Keeping 'em on the farm?

Times Staff Writers

Like holiday carolers spreading a message of devotion, Dodgers scouting and player development officials will gather this week at baseball's winter meetings to remind General Manager Ned Colletti to keep the faith and resist the temptation to trade potential stars for pricey veterans.

Picture a semicircle of blue-clad executives in the lobby of the Walt Disney Swan and Dolphin Resort, softly singing the praises of Matt Kemp, James Loney, Andy LaRoche and Scott Elbert to Colletti every time a rival general manager approaches.

Leading the chorus would be Logan White, newly crowned Dodgers vice president and as close to Colletti's ear as anyone. He drafted most of the players opposing teams covet and cringes when he hears of potential deals that would ship them out.

Even when a power-hitting outfielder such as Manny Ramirez, Vernon Wells or Andruw Jones could be acquired to fill a need that graduated from pressing to essential when right fielder J.D. Drew opted out of the last three years of his contract.

Those same sluggers surface when talk turns to the Angels. Any deal would probably cost them one of their prized young starting pitchers -- Ervin Santana, Jered Weaver or John Lackey -- or coveted setup man Scot Shields. Or both. Pitcher Nick Adenhart and shortstop Brandon Wood are the prospects teams inquire most about.

"Most clubs are aggressively pursuing starting and relief pitching, and we're not," Angels General Manager Bill Stoneman said. "The next question is, why don't you use a starting pitcher to get a bat? While I wouldn't rule it out, the chances are remote, because pitching is how you win."

Colletti ultimately could buckle to a desire for the Dodgers to be as strong as possible in 2007 and trade the untested for the proven. But his first thought is to preserve the prospects by accumulating a surplus of starting pitchers, then trading one or two for a power-hitting outfielder.

One year into the job, Colletti has gained an appreciation for his farm system. He refused to trade prospects at last year's winter meetings because he knew nothing about them. Now he knows who he has, and would greatly prefer watching them become productive, relatively inexpensive Dodgers.

A little reminding doesn't hurt, though.

"Teams ask about our young players every day," he said. "Any time I start getting worn down, I talk to Logan and our scouts and minor league people. They believe more than one of these guys are going to become productive major leaguers."

The performances of last season's rookies provide affirmation. Russell Martin grabbed hold of the catching position and shined. Outfielder Andre Ethier led the team with a .308 batting average. Starting pitcher Chad Billingsley was 7-4 with a 3.80 earned-run average in half a season. Reliever Jonathan Broxton struck out 97 in 76 1/3 innings.

Yet power is a glaring need. The Dodgers finished next to last in the National League in home runs. Then Drew blindsided Colletti, who must replace his 100 runs batted in and 20 homers simply to match last season's lineup.

Pickings are slim in the free-agent market. The Dodgers made a preliminary offer to 39-year-old outfielder Luis Gonzalez as soon as it was apparent the Arizona Diamondbacks wouldn't offer him arbitration. Aubrey Huff is another free-agent possibility. Barry Bonds and Jose Guillen are not.

If the Dodgers don't sign a corner outfielder, Colletti will feel compelled to trade for one to join Ethier -- who could play left or right field -- and center fielder Juan Pierre. The blistering the Dodgers took in the media for giving the light-hitting Pierre a five-year, $44-million deal won't deter them from spending more money. Cash, it seems, is easier to recoup than young talent.

Similarly, the Angels aren't exactly smarting from the criticism they took for giving center fielder Gary Matthews Jr. $50 million over five years and middle reliever Justin Speier $18 million over four years.

Neither acquisition fulfills owner Arte Moreno's late-September guarantee that the Angels would "do something major" this winter, so Stoneman will continue efforts to add a middle-of-the-lineup slugger.

"In terms of the big splash, we haven't done that," Stoneman said. "But we're still looking at things both big and small to help the club. They involve trades more than free agents."

With Matthews in center and Vladimir Guerrero, Garret Anderson and Juan Rivera rotating through the corner outfield and designated hitter spots, Stoneman said the Angels are "pretty well set" at those positions, which would seem to plunge a dagger in the Ramirez-to-the-Angels rumors that refuse to die.

"If we do anything at this point," Stoneman said, "it would probably be at the corner infield spots."

The Angels are expected to revisit talks with the Baltimore Orioles about Miguel Tejada and the Chicago White Sox about Joe Crede. If the New York Yankees change course and field offers for Alex Rodriguez, the Angels would make a run at the slugger, and if the Seattle Mariners were open to trading Adrian Beltre to a division rival, the Angels probably would pursue him.

Among the possible first-base targets are Atlanta's Adam LaRoche and Washington's Nick Johnson. Though the Angels remain interested in free-agent left-hander Barry Zito, "our priority is a bat," Stoneman said. "That hasn't changed."

The Dodgers have no interest in Zito but plan to court less expensive veteran starting pitchers Greg Maddux, Jason Schmidt and Vicente Padilla. Gil Meche is another possibility.

Acquiring one of them could put Brad Penny, Mark Hendrickson and Brett Tomko on the trading block. But is that enough to bring a slugger in return? Colletti might end up including a prospect in a deal -- and his staff would grin and bear it because the Dodgers are committed to winning in 2007.

"It's striking a balance between the present and the future, between potential and proven commodities," Colletti said. "We'll remain active. We're not done improving the club."

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steve.henson@latimes.com

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

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