Dodgers’ power is in pitching
Seemingly powerless to add pop to the lineup, the Dodgers added power arms instead, signing the formidable Jason Schmidt and surgically repaired Randy Wolf to a pitching staff that already includes several of the hardest throwers in the National League.
The cast could be called Smokin’ Aces, pitchers whose preference in dispatching hitters is to blow them away with fastballs.
It starts with Brad Penny, who won 16 games last season by relying on a four-seam fastball that reaches 98 mph and is consistently at 95 mph. Penny threw more fastballs 95 mph or faster in 2006 than all other National League starters combined.
Second-year starters Chad Billingsley and Hong-Chih Kuo have two of the liveliest arms in baseball. They have nothing to prove in terms of what they are throwing, only where it is going. Their battle for the fifth spot in the rotation will be perhaps the most spirited of spring training, which begins today when pitchers and catchers report.
Brett Tomko, a former starter who has taken a liking to the bullpen, is another hard thrower. And at the back of the bullpen is Jonathan Broxton, a 6-foot-3, 285-pound right-hander for whom the term country hardball seems to have been coined. Broxton had 97 strikeouts in 76 1/3 innings last season and appears destined to step in as closer the moment Takashi Saito falters.
Of course, there is a lot more to pitching than rearing back and firing fastballs. A live arm can get a pitcher drafted, but the recipe for success in the big leagues is locating pitches properly, changing speeds and creating movement.
That’s why Derek Lowe enters camp as the resident ace after winning 16 games in each of his two Dodgers seasons and posting earned-run averages of 3.63 in 2006 and 3.61 in 2005. Speed is less important to Lowe than getting his sinker to dip under the path of a swing, resulting in a steady string of ground balls.
“If I throw too hard, I don’t have success,” Lowe said. “I’m best when I’m right around 90 mph, sometimes a touch below that.”
Newcomers Schmidt and Wolf threw harder several years ago but adjusted to declining velocity by developing devastating changeups.
Schmidt struck out 251 batters in 2004 with the San Francisco Giants, a total that dipped to 165 in 2005 and 180 last season. Yet he was 23-16 the last two years and hasn’t had a losing season since 2000.
Wolf hit 95 mph on the radar gun coming out of Pepperdine in 1997 and was consistently at 93 mph before elbow pain began sapping his velocity beginning in 2002. By the time he had Tommy John surgery in 2005, he was down to 87 mph.
Wolf, who already has been in Vero Beach for a week, is ecstatic about how his arm feels and said he has been throwing “a lot of 94s.” Yet he spent just as much time during the off-season making adjustments to his circle changeup, tinkering with his grip.
“The fastball sets up your other pitches,” he said. “I learned how important it is when I lost mine. Without it, you’re trying to be a magician out there.”
Where will all that speed get the Dodgers? Without scoring runs, they’ll just get nowhere fast.
With base-stealing threats Rafael Furcal and Juan Pierre at the top of the batting order, line-drive hitting veterans Nomar Garciaparra, Jeff Kent and Luis Gonzalez in the middle and youthful Russell Martin, Wilson Betemit and Andre Ethier at the end, the Dodgers should chip away for a run here, a run there.
But three-run home runs will be infrequent, meaning it will be difficult to extend early leads to the point pressure is taken off the bullpen. And it will be difficult to come from behind in the late innings.
“There are a lot of ways to score runs, and we have a strong lineup of hitters from top to bottom,” Manager Grady Little said. “Home runs are nice, they can change a game in a hurry, but if we play good, fundamental baseball, pitch well and play defense, we can win a lot of games with these guys in our lineup.”
A strong starting rotation coupled with hitters who must scratch out runs should result in games that remain close into the middle innings. That’s when the second major Dodgers question will be raised.
Can the middle relievers keep games close?
The rotation of Lowe, Schmidt, Wolf, Penny and either Billingsley or Kuo might be the best in the league.
The back of the bullpen, with Saito, Broxton and left-hander Joe Beimel, appears solid.
But the middle relievers are converted starters Tomko, Mark Hendrickson and Elmer Dessens. Tomko faded in September after pitching well in relief for more than a month, Hendrickson doesn’t particularly want to be in the bullpen and Dessens is consistently average. Veteran Rudy Seanez and a few others are trying to make the club as non-roster invitees, but, barring a trade, the sixth and seventh innings could be treacherous all season.
“It’s still an area of concern, no doubt about it,” General Manager Ned Colletti said. “But the bullpen is something that can be bolstered from within, and the makeup can change as necessary. It happens that way nearly every season to every team.”
Last year the Dodgers used 20 pitchers in relief. The bullpen that began the season didn’t include Saito or Beimel but did include Franquelis Osoria and Tim Hamulack.
“The roster is always a work in progress, from the beginning of the spring until the last day in September,” Colletti said.
He has never been afraid to make changes, and, taking a cue from his pitchers, he’ll make them fast.
