Timing key for Dodgers this offseason

Timing key for Dodgers

LOS ANGELES -- To Dodgers fans fretting because the general manager hasn't yet landed a needed big bat and sturdy arm, take a breath.

A year ago at this time, they didn't even have a general manager.

Ned Colletti wasn't hired until Nov. 16, although spotting the offseason competition six weeks didn't stop him from making a flurry of deals that helped turn a 91-game loser into an 87-game winner. This winter, Colletti is on equal footing with other clubs and has less to do than last year.

"We're weeks ahead of last year," said Colletti. "The kids are further along than a year ago and we've got a better feel for what they can do. We've made a few hires in the front office (player development director De Jon Watson and medical director Stan Conte) and we've got a priority list for the players we think can help us, and we'll see how it goes."

The list is believed to include pitchers Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt and hitters Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez. The Dodgers also have made contact with Mark Mulder (coming off shoulder surgery) and Gary Matthews Jr., among others. Colletti has said he wants to add a front-line starting pitcher, a middle-of-the-order bat and bullpen depth.

The list is not believed to include Japanese free agent Daisuke Matsuzaka, whose acquisition is expected to cost $50 million or more. The Dodgers might have more interest in less expensive Japanese left-hander Kei Igawa, although his availability is not yet confirmed.

It's a toss-up whether the Dodgers' greatest need is the starting pitcher or hitter. Los Angeles got only one complete game (Derek Lowe) out of the starting rotation in 2006, and the club was 13th in the league in home runs, with nobody hitting more than 20.

Colletti had already tinkered with the pieces in the rotation, having added Brett Tomko and Mark Hendrickson, only to watch both of them wind up in the bullpen, replaced by rookies Chad Billingsley and Hong-Chih Kuo. Despite the $36 million signing of Lowe and the All-Star Game start of Brad Penny, the Dodgers haven't had a clear-cut ace since Kevin Brown. Zito or Schmidt would qualify as successors.

Offensively, the Dodgers squeezed a lot of runs out of a powerless lineup. Jeff Kent remains a focal point because Colletti granted him a curiously timed contract extension this spring worth $11.5 million, even though Kent was coming off wrist surgery, and his presence limits Colletti's flexibility, as does the $33 million owed to J.D. Drew over the next three years.

"There aren't many big names out there," Colletti said. "That's one of the reasons we extended Kent."

Kent went on to have his worst offensive season in more than a decade, and he will spend 2007 proving whether it's an interim outage resulting from the surgery (and a handful of other nagging injuries) or the inevitable loss of skills for a 39-year old.

What Colletti has made clear is that the offseason is like a game of dominoes, where each decision dictates the next.

"Every time you acquire a player, it changes how the club looks," he said.

For example, if a Soriano is acquired to play second base, Kent could move to first and leave no room for Nomar Garciaparra or James Loney. Because of that, it would seem that a decision on Garciaparra would be delayed until after big bats like Soriano and Ramirez are either acquired or ruled out.

If a Ramirez is added, both Wilson Betemit and Andy LaRoche become expendable or candidates to change positions. Or the Dodgers could acquire a center fielder like Matthews Jr., which would leave the infield intact. If they don't, Colletti has indicated Kenny Lofton could return.

The importance of timing also figures to impact further decisions on injured closer Eric Gagne. Colletti indicated the club is interested in keeping Gagne at a modest salary guarantee (having already bought out his $12 million option for $1 million). But Gagne will not be capable of proving his soundness before Colletti must commit money to the priority acquisitions. Colletti also said he can't count on the availability of Yhency Brazoban, who is recovering from elbow surgery.

Although surprise closer Takashi Saito made noise at the end of the season about returning to Japan because of family reasons, a recent exchange of contract proposals seems to indicate the true issue is money.

Colletti said changes in the new collective bargaining agreement that removed deadlines for a club to re-sign its free agents could put a damper on trades.

"I'll be curious to watch," he said. "Obviously, it will change the landscape of the winter. With the deadlines, it was more segmented."

Internally, Colletti said a return to the starting rotation by Tomko and Hendrickson is possible, but Jonathan Broxton will remain in the bullpen as the closer-in-training. Colletti is hopeful Jayson Werth's wrist will put him back in the mix, but does not expect Bill Mueller to play because of a damaged knee.

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