BASEBALL PREVIEW : The Flag Is Up, and the Dodgers Are Ready to Run : Prospectus: Star-studded team might be lacking in some areas but there's no shortage of expectations

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is two weeks before the start of the regular season. Brett Butler is standing in the middle of the Dodgers' spring clubhouse, wearing dress slacks, a silk shirt and dock shoes, practicing his bunting.

"The pitcher throws me a fastball and-- whoop --I turn around and get it this way," he says, spinning and twirling an imaginary bat. "Hey, he wants to come outside, I go out and get it like this-- whoop . The third baseman is charging-- whoop --I slap it out this way.

"Darn, I can't wait. I just can't wait. Who is the starting pitcher for the (Atlanta) Braves on opening day? C'mon, who is starting opening day?"

It was one week before the start of the regular season. Inside the visiting manager's office in Kissimmee, Fla., Tom Lasorda is snarling and clacking his teeth.

"You know what this team is like?" he asks, jumping to his feet and stamping his spikes on the concrete. "We are like horses at the starting gate. Horses going crazy, biting at the bit, trying to get out. Chomp, chomp, snarl ."

It is the final day of the spring training. The Dodgers have just used their regular lineup for only the second time in the spring and defeated the New York Mets, 3-2.

"Look around, just look around here," says Darryl Strawberry, who has had 10 extra-base hits in 36 spring training at-bats. "Once we get the regular guys in there, it looks pretty nice, doesn't it? Looks real nice, I'd say."

He lowers his voice, as if the rest of the National League could hear.

"I'll tell you what, baby," he says. "This team is ready."

The 1991 Dodgers may be questionable in several areas, but one thing they are not lacking is expectations.

As they prepare for opening day Tuesday in Atlanta, there may not be one person in that rich, veteran clubhouse who does not feel they are destined to win a championship.

It starts with Strawberry, who was purchased for $20.25 million and already is worth more.

Who else can single-handedly make Lasorda talk himself hoarse, a bizarre occurrence that happened on Strawberry's first day of spring training. Lasorda lost his voice just as he was finishing the story about somebody calling a taxicab to retrieve one of Strawberry's home runs.

Strawberry will show a good arm in right field, but make no mistake. He is about home runs.

He has hit at least 25 homers in each of his first eight big league seasons, the longest beginning-of-career streak in major league history. He has hit 171 homers in the last five years, the most in baseball during that time.

Critics say he can't hit left-handed pitching, but since his debut in 1983, Strawberry has more homers against left-handers, 80, than anyone but Dale Murphy.

But the Dodgers are not all Strawberry. There is also some cream. There are five former all-stars in the opening-day lineup, including Strawberry, first baseman Eddie Murray, catcher Mike Scioscia, second baseman Juan Samuel and shortstop Alfredo Griffin.

Three of the four starters who have not been all-stars have similar credentials. Butler, the center fielder, tied for the National League lead with 192 hits last year with the San Francisco Giants. Kal Daniels, the left fielder, tied the club record for left-handed hitters with 27 home runs. Tim Belcher is a former Topps' rookie pitcher of the year.

That leaves third baseman Jeff Hamilton as the only starter without a loaded resume, but at least he is noteworthy as baseball's only active player with more than 1,000 at-bats--1,111--who has never stolen a base.

"We have the best team I have ever been around, and I'm not just saying that," said pitcher Bob Ojeda, a winter acquisition who played for the 1986 World Series champion New York Mets. "There is absolutely no reason in the world why we can't win (a championship)."

Which is not to say that a few Dodgers still aren't realists.

"Correct me if I'm wrong but the Cincinnati Reds did not all go down in a plane crash, did they?" Belcher said.

Oh yes, the defending World Series champion Reds. The Dodgers know that their 10th-inning, 5-4 victory over Cincinnati in the last week of spring training was a precursor to 18 intense games between the teams this season.

The Dodgers figure they have at least caught the Reds on paper after furiously acquiring talent over the winter with owner Peter O'Malley's riches.

The entire new package, highlighted by Strawberry and Butler and including spring training acquisitions Gary Carter and John Candelaria, cost the Dodgers about $38 million. Whether it will be worth it or not depends on the three H's: Hershiser, hardiness and happiness.

