Dodgers home from memorable trip
Focus returns to 2008 season after groundbreaking series
PHOENIX -- The Dodgers returned to the United States from their goodwill trip to China on Sunday with only one minor international incident diffused and no serious injuries sustained, declaring success in an exciting and historic assignment and ready to move onto their Cactus League phase of Spring Training.
After fighting off jet lag and a hectic schedule, the Dodgers seemed to genuinely enjoy their time in Beijing, the opportunity to bring Major League Baseball to China and a rare exposure to a foreign culture.
They got a glimpse of how foreign when security troops overreacted because pitcher Chan Ho Park attempted to signed autographs for his Korean fans before the team bus left Wukesong Stadium after he pitched five strong innings in Saturday's game. Tempers cooled and Park happily signed for fans after Sunday's game.
On the field in the second and final game with the Padres, right fielder Matt Kemp and second baseman Kevin Howard collided while chasing a wind-blown popup by Adrian Gonzalez. Both players escaped injury, although the collision was reminiscent of one a year ago between outfielder Jason Repko and shortstop Rafael Furcal that left Furcal with an ankle sprain that lingered the entire season.
Although new manager Joe Torre didn't have last year's costly collision for a frame of reference, he knew the club had dodged a bullet nonetheless.
"I'm just glad it was nothing serious," said Torre. "Matt broke back and Kevin rushed up and they just grazed each other. Not too many good things can happen on a play like that. We lucked out."
Said Kemp, who drove in three runs on Sunday: "It could have been pretty bad. We had miscommunication. The wind was blowing real hard, it was tricky and I should have called him off. I was running hard, he was running hard. It happens, but you don't want to have a collision in Spring Training, but they happen."
Meanwhile, the trip to China did not end well for nine Dodgers who were called into Torre's office to be cut.
Pitcher Eric Hull, catcher Lucas May and outfielder Xavier Paul were optioned. Pitchers Tanyon Sturtze and Matt Riley, infielders Terry Tiffee and John Lindsey and outfielders George Lombard and John-Ford Griffin were reassigned. In addition, pitcher Cory Wade was optioned in Florida. The 10 moves leave the Dodgers with 45 players in camp two weeks before Opening Day.
Of the players sent down, the two that seemed to make the biggest impression on management were Lombard and May. Lombard is a 32-year-old who did everything right this spring, but the Dodgers' outfield is already crowded. May is a young converted catcher who needs playing time, but provides rare depth at a position headed by All-Star Russell Martin.
Sturtze also figures to be a factor once he rebuilds arm strength after surgery, as he's pitched for Torre in New York. He has an out in his contract, but said he would remain with the organization and return to extended Spring Training in Vero Beach.
The Dodgers have two weeks to trim 20 players, one of them being Andy LaRoche, who is headed to the disabled list for six weeks after thumb surgery. LaRoche's injury, coupled with lingering injuries to Jeff Kent, Nomar Garciaparra and Tony Abreu, have made the infield the greatest area of concern.
But general manager Ned Colletti indicated while in China that he's not interested in picking up a third baseman with an existing long-term contract, clearly an indication he won't deal for Detroit's Brandon Inge, and probably not Joe Crede of the White Sox, either.
"Right now, our thoughts are that with Nomar, Kent and Abreu, if two of the three are ready, we can start the season," said Colletti. "Even if all three are out, I'm not about to make a major investment and trade for somebody with a long-term deal, knowing that LaRoche will be back in six weeks. We've still got versatility with [Chin-lung] Hu and Ramon [Martinez]."
Management believes Abreu is a key. He has barely played this spring while nursing the remnants of October surgery for a sports hernia. With the age of Kent (40) and the injury history of Garciaparra and LaRoche, the backup infielder is likely to be a quasi full-time player getting 300 at-bats or more. Abreu has all of the tools to handle that role, but the Dodgers have been unable to keep him on the field.
Other key decisions involve positions where the Dodgers would seem to have too many, rather than not enough, candidates. The fifth starter competition has become a duel primarily between Esteban Loaiza, who has a guaranteed $6.5 million contract, and Park, who hasn't allowed an earned run during a marvelous comeback spring while working on a Minor League contract for $500,000.
Torre's toughest call seems to be in the outfield, where Andre Ethier is having a huge spring, while Juan Pierre is struggling offensively. Torre has remained non-committal about who will get the majority of playing time, or whether he will be able to juggle a rotation. Based on playing time earlier in the spring, Torre was starting Pierre in left as the leadoff hitter and Ethier was essentially the fourth outfielder.
"In a rotation, you like to think you can have it to where it works out, but will it be satisfactory and will it work out?" Torre asked. "I don't know that. You can put down on paper that each guy will get this many at-bats, but sometimes a player is a good player with this much playing time and if you cut into that, there's a danger it can cut into his success ratio."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.