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Dodgers Opening Day outlook

Dodgers Opening Day outlook

The Dodgers left Florida in better health than they arrived, and better than at any point in the 2005 season. Although some health concerns reared up once they got to Southern California for the Freeway Series, they remain hopeful that injuries won't give them the problems they did a year ago.

Also in Spring Training, they learned that Nomar Garciaparra can play first base, that many of their top prospects are close to Major League ready and that Grady Little has the respect of a veteran clubhouse.

Now they must take that momentum into the regular season. They must see if a comfortable, laid-back atmosphere in Florida can translate into chemistry on the field with a roster that generally has not played together beyond a few exhibition games.

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They also must learn if the healing holds up once the bell rings. Closer Eric Gagne will set the tone, as he did last year when his absence started the deluge of injuries.

The Dodgers believe they have a better roster than a year ago, are better positioned to compete for a division title if all goes well, and have better depth to handle the tougher times.

BATTING ORDER
1. Rafael Furcal, SS:
He started the spring slow after knee surgery, but is working his way into shape. He has the ability to be the most significant Dodgers leadoff hitter since Davey Lopes.

2. Kenny Lofton, CF:
He's 38, he's coming off knee surgery and he'll be starting the season on the Disabled List with a calf strain. Lofton hit .335 last year while being used judiciously in Philadelphia, but the Dodgers are hoping to get significant use out of him as their regular No. 2 hitter once he returns from the DL.

3. J.D. Drew, RF:
He's been handled delicately all spring in hopes of protecting his health. There's no question about Drew's tools, but as the No. 3 hitter, if he plays only 72 games again, the Dodgers are in trouble. He's coming off two operations.

4. Jeff Kent, 2B:
He's a true gamer who carried the club by himself last year, then underwent wrist surgery. He seems to have a better supporting cast this year, and there's a real sense of urgency in a quest for a ring because he's 38.

5. Nomar Garciaparra, 1B:
The Dodgers aren't expecting a batting title or 35 homers. They just want enough offense to protect Kent (which he didn't show in the spring), and he's already looking adequate at first base with enough athleticism to get pretty good.

6. Bill Mueller, 3B:
He's a useful, reliable stop-gap to fill the hole at third base left by Adrian Beltre's departure a year ago. Having a former batting champ hitting sixth is not a bad thing.

7. Jose Cruz Jr., LF:
He was a steal last year, but not much was expected. As with Garciaparra, nobody's predicting a return to 30-homer seasons. But until Joel Guzman is ready or somebody like Kevin Mench is acquired, whatever Cruz can provide will be needed.

8. Dioner Navarro, C:
He's talented, but young. He didn't fall short in last year's trial and he's worked hard to keep his job despite a strong challenge by Russell Martin. Any offense he provides will be a bonus.

ROTATION
1. Derek Lowe, RHP:
His focus is back on the field and his manager said he will occasionally juggle the rotation to get Lowe out there as often as possible. Last year he had a real problem allowing too many home runs.

2. Brad Penny, RHP:
He's yet to really fulfill his potential as a staff ace. But he's well ahead of last year, when he started the season on the disabled list with an injured biceps nerve.

3. Odalis Perez, LHP:
He's the staff enigma, a 15-game winner in 2002 who fell to seven wins in each of the past two seasons. Among the starters, he can be the swing vote between success and disappointment for the club.

4. Brett Tomko, RHP:
A standout spring could be an indicator that he's ready to put the doubters to rest. He was signed to pick up the slack with the loss of Jeff Weaver. He's an innings-eater with very good stuff.

5. Jae Seo, RHP:
If he's a .500 pitcher, he'll be an upgrade from the fifth starters of last year. He went 8-2 for the Mets last year, so he's got something to work with. He looked pretty capable in the World Baseball Classic.

BULLPEN
This is probably the greatest strength on the club, but not without issues. Gagne is returning from elbow surgery and looks the part, lacking the domination and velocity of his record-breaking Cy Young Award season. It is hoped his fastball responds as he gains arm strength, but that's an unknown. As insurance, the club acquired Danys Baez (41 saves last year) to go with Yhency Brazoban (21 saves), giving this bullpen three potential closers. Along with Baez from Tampa Bay came Lance Carter, a solid middle reliever with closer experience who had an impressive Spring Training. One of the surprises in camp was Hong-Chih Kuo, who has battled five years of elbow problems (and two Tommy John elbow surgeries) to look like the second coming of Steve Howe, a left-hander who is fearless against right-handed hitters. Franquelis Osoria made a huge bid for a bullpen spot with a hard sinker and a resilient arm.

OPENING DELAYED
Cesar Izturis is recovering ahead of schedule from Tommy John elbow surgery, and he might be ready by mid-May. Jayson Werth is into his second year with wrist problems, including November surgery. There is no timetable on his return. Lofton will start the season on the DL with a calf strain suffered the last week of the spring season at Las Vegas.

BURNING QUESTION
The Dodgers would seem to be the most improved team in a division that nobody wanted to win a year ago, but concerns about health and age persist. Los Angeles has surrounded Kent in the lineup with a handful of veterans who possess impressive credentials, but nobody knows how much is left in the tank for Lofton, Garciaparra or Mueller. Despite all of the new faces, the Dodgers must be able to stay in better shape than they did a year ago, starting with Gagne, who was not his dominant self in the spring on the rebound from elbow surgery. They have to keep Drew and Perez on the field and producing. And Little must be able to pull together this dramatically remodeled $100 million roster, and get it playing as a unit.

ON THE RECORD
"My children tell me I worry about things other people haven't even thought of yet. I'm never completely satisfied with the club unless we've just won the last game of the postseason." -- Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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