Hershiser

Many Dodgers are saying they can win the championship without pitcher Orel Hershiser, but they don't yet sound as if they believe it.

Last year, in all likelihood, they would have won it with him. After he underwent reconstructive shoulder surgery April 27, it took three months before one of his replacement starters recorded a victory. And they finished just five games behind the Reds.

The best guess is that Hershiser, who desperately wanted to be the starting pitcher for the home opener April 12, will be ready by May 1.

Nobody knows whether he will return as the same pitcher who stunned the baseball world with near perfection late in the 1988 season. Already, he has made slight changes in his delivery to relieve some strain on the shoulder.

But the Dodgers don't care, they just want him back. In the meantime, they hope replacement starter Mike Morgan stays true to his traditional early season form. Perhaps because he is a tireless worker in the off-season, Morgan has a 3.80 earned-run average in April and May, but a 4.72 ERA the rest of the year.

The rotation will be helped if newcomer Ojeda can pitch as he did in spring training, when he was 4-0 with a 2.17 ERA. And Kevin Gross absolutely must not pitch as he did in spring training. He lost his first four starts and had an 8.18 ERA.

Hardiness Five of the Dodgers' nine opening-day starters are 30 or older. The average age is 31, which is three years older than the average age of the Reds.

The years have left their mark.

Because of his reckless style of play behind the plate, Scioscia constantly sprouts bruises, the size of which shock some teammates when they see him in the clubhouse. There is a reason the Dodgers are keeping two backup catchers, Barry Lyons and Gary Carter, for the first time in a decade.

At shortstop, Griffin has a degenerative disk in his lower back, but he must play with it until Jose Offerman is deemed ready to return from triple-A Albuquerque. That could be within a month, because Offerman's defense has finally improved after hours of work with Lasorda and coach Bill Russell.

Hamilton says he feels fully recovered from shoulder problems that caused him to miss all but seven games last season. The Dodgers hope so, because they need his potentially powerful bat in the sixth or seventh slot and the versatility of Lenny Harris and Mike Sharperson on the bench.

In left field, Daniels will be running around on arthritic knees and a tricky back. He missed 32 games last year and still led the team in homers and finished second in runs batted in, but the Dodgers need ready replacements.

This is why many believe that Stan Javier and Chris Gwynn could be two of the most important pieces. Last year, Javier batted .320 in 58 starts and Gwynn hit .358 in 18 starts.

Happiness

It was the question asked by nearly everybody in the organization, nearly every day during spring training: Is Darryl still happy?

Strawberry's euphoria about returning to his hometown team is still intact, and if he bats as he did during spring training, the feeling may never leave.

But the Dodgers know that even $20.25 million doesn't buy baseball players happiness these days. They need to recognize Strawberry's sensitivity and keep patting him on the back even during the slumps.

Another player who needs to be happy to be productive is Samuel, who had a terrific spring training after finally having been lodged permanently at second base. He needs to remain there, and he needs to be left alone. Constant nagging about his hitting style just makes him swing wilder.

Ramon Martinez's emotions should also be monitored. He will be the second-day starter, but he felt he should have been No. 1 because of his 20 victories last year.

He felt he was being penalized for an 11-day holdout at the start of spring training. The Dodgers hope he does not penalize them with distracted performances.

Finally, the bullpen needs to stay happy, particularly ace Jay Howell, because that could be the one area that makes this entire team unhappy.

Howell reported to camp four days late because of contract problems, during which his agent announced that he had asked to be traded. He needs to forget about that and bring together five pitchers who will be feeling the pressure.

This bullpen recorded the fewest saves in the league last year, just 29, one more than Howell's club-record total the previous season. And only one of those was recorded by a left-hander.

Candelaria has been acquired to help fix the latter deficiency, but he will probably face just one or two batters in each outing. Howell, Jim Gott and Mike Hartley must all perform well as closers, and Tim Crews must have another outstanding season as a setup man for the Dodgers to do what each of them is now dreaming of doing.

THE MANAGER

TOMMY LASORDA

Dodger season: 15th.

Dodger record: 1183-1031.

Lasorda, 63, is entering his 42nd year in the Dodger organization. He has also served as a player, scout, minor league manager and major league coach. He is leading active major league manager in consecutive service with a single team. In 14 seasons, his teams have won two World Series, four NL pennants and six division titles.

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