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Dodgers hope to take another step in '07

Dodgers hope to take another step in 2007

LOS ANGELES -- Between the lingering disappointment from being swept by the Mets in the 2006 playoffs and the anticipation of better things ahead, Grady Little shouldn't need added reason to be eager to start Spring Training.

Unfortunately, he has some.

The Dodgers manager's wife, Debi, lost her mother and grandmother in a matter of weeks recently, and it turned into the most somber of winters for the Littles.

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"It was a rough time, and even when you see it coming, it's not easy to take," said Little. "It makes you want to get back to the sanctuary of the baseball field as fast as you can."

Little will open his second Dodgertown camp in an otherwise more comfortable condition. Compared to a year ago -- when he was taking over a 91-loss team that had been radically revamped and he knew little about it -- now he knows what he has and likes it a lot.

"There's a lot to look forward to," said Little, whose club improved by 17 games and tied for the National League West Division title with San Diego. "We now have a knowledge of all the players, including the players in the Minor Leagues, and we didn't a year ago. And we will be reaching into the Minor Leagues, as we did last year."

General manager Ned Colletti was unable to provide Little an impact bat during the offseason, and he lost J.D. Drew's 100 RBIs. But with the addition of veteran outfielders Luis Gonzalez and Juan Pierre, Little has more proven bats in the order. Jason Schmidt and Randy Wolf were added to a rotation that lost Greg Maddux, creating a domino effect that created bullpen depth.

With Schmidt and Wolf joining Derek Lowe and Brad Penny, the Dodgers might have the most formidable four in the league. The fifth spot is a scramble among Chad Billingsley, Hong-Chih Kuo, Mark Hendrickson and Brett Tomko, with the losers strengthening the bullpen or eligible to be packaged in a future trade for a hitter, should one become available.

Without a trade, the hope -- for a team that lacked power last season but scored runs anyway -- is that the whole will exceed the sum of the parts and provide enough improvement to make the Dodgers a better team in October.

"We played good during most of the season and didn't play good those three games against the Mets [in the National League Division Series]," said Little. "If you had to pinpoint anything, the baserunning in the first game set the tone for the whole series and we didn't execute the fundamentals and play the right way. In October, you don't have time to make up for those mistakes."

The baserunning he was referring to, of course, was the slapstick mishap in which Drew and Jeff Kent were thrown out at the plate on the same play in the Game 1 loss. Little indicated his staff will stress fundamentals in this year's camp.

That would seem particularly fitting considering the Dodgers could be counting on a handful of young players this year -- Russell Martin, Andre Ethier, Jonathan Broxton, Billingsley, Wilson Betemit, James Loney and Andy LaRoche -- that did not start the 2006 season in the Major Leagues.

"We will stress execution of simple, fundamental baseball," Little said. "We showed we can execute the big things last year. But on a day-to-day basis, we must do the simple fundamentals from the first day to the last day."

After toying with the idea of moving Rafael Furcal out of the leadoff spot to third in the order, Little said he's now comfortable having Gonzalez bat fifth to protect Kent and will have Furcal and Pierre bat first and second, but he's not sure in which order.

Nomar Garciaparra returns to bat third with Kent cleanup and, according to Little, healthy after a season in which he was dinged up throughout.

"In December, he told me he was ready right then," Little said of his second baseman, who undertook an unprecedented offseason conditioning program. "He's a tough son of a gun and a lot of times players play when they're less than 100 percent. Jeff was not totally healthy the whole season."

Ethier, whose second-half collapse was attributable to a sore shoulder that he rehabbed all winter, will move back to his original position in right field as Gonzalez takes over in left. Third base is Betemit's to lose, with LaRoche coming off shoulder surgery and with a chance to force his way into a platoon.

Little said he is confident James Loney will see significant playing time, not only spelling Garciaparra at first base, but Loney will get a crash course in the outfield in Spring Training. He added that Matt Kemp remains in the picture for a roster spot despite an uneven Winter League season in the Dominican Republic, and LaRoche also might be tried in the outfield.

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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