Now that January has arrived, spring training for major league baseball teams is only five weeks away.
And the Dodgers, coming off an injury-plagued losing season, have reason for optimism following the signing of several high-profile players.
There’s a new third baseman, 2003 batting champion Bill Mueller. There’s a new all-star-caliber shortstop in Rafael Furcal, who left the Atlanta Braves to become the Dodgers’ leadoff hitter. There’s a new centerfielder, Kenny Lofton, who replaces the troubled Milton Bradley, who was traded to the Athletics.
Ned Colletti, the new general manager, didn’t stop there. When it appeared negotiations would be difficult with starting pitcher Jeff Weaver Colletti he said goodbye and replaced him with Brent Tomko, who has earned a reputation for being durable and working a lot of innings.
Finally, former all-star Nomar Garciaparra, came aboard. He’s struggled with injuries and it remains to be seen how effective he’ll be. But he’s expected to play first base, a new position for him. Second baseman Jeff Kent, the Dodgers’ best hitter, may shift to first in mid-season if Cesar Izturis recovers from an elbow injury that ruined his 2004 season. Izturis has lost the shortstop job to Furcal but is expected to play second.
For insurance, the Dodgers signed Jose Cruz Jr. to be a regular outfielder if J.D. Drew can’t recover from injuries signed reserve first baseman Hee Sop-Choi to a one-year contract and brought in 38-year-old Sandy Alomar Jr. to back up the new starting catcher, youthful Dioner Navarro. Last year’s catcher, Jason Phillips. was sent away and another top prospect. Russell Martin, could make the squad.
The Dodgers are hopeful that 2003 Cy Young Award winner Eric Gagne will be their closer. He’s been throwing as he comes back from an elbow injury and has agreed to pitch for Canada in baseball’s new international competition during spring training.
Colletti has indicated he isn’t through yet. But he’s done plenty in a short time, including hiring Grady Little as manager.
As the payroll soared beyond $90 million, there was no evidence that owner Frank McCourt would have financial problems, something that’s been an issue in the media the last couple of years.
When Colletti began his search for a manager midway through November he said: “I’m looking for a great leader, somebody who is a winner and knows how to win the last game of the season and knows how to outmaneuver the other manager.”
Little fits the description to a point. But there is a big mistake on his record that he’ll have to live down.
Little guided the Boston Red Sox to two straight division championships, then was fired after leaving Pedro Martinez in with disastrous results in the eighth inning of the final game of the 2003 American League championship series. The Red Sox blew a 5-2 lead over the Yankees.
A mistake like that in an important playoff game goes permanently on a manager’s record and overshadows everything he did right in the six months leading up to that moment.
So Little paid a price, but ultimately his record of success and favorable recommendations earned him another opportunity to manage in the major leagues. And, oh yes, it probably was important that McCourt is a Boston guy who isn’t adverse to bringing Boston people to Los Angeles. Mueller and Garciaparra, for instance, had their best years with the Red Sox.
Coletti insists Little was his choice, but does it really matter? The only question is whether Little turns out to be the right choice to replace Jim Tracy, who became the victim of the Dodgers’ clumsy stretch when Paul DePodesta didn’t share his philosophy, fired him, then was fired as general manager by McCourt.
Little has the backing of players who have enjoyed working with him in the past, including Derek Lowe, a former Red Sox pitcher who is now a member of the Dodgers’ starting rotation.
“The Dodgers did their homework on this guy,’’ said Lowe.
“The thing you like as a player is that he respects players’ opinions. He does that. I think it’s a fantastic choice. The Dodger fans may not know much about him now but they’ll grow to love him.’’
Lowe was with the 2003 Red Sox, who lost the big one with Little, and the 2004 Red Sox, who won World Series with another manager. Yet he remains a fan of Little.
The 56-year-old Little is a homespun type who grew up in North Carolina. He says he has no resentment for Boston fans who booed him following the incident with Martinez.
“All they want to do is win and that’s what we were trying to do,’’ he said.
Little, who never played in the major leagues, is a former cotton farmer who speaks in a North Carolina drawl. His first Red Sox team won 93 games, the second won 95. Last season the Dodgers won 71.
“Having faced the pressure and the media in Boston he’s not going to be fazed by anything here,” said Lowe.
Said Little: “I’m comfortable with the job I did in Boston.”
The San Diego Padres are the defending NL West champion. The Dodgers, on paper, seem like the most improved team in the division. But Little must blend a lot of new players into a team.
There are plenty of question marks. Kent’s potential mid-season move to first base represents the Dodgers asking a key veteran to make a sacrifice.
“When I talked to him about the possibility of playing first base I asked him to be flexible and open to the possibility thatit could happen,” said Colletti.
“The answer I received was the one I expected, that his main interest is the success of the team.’’
Kent won’t have to deal with Bradley anymore. Their rift was one of many problems that contributed to the Dodgers’ 2004 demise.
Colletti said he explored the possibility of keeping Bradley but met opposition everywhere he turned. Colletti gave up and exchanged Bradley for an Athletics prospect who will add to the Dodgers’ impressive farm system.
The Dodgers have gone heavily for veteran newcomers but are counting on several farmhands to be ready in two years. The best one is third baseman Andy LaRoche, who played at Double-A Jacksonville last season. His father, Dave, was a major league pitcher. His brother, Adam, is the Braves’ first baseman.
Before going on his free agent spree Colletti met with Logan White, the man in charge of the Dodgers’ farm system, to learn how far away from the major leagues some talented kids are.
The answer is that help is on the way, but not yet.