- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Rafael Furcal says he feels fine at the plate, says he is seeing the ball well and isn't swinging at bad pitches. He says he feels better physically than he did last year, even though he was relatively healthy last year, because he is now two years removed from back surgery instead of one.
So why, then, is the Dodgers' shortstop, leadoff man, offensive catalyst and arguably the most important player in the Dodgers' lineup hitting .204 for the spring?
"I just don't know if I have my timing," Furcal said. "Last year, I was swinging at balls all over the place. Now, it's just timing."
Whatever it is, the Dodgers need him to figure it out quickly. Last year, because he still hadn't fully recovered from the back surgery he had in 2008 or because he was habitually swinging from his heels, his on-base percentage dropped more than 100 points, from .439 in 2008 to .335 -- less than optimal for a leadoff man and less than acceptable for a leadoff man with Furcal's track record.
His batting average also fell dramatically, from .357 to .269, and he walked just once every 11.1 plate appearances, down from once every 8.2 the year before.
The good news is that Furcal was healthy last season, avoiding the disabled list entirely and playing in 150 games. And Dodgers manager Joe Torre said Monday that Furcal, who still has appeared at times this spring to be overswinging, has looked much better at the plate over the past few days. And even without a productive Furcal, a productive Manny Ramirez and a productive Russell Martin, the Dodgers managed to win 95 games last year.
If Furcal can right himself in 2010 and become the table setter he once was, the Dodgers should have one of the most dangerous lineups in baseball. There will be power almost throughout, especially if first baseman James Loney has finally honed the home run stroke Torre has long insisted Loney has in him.
Furcal will be followed by Matt Kemp, a true budding superstar who has the celebrity girlfriend to prove it. Then comes Andre Ethier, who led the team with 31 homers last year and might have been the Dodgers' most valuable player. Then comes Ramirez, who is a bit of a crapshoot but almost has to be better than he was after he came back from his 50-game suspension last year. And then, probably, will come Loney; even if he doesn't hit home runs, he is a potent gap hitter who also draws a lot of walks and has a knack for executing quality at-bats.
Loney will be followed by, in some order, third baseman Casey Blake, Martin and second baseman Blake DeWitt. DeWitt could be slotted between Blake and Martin to give the batting order an alternating left-right look from the third through eighth spots.
Blake, DeWitt and Martin all have at least some power.
Granted, there are a lot of "ifs" here. If Furcal can find the stroke he was missing last year. If Ramirez can find his motivation. If Martin can find himself after two disappointing seasons in a row.
It has become fashionable this spring to pick against the Dodgers, what with the Colorado Rockies having staked their claim to legitimacy last season and the widespread perception that owner Frank McCourt's divorce will ultimately undermine the team financially. But if the Dodgers' lineup performs to its potential, or close to its potential, this will still be the most potent lineup in the National League West.
It would be an exaggeration to say the switch-hitting Furcal has to have a productive season for any of this to work. But it certainly would help.
"Last year was a little bit of a tough season for me," he said. "I struggled the whole year. This year, I didn't play winter ball in the Dominican. I just tried to relax, and then I started working out in December and January and February. ... I took about 200 swings a day from both sides. I had one left-handed guy and one right-handed guy throwing me batting practice, and I was out there every morning at 7:30 until 2 or 2:30 in the afternoon so I could come in here and be better. It was my fault, nobody else's fault, that I struggled."
One thing Furcal hasn't lost is the ability to laugh at himself.
"Maybe I'm just getting old," he said. "Maybe I forgot how to hit."
Maybe this year, he will remember again. If so, the Dodgers' lineup will be just fine.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
The Dodgers' lineup could be one of the most dangerous in baseball.