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Kent is looking forward to season

Times Staff Writer

A 15-year veteran such as Jeff Kent can flip through a lengthy mental file when he wants to compare and contrast his off-season, his motivation, and the quality of the ballclub.

He slapped a smiley face on every topic Wednesday, noteworthy because Kent normally isn’t a smiley face kind of guy.

And noteworthy because the optimism comes after his most frustrating season. Kent, 38, was on the disabled list twice for the first time in his career and played in only 115 games.

Unlike a year ago, he wasn’t thinking about retirement on the first day position players worked out -- until someone asked about it.

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“Last year I talked about it a lot,” he said. “This year I won’t. Maybe that’s the telltale sign it might be time. But maybe not.

“When December came around, unlike any previous year in a long time, I wanted to play baseball.”

His off-season was marked by a workout regimen provided by Dodgers strength and conditioning coach Doug Jarrow, who visited Kent at his Texas ranch. Jarrow taught the drills to the personal trainer of Kent’s wife, who put Kent through workouts three days a week.

“The oblique gave me a lot of trouble, so we tried to get that muscle strong the best we could,” he said.

Kent signed an extension a year ago that included a $2-million signing bonus and a $9-million salary for 2007. He can earn another $1 million or so in performance bonuses. And if he reaches 550 plate appearances, the contract vests in 2008 for $9 million.

Which would give him additional motivation to continue playing.

“I’m excited about the team,” he said. “We made great strides last year and went to the playoffs, and we still need to progress. I’m looking forward to that.”

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Manager Grady Little tosses and turns at night. Furcal, Pierre.

He tosses and turns some more. Pierre, Furcal.

Little has put off revealing whether Rafael Furcal or Juan Pierre will be the leadoff hitter. After privately deciding, he is second-guessing himself.

“I keep weighing all the pluses and minuses, and to be truthful, I keep changing my mind day to day,” Little said.

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Plenty of names pop up when candidates for the fifth starter are discussed. Noticeably absent is D.J. Houlton, whom the previous Dodgers front-office regime held in high regard.

Houlton, 27, stayed with the Dodgers in the 2005 season after being taken in the Rule 5 draft from Houston’s double-A club. He was a moderate success, accumulating 129 innings while displaying a knee-buckling curve and average fastball.

But when Paul DePodesta was replaced by Ned Colletti as general manager, Houlton became like several holdovers from the disappointing 2005 team -- nearly invisible. He spent 2006 at triple A and didn’t give the Dodgers a reason to promote him, finishing 9-11 with a 5.60 earned-run average.

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“I had a bad attitude from the start because I felt like I was successful at times [in 2005],” he said. “I was frustrated and it affected my pitching.”

The Dodgers filled holes in the rotation by promoting Chad Billingsley and Hong-Chih Kuo, and trading for Mark Hendrickson and Greg Maddux. Then they signed Jason Schmidt and Randy Wolf this off-season.

“I’m trying to get it off my mind and pitch well,” Houlton said. “Ned and Grady hadn’t seen me pitch a year ago. Now I have six weeks to show them.”

steve.henson@latimes.com

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