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Dodgers Still Lead Arms Race : Fernando Big Question Mark, Says Dempsey

Times Staff Writer

For this sermon on the mound, we bring you the Irreverend Rick Dempsey, the Dodger catcher whose shin guards may be older than the Dead Sea Scrolls but whose perspective goes far beyond the bars that cross his mask.

On this occasion, fewer than five weeks before the start of the regular season, Dempsey offered a meditation that, if titled, would go something like this: “Faith, Hope, Orel and Fernando, but the Greatest of These is Orel.”

And while Dempsey was extolling the revival of Fernando Valenzuela, the virtues of (Tim) Crews control in the bullpen, the blessing of a Ramon Martinez in the rotation and the sublimity of an Orel Hershiser, he yielded the floor to testimonials from Crews, Tim Belcher and Ricky Horton, the left-hander who fell from grace.

“The mastery is still there,” Dempsey said of a pitching staff that led the National League last season in complete games with 32, shutouts with 24, and saves with 49, not to mention Cy Young Award winner Hershiser, a rookie of the year in Belcher and a comeback pitcher of the year in Tim Leary.

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“Everybody is pretty healthy and our main guys are fairly strong.”

One main guy who isn’t, of course, is Valenzuela, whose left shoulder gave out last season after 255 starts without a miss, nearly 2,000 innings and more screwballs than he would care to count.

Tuesday, Valenzuela--who won only five games in 1988--took his next tentative step toward total recovery by throwing 15 minutes of batting practice, after which all parties involved expressed satisfaction with his progress.

To expect anything different in spring training, of course, is tantamount to heresy.

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“Fernando is a question mark,” Dempsey said. “But I’ve got to think a guy with his experience, if he walks out to the mound, he’ll win his share of games. I look for him to win 15-plus.

“It may take him half a season to get rolling--he may be just around the .500 mark or a little better the first half--but then he should take off and be his usual self, when he gets his strength back and his confidence.”

If Dempsey projects 15-plus wins for the so-called question mark of the staff, imagine what he has to say about the rest of the starters, starting with right-hander Martinez, who will turn 21 March 22 and will be the fifth starter while John Tudor tries to come back from major elbow surgery.

Martinez, a native of the Dominican Republic, was 1-3 in nine appearances--six of them starts--with the Dodgers last season, then added an improved curveball to an already above-average fastball and changeup while going 7-1 in the winter leagues.

“Ramon is mature enough to stay in the big leagues,” Dempsey said. “He handled the pressure real well last season and showed tremendous poise.”

Although Leary, a 17-game winner last season, was dropped from the postseason rotation after a September in which he was 2-3 with a 5.13 ERA, Dempsey disputes the idea that there was any drop-off by the right-hander who had career highs in starts with 34, ERA at 2.91, complete games with nine, shutouts with six, innings pitched at 228 2/3, and strikeouts at 180.

“I didn’t see any decline physically,” Dempsey said. “I think when he was at 17 wins, he may have tried to win three games in one night and found out he couldn’t.

“I think he was more mentally tired than physically tired. All those innings took a toll mentally--I think he started to doubt himself a little bit.

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“But I think he finally relaxed and learned he can win 20 games. There were things that upset him near the end of the season, that got him out of his rhythm, but I think he’s learned to combat those things now.”

Of Belcher, the right-hander who won 12 games and designation as the league’s top rookie, Dempsey said: “He had a progressive season, all the way around. He started out as a reliever, worked his way into the rotation and had problems at first. He didn’t know what pitches to throw late in the game, how to close a team out.

“He knew he needed to pick up an off-speed pitch, which he did, his forkball. He started making better decisions on the mound, he went from a five-inning pitcher to a nine-inning pitcher and he’s the kind of guy, when he gets something, he’s not going to give it up very easily.

“By the end of the season, he was one of the best pitchers in the league. He’s got all the guts in the world, isn’t intimidated by anybody, and I look for him to win at least 15 games.”

Belcher might have had that many wins last season with a couple of breaks--such as not pitching the night Tom Browning of the Reds beat the Dodgers with a perfect game.

“That was the best game I pitched all year,” said Belcher, who spent the off-season in Ohio doing color radio commentary for Kenyon College basketball games. “That was the most dominating eight innings I threw all season.”

Even Dempsey, though, has begun to run out of things to say about Hershiser.

“He’s capable of doing anything,” the catcher said. “There’s no way I can put a cap on what he’s capable of doing. He’s the best pitcher I’ve ever caught, and if anyone is going to win 30 games while I’m still around, he’s the guy.”

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If the Dodgers are strong in starters and in finishers--Jay Howell and Alejandro Pena are as imposing a tandem of closers as there is in the league--they are vulnerable in middle relief. Brian Holton, superb in that role last season, went to Baltimore in the Eddie Murray deal, leaving Crews to assume his role. And Crews--despite a 4-0 record and 3.14 ERA in 42 appearances last season--was left off the postseason roster when Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda decided he preferred a left-hander, Horton, who wound up being ineffective.

“I’ll never forget that,” Crews said of his enforced inactivity last fall. “I’m not going to hold any grudges but I should have been there. They said so themselves, that they never would have gotten there without me.

“I got kicked off for a lefty that was disappointing for them. When I reach 40 years old and look back, I’m going to look back with disappointment and believe I should have been there.”

If the situation was tough for Crews, empathize for a moment with his family.

“I did a bad thing,” Crews said. “I didn’t air anybody out here (on the team), but for two weeks I put my wife and kids through hell before I finally got rid of it.”

For the moment, Crews--like Belcher--is unsigned and not thrilled with the Dodgers’ offer. But he recognizes that they need him.

Horton was more needy than needed last season, which he began as the No. 1 starter for the Chicago White Sox and finished as an undependable member of the Dodger bullpen. Horton was 6-10 with a 4.86 ERA with the White Sox, 1-1 with a 5.00 ERA in 12 relief appearances with the Dodgers.

Last winter, he was offered to the Mets in a deal for Wally Backman that fell through. One Dodger official said he would have gladly hauled Horton in a wheelbarrow to New York to make the deal.

“He’s a question mark,” Dempsey said. “But you can’t say he won’t do the job until he proves he can’t do the job.”

Horton, who pitched four seasons with St. Louis before being traded to Chicago, said he never felt comfortable in Chicago.

“As a (White Sox pitcher) for two months, I was pretty bad just about every time out,” Horton said. “Without any excuses, I was just a bad pitcher.”

Things improved, he said, after he went home to St. Louis for the All-Star break. “The All-Star break just didn’t come early enough for me,” he said. “This year, I’m lobbying to have it in May.”

With the Dodgers, Horton isn’t politicking for anything but a chance to pitch.

“I feel the jury is always out,” he said. “I don’t think there’s ever a time when they say, ‘OK, the verdict is in, you’re a major league pitcher.’ There are a few exceptions, but never for a sinker-slider left-handed reliever.”

The 10th spot on the Dodger staff is open. Given his druthers, Dempsey would like to see another left-hander, which offers some hope to Ray Searage, who has had brief trials with the Mets, Brewers and White Sox before spending last summer with Albuquerque. Searage, who will be 34 in May, is living in last-chance territory.

Mike Munoz, a highly regarded left-hander who was 7-2 with a 1.00 ERA at double-A San Antonio last season, probably will be kept back another season.

With a surplus of outfielders primed for big league exposure--Mike Devereaux, Chris Gwynn, Jose Gonzalez--the Dodgers undoubtedly will be shopping for help this spring, too. But for now, they are holding their own in the arms race.

And on that, Lasorda and Dempsey are of one mind: Amen.


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