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Dodgers begin youth movement in '07

Dodgers begin youth movement in '07

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LOS ANGELES -- If you think it isn't serious when the Dodgers finish in fourth place, just ask Paul DePodesta and Jim Tracy.

When it happened in 2005, those two lost their jobs. Now it's happened again, the second time in three years. General manager Ned Colletti and manager Grady Little know the history.

"Everybody's got a piece of this, including me," Colletti said in assessing blame for what went wrong. "The expectation, coupled with the result, has a lot of people on edge. Everybody's held accountable."

There is work to be done to avoid another second-to-last finish in 2008. The Dodgers haven't had three of those in a four-year span since 1984-87. Hopefully the Dodgers will have a better winter than the one they had last year, which laid the groundwork for all that went wrong during the season.

They still need a power-hitting third baseman. They need to resolve the situation with their power-hitting second baseman. And they need harmony in the clubhouse.

In spite of the obvious hurdles to clear, they also have more to work with than their September demise reflects.

The long-awaited youth movement shifted into overdrive during the season, and if the result in 2007 was for the worse, it might pay off for the better in 2008. James Loney, exiled to Triple-A for no good reason at the start of the season, proved that management was behind the curve when he finally got his chance and put up even better numbers than were expected from the first-round Draft pick.

"He's a pure, natural hitter," said teammate Russell Martin. "He's that good."

Matt Kemp made an impact, too, although not all of it was good. He looked like he needed a GPS the way he sometimes ran the bases, his fundamentals were lacking and his cocky clubhouse attitude put off pretty much every veteran. That said, he has a wealth of tools and he made better adjustments in his swing this year. He figures to be an everyday player in 2008, either for the Dodgers or elsewhere via a trade that could net plenty in return.

"Matt Kemp's probably made the most progress of any of our young players this year," said Little.

Loney and Kemp joined the nucleus of 2006 arrivals -- Martin, Andre Ethier, Chad Billingsley and Jonathan Broxton -- to create a core of talented, and for the most part, homegrown youngsters with a taste of the Major Leagues.

"I think our young players all have improved this year," said Colletti. "They're all better than they were a year ago. It takes time to develop, to get their bearings. Look at the Colorado club. They struggled for a few years."

In his first full Major League season, Martin was an All-Star and such a key part of a struggling offense that he probably played too much.

"I have the old-school mentality. Just strap it on and play," said Martin. "I feel like I could have caught another hundred games. I just love to play."

Martin was joined on the All-Star team by Brad Penny and Takashi Saito, the ace of the staff and the best closer since Eric Gagne was Gagne.

Penny heads a returning starting rotation of Derek Lowe (who went seven weeks without a win), Billingsley (the ace-in-training), Esteban Loaiza and Jason Schmidt.

Those last two are reminders of where the Dodgers went wrong over the past year. Colletti signed Schmidt to a $47 million contract last winter, despite rumors of an ailing shoulder. Schmidt won one game before undergoing season-ending surgery.

DODGERS SECOND-HALF TOP PERFORMANCES
7/18, LA 5, PHI 4 -- Gonzalez's clutch long ball
Luis Gonzalez hit a solo homer into the right-field bleachers in the sixth inning, putting the Dodgers ahead for good.
Highlights: 400K
8/1, LA 6, SF 4 -- Nomar unties it
With the game tied in the eighth, Nomar Garciaparra belted a two-run homer into the left-field bleachers.
Highlights: 400K
8/11, STL 6, LA 1 -- Kemp robs a long ball
Matt Kemp made an outstanding leaping catch in center field to rob Jim Edmonds of a home run.
Highlights: 400K
9/20, COL 9, LA 4 -- Martin's dugout snag
Catcher Russell Martin made a dazzling grab on a pop fly behind the plate, leaning into the dugout to make the out.
Highlights: 400K
8/5, ARI 3, LA 0 -- Pierre shows his stuff
Speedy Juan Pierre makes a diving catch in left-center field against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Highlights: 400K

Loaiza spent twice as many months on the Oakland disabled list this year (four) as he had made starts (two) when Colletti suddenly claimed him off waivers and an $8 million commitment. After losing three consecutive games for the Dodgers, Loaiza conceded the knee surgery he underwent in June might not have fully healed.

Like any underachieving team, the Dodgers can point to injuries, particularly to three players they had reason to expect would be difference-makers -- Schmidt, Rafael Furcal and Randy Wolf.

They absorbed the early-season loss of Schmidt with the emergence of Billingsley. But Lowe's seven-week slump, triggered by a hip or groin injury suffered in a rare relief appearance, and Wolf's shoulder injury that required surgery were more than the pitching staff could withstand. Colletti tried to rebuild the back end of the rotation in August, replacing Brett Tomko with David Wells and filling Wolf's spot by claiming Loaiza off waivers from Oakland. The results weren't good enough.

As for the offense, that has been pretty weird, too. Lack of power was a given, with no returning starter hitting more than 20 homers last year and singles hitter Juan Pierre essentially replacing J.D. Drew in the lineup after last winter's panic signing.

"I know I could have done a lot better," said Pierre, who salvaged the season with a solid second half.

Even before Nomar Garciaparra's power loss, the Dodgers knew it was incumbent on the lineup to produce from top to bottom. But Furcal's ankle injury never fully healed and he was unable to be the catalyst he was during his first season in Los Angeles, when he was the club's best position player. Meanwhile, Garciaparra couldn't come close to duplicating his 20-homer performance of 2006. As a team, the repeated inability to deliver clutch hits with runners in scoring position became an epidemic.

Jeff Kent's unhappiness with a variety of issues, voiced when the season unraveled, left his status uncertain, even though his durability and performance triggered a guaranteed $9 million 2008 salary.

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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