WHEN INFIELDERSNomar Garciaparra and Mark Sweeney organized Dodger Idol, a talent show forfirst-year Dodgertown campers, they were prepared to let rookie Hiroki Kurodaoff the hook. The veteran Japanese pitcher had just arrived in the U.S. andbarely spoke a word of English, but when the newbie hazing took place in theclubhouse in late February, there was Kuroda—outfitted in a wig and fakesideburns and chest hair—at the mike in front of his new teammates, manglingLove Me Tender. "Elvis had a better voice," says Sweeney, "but evenSimon Cowell would dig this guy's guts."
The Dodgers digKuroda's five-pitch arsenal, which is why, during their off-season hunt for astarter to complement ace Brad Penny, they opted to sign the righthander to athree-year, $35.3 million deal rather than trade some of their premiumprospects to land Johan Santana or Erik Bedard. If the three-time JapaneseCentral League All-Star is as good as they think he is ("Great stuff, greatmakeup—I put my reputation on the guy," says L.A. assistant general managerand scouting maven Logan White), Chavez Ravine could be home to the league'sdeepest rotation.
Nicknamed Mr.Complete Game in his native country, where he finished roughly 30% of hisstarts over an 11-year career with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, Kuroda was 40--26with a 2.86 ERA over the last three seasons despite a home ballpark that is themost hitter-friendly in the Central League. His impressive array ofpitches—low-90s fastball, cutter, forkball, slider and shuuto (hard sinker thatcuts left)—was the buzz of camp, but there are signs, however small, thatKuroda, who turned down four-year offers from the Diamondbacks, Mariners andRoyals, could turn out to be more like Kei Igawa than Daisuke Matsuzaka. He is33, his strikeout rate has declined in each of the last three years, and forall his complete games, he has logged more than 200 innings in a season onlytwice in his career. "Certainly he's not in his prime years, but hiscompetitive nature is off the charts," says White, who scouted Kuroda inJapan. "He always turned it up a notch when guys got on."
Beyond Kuroda andPenny, the Dodgers expect a breakout season from Chad Billingsley, who workedout of the bullpen for the first three months of last season, then had a 3.12ERA as a starter after the All-Star break. The pear-shaped 23-year-old unveileda changeup this spring to add to his devastating fastball-curve combo. Says anNL general manager, "He's one of the top five pitchers under 25. He couldbe the ace of that staff by the end of the year."
How much runsupport the ensemble gets will depend on new manager Joe Torre's willingness tobench high-priced veterans in favor of L.A.'s prodigiously talented youngsters.How committed will Torre be to leftfielder Juan Pierre with Matt Kemp, 23, andAndre Ethier, 25, scratching for at bats (box, below)? And when third basemanAndy LaRoche (.589 slugging at Triple A Las Vegas) returns from thumb surgeryin May, will Torre tap the 24-year-old if the struggles of Garciaparra, adefensive liability and owner of a .328 OBP in '07, continue?
The Dodgers, whowere 10th in the NL in scoring, hope to see a boost in run production with theaddition of free agent Andruw Jones. The centerfielder raised eyebrows when hearrived in camp at least 10 pounds heavier than his '07 playing weight of 225pounds, but Jones, coming off a down year, says that adding the extra flab wasintentional. "I was too light [last year]," he says. "I never feltright. So [this winter] I just ate what I wanted."
Jones played inthe postseason in each of his first 10 seasons with the Braves but watched fromhome the last two Octobers. "I expect to be back in the playoffs," hesays. "I wouldn't have signed here if I didn't believe this team will gofar."
How far theDodgers go could come down to whether the team's new Elvis impersonator can hithis notes on the mound.
a modest proposal...
Juan Pierre isn'tqualified to be an everyday leftfielder, and any playing time that he takesfrom Matt Kemp (left) or Andre Ethier is a crime. Pushed out of centerfield bythe signing of free agent Andruw Jones, Pierre, 30, is only a fair defensiveplayer (he has one of the game's worst throwing arms), carries a mediocreon-base percentage (he has ranked among the majors' top four in outs made ineach of the last five seasons) and can't go deep (his last home run was in2006, more than 700 at bats ago). The 23-year-old Kemp is a potential star,with power more typical of a corner outfielder (.521 slugging percentage lastseason), and Ethier, 25, does everything better than Pierre does except stealbases. For the Dodgers to overtake the Rockies and the Diamondbacks in the NLWest, the up-and-comers have to play.
PROJECTED ROSTER WITH 2007 STATISTICS
FIRST SEASON WITH LOS ANGELES
New acquisition(R) Rookie B-T: Bats-throws
*Japanese league stats
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 62)
Team sluggingpercentage for L.A. in 2007, the lowest among the 16 clubs with a winningrecord. Lack of power has been a recurrent problem for L.A., which hasn't had a30-home-run hitter since '04. That's one reason the Dodgers signed AndruwJones, who hit 26 or more homers in each of the last 10 seasons. A word ofcaution, though: His .413 slugging percentage in '07 was his worst—by 48points—over that span.
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EXCERPTED FROM SI
MARCH 4, 1963
SANDY KOUFAX is a type of the new Americancosmopolite. He knows his way around most of the major cities in the country.He is on easy and familiar terms with the publicized names of sport and showbusiness, has financial interests in a motel and an FM stereo station inCalifornia, is a liberal tipper, golfs in the 80s.... In other words he is thevery model of a modern major leaguer, except for that damn finger.
Free access to all Dodgers stories and photographsfrom the SI archive, plus video clips.
COMPLETE PACKAGE Kuroda has five pitches and finished what he started almost one third of the time in Japan, but his age is a concern.
ROBERT BECK (KEMP)
MARK KAUFFMAN (COVER)