writer Dylan Hernandez takes a look at the Dodgers heading into spring training:

Who's new: P Randy Wolf, P Guillermo Mota, IF Mark Loretta, P Claudio Vargas, C Brad Ausmus.

Who's gone: P Derek Lowe, 2B Jeff Kent, P Takashi Saito, OF Andruw Jones, P Brad Penny, P Greg Maddux, IF Nomar Garciaparra, P Chan Ho Park, P Joe Beimel, SS Angel Berroa, P Scott Proctor, IF Mark Sweeney, C Gary Bennett, P Jason Johnson.

Biggest question: Will Manny Ramirez re-sign with the Dodgers? Ramirez, who led the Dodgers to their first National League Championship Series in 20 years, is still a free agent. The All-Star outfielder doesn't appear to have any other legitimate suitors but that doesn't mean the Dodgers have all of the leverage in their negotiations. Ramirez and his agent, Scott Boras, are aware that the Dodgers' lineup is basically the same as it was before they acquired him at the July 31 trade deadline. The Dodgers were 54-55 without Ramirez and 30-23 with him.

Job seekers: Jason Schmidt, who has had two shoulder surgeries in the last two years, hasn't pitched in a big league game since June 16, 2007. The former All-Star enters the final year of his three-year, $47-million deal looking to claim a spot in the Dodgers' rotation and add to his win total -- one -- with the club. Competing with Schmidt for the fifth spot in the rotation will be other vaguely familiar names whose careers were derailed by injuries: Vargas, Eric Milton and Shawn Estes. Ramon Troncoso, a rookie reliever last season, had success as a starting pitcher for his winter ball team in the Dominican Republic and could be in the mix. Left-hander Eric Stults tossed a shutout last June but was 0-3 with a 5.32 earned-run average in his last five starts in the majors.

Keep your eye on: Chad Billingsley and Matt Kemp. Billingsley (16-10, 3.14) emerged last year as a top-of-the-rotation pitcher in his first full season as a starter. But the 24-year-old had a poor NLCS and broke his leg this winter. Is he resilient enough to become the Dodgers' ace? As for Kemp, among the Dodgers' nucleus of young players, no one creates as much buzz among opposing scouts. Because of his great potential, observers tend to focus on what Kemp could do instead of what he's actually doing. But he showed substantial improvement last season (.290, 18 home runs, 76 runs batted in, 35 steals) and could make another leap this year. He could turn into the game-changer that the Dodgers need if Ramirez opts to sign elsewhere.

Reasons to be excited: With or without Ramirez, the Dodgers' roster probably will undergo major changes by the end of the season. General Manager Ned Colletti saved last season by trading for Ramirez, Casey Blake, Berroa and Greg Maddux while adding almost nothing to the payroll. The Dodgers probably will try to repeat last season -- stay within striking distance of first place and make a push down the stretch by adding soon-to-be free agents from non-contenders. Colletti is in a contract year and could be dealing to hold his job. Only this time, he might have some money to spend. Without Ramirez, the Dodgers' payroll will be around $80 million, which is two-thirds of what it was last season.

Reasons to be worried: Every facet of the team appears weaker than it was a year ago. The loss of several veteran pitchers could be a severe problem. Pitching is what kept a weak-hitting team in contention until the Dodgers acquired Ramirez in July. Ace Derek Lowe and opening-day starter Brad Penny are gone. The bullpen lost closer Takashi Saito and long man Chan Ho Park, leaving the bulk of relief duties in the hands of Jonathan Broxton and Cory Wade, who lack extensive track records.

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Projected roster

*--* STARTING LINEUP

Rafael Furcal SS Juan Pierre LF Russell Martin C Andre Ethier RF Matt Kemp CF James Loney 1B Casey Blake 3B Blake DeWitt 2B *--*

*--* STARTING ROTATION

Chad Billingsley RH Randy Wolf LH Hiroki Kuroda RH Clayton Kershaw LH Claudio Vargas RH *--*

*--* BULLPEN

Jonathan Broxton RH Cory Wade RH Hong-Chih Kuo LH Guillermo Mota RH James McDonald RH Scott Elbert LH Ramon Troncoso RH *--*

*--* BENCH

Brad Ausmus C Mark Loretta INF Delwyn Young OF,2B Jason Repko OF Tony Abreu INF *--*

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dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

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