PHOENIX — Chad Billingsley sounded as if he had experienced deja vu.
"Didn't we have this conversation last year?" he asked.
Well, yes. How the Dodgers didn't have a clear ace. How the rotation lacked experience. How the offense would have to carry them.
"We were sitting here last year talking about how our pitching staff was going to be weak," he said.
And the Dodgers went on to post the lowest earned-run average in baseball.
The renewed concern results largely from the departure of Randy Wolf -- their most consistent pitcher last season. The Dodgers declined to offer him arbitration and instead re-signed Vicente Padilla for $5.025 million.
So, as was the case last year, the Dodgers are starting the exhibition season with four of their rotation spots filled, three of them by Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw and Hiroki Kuroda. And the fifth spot is up for grabs.
Manager Joe Torre said it could be worse: They could have a bona fide ace but nothing else.
"You could have that one guy and have 20 guys shooting for the other four spots," Torre said. "I'd rather have four guys like ours and 20 shooting for that one spot."
But questions hover over each of the Big Four.
Billingsley pitched well enough in the first half of last season to make his first All-Star team but fell apart in the second half. He was 9-3 with a 2.72 earned-run average through July 14 and 3-8 with a 5.21 ERA after that.
Kershaw, who has been called the future ace of the Dodgers ever since he was drafted in 2006, had an outstanding second half last year but will be only 22 on opening day.
Kuroda pitched well at times in the first two years of his three-year, $35.3-million deal but he is 35 and coming off a season in which he spent significant time on the disabled list, including time lost after being hit in the head by a line drive.
As for Padilla, who was acquired by the Dodgers in August and delivered their most dominating pitching performances of the postseason, he came to Los Angeles as a man of ill repute. Some club officials are admittedly uncertain if he can pitch consistently well over an entire season.
"I can't tell you," said Padilla, who will start the Dodgers' exhibition opener Friday against the Chicago White Sox. "Part of that has to do with luck. But I'll do what I can do."
If anything goes wrong, there's always the bullpen.
The Dodgers' bullpen was third in the majors in innings pitched last season (553) but first in earned-run average (3.14). The unit, headlined by All-Star closer Jonathan Broxton, has remained almost completely intact. The only notable departure was Guillermo Mota, who often was used in games the Dodgers were losing.
"Our bullpen was unbelievable," Billingsley said.
Dodgers relievers pitched an average of 3.4 innings per game last season.
So it's conceivable that the Dodgers can again be a team that has a chance to win as long as the starters make it into the sixth inning.
Middle relief is particularly a strong point for these Dodgers. Jeff Weaver revived his career last season as a swingman. Hard-throwing sinker pitcher Ronald Belisario remains in his native Venezuela because of visa problems, but is expected to be part of a group of lights-out setup men that includes George Sherrill, Hong-Chih Kuo and Ramon Troncoso.
And remember this: Sherrill wasn't acquired until the eve of the trade deadline last year, but will be with the club from the start of the season this time around.
Sherrill, whose 72 appearances in 2009 were one shy of his career high, said he expects to pitch in more games than he ever has.
"I don't see why not," he said. "Joe's going to run me out there. He runs the guys out there who are hot."
But pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said he doesn't want the starters to feel as if they have a safety net.
"We want the guys to take the responsibility to go deeper into games," he said.
While Honeycutt might be demanding more innings out of his starters, he isn't asking for anyone to transform himself into an ace.
Are the starters ready to shoulder the burden?
"It's a team effort," Billingsley said.
"Everybody picked each other up last year," Kershaw said.
"They signed me to be the third or fourth starter, no?" Padilla said.
Kuroda laughed uncomfortably.
The often-heard criticism last season was that because the Dodgers lacked a true ace, they were better suited to winning a division title than a league championship series. That appeared to be true when they were eliminated in the NLCS by the Phillies behind the pitching of Cliff Lee. And though the Phillies lost Lee over the winter, they added an ace, Roy Halladay.
Honeycutt said he thinks such talk is overblown.
"Whenever you don't do something, something's going to be said, this or that," he said.
"Our main focus here is still pitching and defense," he said. "We've got to continue to pitch well and do better. Our goal this year is to get better so we could go one step further."