Torre takes reins at Dodgers camp

Torre takes reins at Dodgers camp

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Dodgers pitchers and catchers checked into Dodgertown on Thursday, presumably for the 61st and final time.

But the initial focus this spring will be on their new manager, the third in four seasons, this one with a resume like no Dodgers manager ever.

"I'm feeling more a part of it," said Torre, who will oversee the first workout on Friday. "Seeing the players means a lot to me. I'm dealing with probably more young players than I have in the past. They all want to play the game, and they seem pretty respectful, and that's a pretty good head start."

In the wake of Grady Little's odd departure following a sour fourth-place finish, Torre takes over after his equally curious uncoupling from the Yankees. Job 1 will be to acclimate to a new roster while repairing any remnants from last year's clubhouse rift.

General manager Ned Colletti is confident that much of what went wrong last year will be improved through maturity.

"I think and hope our young players learned a lot last year about cohesiveness, or the lack of cohesiveness, and what it means," he said. "I think they had their eyes opened as to how tough this game can be mentally and how important maturity and teamwork are.

"I think our young players were better at the end than they were at the beginning. The [James] Loneys and [Matt] Kemps and [Russell] Martins and [Jonathan] Broxtons and [Chad] Billingsleys. We're in a better spot with our young players than a year ago. [Hiroki] Kuroda and [Andruw] Jones will help pitching and offense. With that said, we'll have our hands full in this division."

Torre will say that his managerial success (four World Series titles) has been intertwined with the quality of his pitching staffs, and he will quickly see that he has some talent with which to work.

For example, the only opening in the starting rotation is for the last spot and the two primary candidates are former All-Stars Jason Schmidt and Esteban Loaiza, although both must re-establish their credentials after serious operations last year. Torre on Thursday indicated that Schmidt is not likely to be ready by Opening Day.

The top four starters are back-to-back All-Star Brad Penny, Derek Lowe (entering the final year of his contract), Billingsley (opening a season in the rotation for the first time) and Japanese import Kuroda (signed Dec. 16 to a three-year, $35.3 million contract).

The core of the bullpen returns virtually intact from last year -- closer Takashi Saito, setup man Broxton, lefty Joe Beimel and workhorse middlemen Scott Proctor and Rudy Seanez. The Dodgers are bringing 35 pitchers into camp -- 10 of the 13 non-roster invitees have Major League experience, among them familiar names like Chan Ho Park, Jason Johnson, Mike Myers and Tom Martin -- but if everybody's healthy, there will be very few big league jobs available.

Torre had an All-Star catcher with the Yankees in Jorge Posada and he shouldn't notice any drop off with the Dodgers catcher he's inherited. Martin, with fewer than two full Major League seasons, already is an All-Star, Gold Glover, Silver Slugger and quite likely en route to becoming the most popular Dodger since fellow Canadian Eric Gagne and most popular position player since another catcher, Mike Piazza.

Most Spring Trainings, it's the players under the gun, but Torre has some heavy lifting to do. Having been in the American League for more than a decade, he's largely unfamiliar with the young players that have already arrived or are on the cusp. He's still healing from December knee replacement surgery and his evaluation time will be compressed by a trip to China wedged right in the middle of the exhibition schedule.

"It won't be boring," Torre said of his first Dodgers' camp. The Dodgers will split their squad March 11, when Torre takes one group to China for a two-game goodwill series against the Padres and leaves the other to play games in Florida. The two squads reunite in Arizona on March 18 at the training facility of the A's, who will have left for their season-opening series in Japan.

It will be a Cactus League trial run for the Dodgers, who are planning to relocate their spring headquarters in 2009 to a new facility in Glendale, Ariz., that they will share with the White Sox. Spring Training concludes with a three-game series against Boston in Los Angeles, including one game in front of an estimated crowd of 90,000 at Memorial Coliseum to raise funds for the Dodgers' ThinkCure charity.

Torre has downplayed the handicap of his first Dodgers training camp held in three states and two continents, not that he has any choice but to make the best of it.

In addition to the physical condition of Schmidt and Loaiza, the Dodgers will be trying to get a read on the health of Hong-Chih Kuo (fourth elbow operation), Jason Repko (hamstring surgery and ankle stress fracture), Tony Abreu (sports hernia surgery) and Yhency Brazoban (shoulder surgery). There is less concern about Rafael Furcal (ankle, back, shoulder), who has been playing winter ball without limitations.

On the Minor League side, left-hander Scott Elbert is returning from shoulder surgery and the club is expected to go very conservatively with him to avoid any setbacks.

Torre also has two significant lineup decisions to make as camp unfolds: who plays third base (between veteran Nomar Garciaparra and Andy LaRoche) and which outfielder (Juan Pierre, Matt Kemp or Andre Ethier) won't be flanking new center fielder Jones.

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