Thomas Boswell came up with the best title ever for a baseball book with his 1984 tome Why Time Begins on Opening Day. Truly, hope does spring eternal in parks and stadiums all across the land at this time of the year. Or, considering that we're in baseball's Steroids Era, should that be "hope injects itself eternal"?

(Okay, no more cynicism in today's column. This one is for the little kid in all of us, celebrating the sluggers, praising the pitchers and betting big on the rookies. Yes, we're serious.)

So, add to Boswell's epidemic of wide-eyed April optimism the fact that Los Angeles is the land of make-believe, and you might begin to understand why the Dodger faithful have become adept at pretending the home team is often better than it really is.

But this year - the regular season begins Monday, March 31 - maybe such overestimation really isn't necessary. After all, the team has already gone places that most teams never go (China, the Coliseum), and owner Frank McCourt and General Manager Ned Coletti have re-stocked the pond with some pretty big fish.

First up in Cliche Stadium's 2008 Baseball Preview (fresh off our astonishingly accurate prediction of a USC loss in the first round of the NCAA Tourney), let's meet the guys.

The New Blue Review: The new manager is future Hall of Famer Joe Torre, who landed squarely on his feet after getting a raw deal in the Bronx from the Steinbrenner boys, Tweedle Hank and Tweedle Hal. The dolorous-eyed Torre evinces a kind of old-school calm and professionalism that only a former NL MVP and four-time World Series champ can, and it will be sure to rub off on a talented bunch that had some interpersonal problems last season.

Reports out of spring training are that newly acquired centerfielder Andruw Jones is a bit on the chunky side. Although the 10-time Gold Glover is coming off his worst season in the big leagues, he is only two years removed from a 51-homer season, and even if he's lost a step, he will be flanked by athletic and more-than-able corner outfielders.

Hoping to smooth out last-season's revolving door of a pitching rotation is another Japanese import, Hiroki Kuroda. In the past, the Dodgers have struck gold with Hideo Nomo and current closer Takashi Saito. Kuroda's veteran poise and bag of tricks (he throws a splitter, a cutter and a sinker) should make him a steadier presence than last season's maddeningly erratic tandem of Mark Hendrickson and Brett Tomko.

Now, on to the returning players and the rooks.

Mound Men: Big Brad Penny is one of the best there is, always a good bet to be starting for the National League in the All-Star game. He is followed in the rotation by Derek Lowe, another quality veteran who has risen to the occasion in the post-season. Then there's Chad Billingsley, who quietly had an outstanding season in '07 and has the stuff to win 14 to 17 games this year. The starting rotation could and should be one of the league's best, especially if 20-year-old sensation Clayton Kershaw is done with his minor league pit stop by mid-summer, as many are projecting.

The bullpen, anchored by the 38-year-old Saito (currently battling some leg and buttocks injuries), is deep and talented. Jonathan Broxton is a dominating set-up man, while middle-inning guys Joe Beimel and Scott Procter are more than happy to take the ball on a daily basis.

Outfield: The acquisition of Jones caused a bit of a logjam in the outfield, since Coletti had laid out major bucks and a five-year contract to the much-maligned Juan Pierre the year before. Unless a trade somehow happens, the slap-hitting Pierre will be competing with two young stars, the smooth Andre Ethier and the explosive Matt Kemp, for at-bats. Regardless, the outfield should be above average both offensively and defensively.

Infield: First baseman James Loney began last season with the team's Triple A affiliate in Las Vegas. This year, with veterans Jeff Kent and Nomar Garciaparra already injured, the lefty Loney and shortstop Rafael Furcal are the anchors. With a comfortable rocking-chair batting stance that is deceptively lethal, Loney is all kinds of fun to watch at home plate, a hitter's hitter who's just as comfortable punching an outside breaking ball over the shortstop's head as he is driving inside heat into the power alley.

If Kent winds up on the DL for a spell, Tony Abreu should fill in nicely at second, but right now the Dodgers are struggling at third base with both Garciaparra and Andy LaRoche out. Look for a minor trade to plug that gap.

Catcher: Plain and simple, Russell Martin is a joy to behold behind the plate, with a bat in his hands, while swiping more bases than any catcher in Dodger history, or even hobnobbing in the All-Star Game dugout last season. Clearly, the guy loves to play and enjoys winning even more. He'll be Torre's Jeter.

Fearless Cliche Forecast: As long as they aren't crippled by injuries, this Dodger team should pile up somewhere between 87 and 92 victories. However, many experts project two other NL West rivals, the Colorado Rockies and the Arizona Diamondbacks, will win even more games. Still, Cliche Stadium says the Dodgers will squeak into the playoffs as the Wild Card, and win their first playoff series since 1988, upsetting the New York Mets. Unfortunately, the magic will end there, with a loss to the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS.

But Holy Cow, the ghost of Harry Caray will not drench the pearly gates with Bud - the massively talented Detroit Tigers will win the World Series after squeaking by the Cleveland Indians and once again, the Real Anaheim-esque Angels of Orange County.

Now play ball, y'all!

page 6, 3/31/2008

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