“This is the beginning, and it’s an exciting time,” he said. “But if there is an area that can be improved, we’ll do it.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Spring training in Arizona
The expected 2009 moves of the Dodgers and Chicago White Sox to Glendale, Ariz., and the Cleveland Indians to Goodyear, would make 14 teams at 11 spring training sites in Arizona. The teams and facilities:
[please see microfilm for full map information]
Major league teams that train in Arizona
1. Texas Rangers, Kansas City
Royals: Surprise Stadium
2. San Diego Padres, Seattle
Mariners: Peoria Sports
3. Milwaukee Brewers: Maryvale
4. Dodgers, Chicago White
Sox: Glendale, 2009
5. Cleveland Indians: Goodyear,
6. Oakland Athletics: Phoenix
7. San Francisco Giants:
8. Angels: Tempe Diablo
9. Chicago Cubs: Hohokam
10. Arizona Diamondbacks,
Chicago White Sox:
Tucson Electric Park
11. Colorado Rockies: Hi Corbett
Note: This information appeared incorrectly in Thursday’s sections of The Times, mislocating some of the stadiums.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Dodgers’ key dates
* Saturday -- First workout for pitchers and catchers.
* Wednesday -- First full-squad workout.
* March 1 -- Exhibition opener vs. Atlanta at Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
* April 2 -- Season opener at Milwaukee, 11 a.m. PDT, FSN Prime Ticket.
* April 9 -- Home opener vs. Colorado, 1 p.m., FSN Prime Ticket.
Dodgers at a glance
How the Dodgers look as they open spring training today in Vero Beach, Fla.:
*--* WHO’S NEW
* OF Juan Pierre, OF Luis Gonzalez, P Jason Schmidt, P Randy Wolf, C Mike Lieberthal.
*--* WHO’S GONE
* OF J.D. Drew, OF Kenny Lofton, IF Julio Lugo, P Greg Maddux, P Aaron Sele, P Eric Gagne, P Giovanni Carrara, C Toby Hall.
*--* BIGGEST QUESTION OF SPRING
* Can the Dodgers produce runs consistently in the absence of a bona fide power hitter? As many as seven regulars could hit 15 to 25 homers, but the Dodgers will be hard-pressed to equal even last season’s anemic total of 153. A lack of power would make it more difficult to come from behind in the late innings and put increased pressure on an already shaky middle relief corps.
*--* JOB SEEKERS
* Most roster spots are locked up. However, rookie Andy LaRoche should push Wilson Betemit at third base and power-hitting Matt Kemp is expected to battle versatile third-year player Jason Repko for the fifth outfield spot. Veterans Choo Freeman and Larry Bigbie are insurance policies. Damian Jackson, Fernando Tatis or Wilson Valdez could challenge Ramon Martinez as the utility infielder. The Dodgers will give a long look to veteran reliever Rudy Seanez.
*--* KEEP YOUR EYE ON
* First baseman Nomar Garciaparra and second baseman Jeff Kent. The two veterans will be counted upon to drive in runs and stabilize the infield. However, both were prone to injury last season. If either one is out for an extended time, the batting order would need refiguring and a domino effect of position changes in the infield could be triggered.
*--* REASONS TO BE EXCITED
* The Dodgers have one of the deepest starting rotations in baseball and are solid at the back of the bullpen with Takashi Saito and Jonathan Broxton. Regardless of who emerges as the leadoff hitter, speedy Rafael Furcal and Pierre will bat in the first inning and wreak havoc on the basepaths. Last season’s productive rookie class -- Russell Martin, Andre Ethier, James Loney, Chad Billingsley, Hong-Chih Kuo, Saito and Broxton -- should improve with experience. And more young players will be pushing for roles as well.
*--* REASONS TO BE WORRIED
* The lack of power throughout the lineup and the injury history of Kent and Garciaparra are the primary concerns. Getting solid relief work out of converted starters Brett Tomko, Mark Hendrickson and Elmer Dessens will be important, as will be a successful return from arm surgery by reliever Yhency Brazoban. Hard-throwing right-hander Brad Penny must return to the form he displayed in the first half of last season when he became the National League starter in the All-Star game.
*--* PROJECTED LINEUP
Rafael Furcal ... SS
Juan Pierre ... CF
Nomar Garciaparra ... 1B
Jeff Kent ... 2B
Luis Gonzalez ... LF
Russell Martin ... C
Wilson Betemit ... 3B
Andre Ethier ... RF
*--* PROJECTED ROTATION
Derek Lowe ... RH
Jason Schmidt ... RH
Randy Wolf ... LH
Brad Penny ... RH
Chad Billingsley ... RH
or Hong-Chih Kuo ... LH
*--* PROJECTED BULLPEN
Takashi Saito ... RH
Jonathan Broxton ... RH
Joe Beimel ... LH
Mark Hendrickson ... LH
Brett Tomko ... RH
Elmer Dessens ... RH
*--* PROJECTED BENCH
Mike Lieberthal ... C
Olmedo Saenz ... 1B
James Loney ... 1B/OF
Ramon Martinez ... IF
Marlon Anderson ... OF/2B
Jason Repko ... OF
-- STEVE HENSON
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