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Around the Horn: Rotation

Penny, Dodgers starters look to shine

The following is the fifth in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Starting pitchers.

Remember that Paul Lo Duca trade?

Paul DePodesta, the general manager who made it, was generally skewered from all quarters for dealing away the popular catcher. The fact that the key pitcher he received in return made one healthy start before going on the disabled list further inflamed the fantasy general managers.

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This flashback serves as a reminder that snap judgments on roster moves are made at one's peril. After all, anyone want to trade Brad Penny for Lo Duca today?

Granted, there were other players (Hee-Seop Choi, Guillermo Mota, Juan Encarnacion, etc.) in the deal. But the real point is, what would the Dodgers' starting rotation look like today without Penny, who has strung back-to-back 16-win All-Star seasons and is the dean of current Dodgers? He led the staff in all pertinent categories in 2007, fighting through a lower abdominal injury that sounded a lot like a sports hernia, although he did not require offseason surgery.

Penny has emerged the ace of a group seemingly undergoing constant makeover, which this winter took the form of an international import as Hiroki Kuroda was added at a cost of $35.3 million for three years after the Dodgers kicked the tires on deals for Johan Santana and Erik Bedard.

Rather than abandon the youth movement to land one of them, general manager Ned Colletti rolled the dice on Kuroda. If Colletti trusts that Kuroda's success will ship across the Pacific, no doubt that Takashi Saito's emergence as the new Eric Gagne has a lot to do with it.

All Colletti is asking from Kuroda is fourth-starter stuff. Penny tops the staff and Derek Lowe is No. 2, followed by ace-in-training Chad Billingsley. The fifth starter will be an unusual derby headed by a pair of former studs -- Jason Schmidt and Esteban Loaiza -- with much to prove, along with the usual collection of long-shot candidates.

Los Angeles Dodgers
Catchers: Martin becoming a fixture
Corner IF: Third base up for grabs
Middle IF: Veteran Kent back for more
Outfielders: Talented foursome
Starters: Consistency might be key
Bullpen: Saito anchors deep group
DH/Bench: Feb. 13

We'll get to the fifth spot soon enough. Lowe, however, could be the key to the whole season for the Dodgers. He's coming off a disappointing 12-14 season in which he went seven weeks without a win while bothered by either a hip or groin injury; it never was clearly defined.

Lowe is entering the final year of a four-year deal at age 34, so there is no lacking for motivation, not that he's ever shied away from taking the ball. His injury last year, suffered rushing to get ready for a rare relief appearance, caused him to miss a start for the first time in six years.

The Dodgers had nine pitcher placements on the disabled list in 2007. Schmidt's dominated the headlines, as did his signing for three years and $47 million. He won one game and never looked healthy from the minute pitchers and catchers reported, although he insisted otherwise pretty much right to the moment he was anesthetized for major shoulder surgery.

Reports have filtered through club officials that Schmidt is recovering without setback, but it's Code Orange on the skepticism scale after last year's fiasco and Schmidt, 35, won't return phone calls to talk about it.

It should be noted that the Dodgers survived Schmidt's loss by sliding Billingsley (12-5) into his rotation spot. The injury they couldn't overcome was Randy Wolf's bad shoulder. They got nine wins out of him in the first half, but he vanished after the All-Star break. Brett Tomko couldn't deliver and when it became panic time, Colletti claimed Loaiza off waivers from Oakland on the strength of only two starts after two operations.

Wolf, Tomko and Mark Hendrickson are gone, as is 45-year-old David Wells, who at least turned the fifth spot into pennant-race victories.

Loaiza pitched for the Dodgers like someone who just had two operations, going 1-4 with an 8.34 ERA. But he's still guaranteed $6.5 million this year, so if Schmidt isn't ready to answer the bell -- a good bet, if you read between the lines of statements from club officials -- the fifth spot is likely Loaiza's job to lose.

"When you lose the guy that could be your No. 1 pitcher, obviously, that was something we had to overcome," said pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. "Chad Billingsley stepped up. Brad Penny had a heck of a year. Derek Lowe had a great first half before he had some physical issues. And I thought when we lost Randy Wolf, that really changed things."

So far, there isn't a left-hander in the group. Hong-Chih Kuo could fill that role, but how long have the Dodgers been waiting for that? He's coming off his fourth elbow operation and he's out of options. Lefty Eric Stults is back for what figures to be another frustrating Spring Training, while the buzz will focus on two young lefties -- super prospect Clayton Kershaw and Greg Miller, making another comeback attempt.

Then there's the familiar face of Chan Ho Park, who will try to revive his career at age 34 and become the latest in a long line of successful Dodgers reclamation projects.

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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