CALL TO ARMS
There is no Manny Ramirez on the Dodgers’ roster. At least not yet.
But an even bigger concern is that there is no Johan Santana or CC Sabathia, either.
“We don’t have that level of guy,” pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said.
The Dodgers don’t even have a Derek Lowe, the kind of pitcher they could use on short rest in a postseason series.
A starting rotation that was considered one of the Dodgers’ only consistent strong points last season was dismantled this winter, the most glaring defection being that of Lowe, who signed with the Atlanta Braves. Last season’s opening-day starter, Brad Penny, moved to the Boston Red Sox. Late-season addition Greg Maddux retired.
So what’s left?
The Dodgers’ projected opening-day starter, Chad Billingsley, was solid in his first full season in the rotation but melted down in the National League Championship Series and suffered a broken leg this winter. Clayton Kershaw can’t legally drink a beer until March 19. Hiroki Kuroda is 34 years old but has started only 31 major league games and isn’t scheduled to throw his first bullpen session of the year until Monday because of concerns about his arthritic shoulder. Randy Wolf, who was signed a week ago, broke down in the middle of the last season he pitched for the Dodgers.
“We obviously have a lot of unanswered questions,” Manager Joe Torre said.
Particularly unsettled is the spot of fifth starter.
At this point, the Dodgers aren’t ruling out anyone, including a trio of relievers in their early 20s: James McDonald, Ramon Troncoso and Scott Elbert. Eric Stults, a 29-year-old left-hander who has started 14 games over the last three seasons, will also get a look.
General Manager Ned Colletti would prefer the post be claimed by someone with more experience.
But there’s one problem: the pitchers in camp with any kind of track record also have lengthy medical histories.
Among them is Jason Schmidt, who has been limited to six starts and one win in his two seasons with the Dodgers because of shoulder problems. He underwent two surgeries over that span and is convinced that the most recent, which removed scar tissue, will let him earn a spot in the rotation in the final year of his three-year, $47-million contract.
Schmidt said he was “pretty darn close” to feeling normal.
Smiling, he added, “If I can remember what that felt like.”
Schmidt was far more upbeat than he was a year ago.
“Last year, I had to talk myself into it,” said Schmidt, who suffered a setback in the spring and spent the entire season on the disabled list.
Schmidt, who will be on the same throwing program as every other healthy pitcher on the roster, tossed his sixth bullpen session of the year on Saturday. He said he didn’t feel any pressure to justify how much he’s earning.
“I dealt with that for the last two years,” he said.
Asked if he envisioned Schmidt as his fifth starter, Torre said, “I’d like to believe that.”
Schmidt isn’t the only former All-Star on the mend. Eric Milton and Shawn Estes, whose careers were stalled by elbow trouble, are in camp as non-roster players.
Milton didn’t pitch in the majors last season and estimated that he threw 10 to 12 bullpen sessions this winter in front of scouts.
Does he think he has anything left?
“If I didn’t, I don’t think I would be here right now,” he said.
Estes, who is five years removed from a 15-win season, had his comeback effort last year with the San Diego Padres derailed because of a broken thumb he suffered when he slipped on a stairway between the visiting clubhouse and dugouts in San Francisco. Three days away from his 36th birthday, Estes is in camp with a strong sense of urgency.
“I’m not going to triple A,” he said.
If Estes doesn’t make the major league roster and can’t land a similar spot on another club, he said he will retire.
Like Estes, Claudio Vargas and Jeff Weaver were drawn to the Dodgers because of the openings on the pitching staff.
“I saw that I would have a chance here because Penny and Lowe left,” Vargas said.
Vargas, who won 23 games from 2006 to 2007, started only four games in the majors last season. The injuries that are blamed for his decline prompted the Dodgers to put a clause in his contract preventing him from earning incentive pay based on service time if he lands on the disabled list because of right elbow problems.
Weaver, who is open to pitching out of the bullpen, won 27 games for the Dodgers from 2004 to 2005. He admitted that winning a World Series as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006 made him take his talent for granted and made him lazy.
This off-season, Weaver said, “I worked my tail off.”
Weaver said he intends to emulate Chan Ho Park, who went into camp with the Dodgers last year as a non-roster invitee but resurrected his career as a swing man.
The situation doesn’t look particularly promising, does it? But if there’s a positive way to view it, it’s that it could’ve been worse.
By signing Wolf last week, the Dodgers cut in half the number of rotation spots up for grabs.
Asked about how concerned he would’ve been if the Dodgers had failed to sign Wolf or another pitcher of his caliber, Honeycutt laughed and refused to give a straight answer.
“We were able to, so I don’t have to worry about that,” he said, still laughing.