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New faces could push Dodgers to top

The Dodgers are hungry. Missing from the World Series the past 18 years and winning just one playoff game in that time, the Dodgers are more than due. They're two years from matching the longest drought in their history -- they failed to reach the World Series annually from 1921 to 1940.

Will it happen in 2007?

It's easy to suggest the Mets will be favored to win the National League pennant or that the Cardinals will repeat, but don't forget that just one NL team, the Mets, had a better regular-season record than the Dodgers, who just happened to strengthen their rotation this offseason.

Randy Wolf Wolf

Jason Schmidt Schmidt

Former Giants ace Jason Schmidt and lefty Randy Wolf (4-0 in 12 starts with the Phillies after coming off elbow surgery) signed with the Dodgers, joining Derek Lowe and Brad Penny in a deep foursome that has won 368 games and appeared in 31 postseason games.

The Dodgers also added Juan Pierre to complement Rafael Furcal at the top of the order, and Luis Gonzalez's presence could help offset the loss of J.D. Drew, who collected 20 homers and 100 RBI last season. Veteran catcher Mike Lieberthal also was signed to back up Russell Martin.

But the Dodgers failed to acquire a proven run producer to stick in the middle of the lineup alongside Jeff Kent and Nomar Garciaparra. They pursued Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Lee and Gary Matthews Jr., and kicked the tires on Vernon Wells, but the 39-year-old Gonzalez is the only addition who's an RBI threat.

Then again, they reached the playoffs last year without a marquee big bopper, so why shouldn't they do it again? In retrospect, ranking 15th in the league in homers didn't kill the Dodgers because they finished fourth in runs and first in both batting average and on-base percentage.

Furthermore, their young hitters have another year's experience. Outfielder Andre Ethier (11 homers as a rookie) and third baseman Wilson Betemit (nine homers in the final two months after his trade from Atlanta) figure to hit behind five guys with gobs of experience -- Pierre, Furcal, Garciaparra, Kent and Gonzalez -- and top prospect Andy LaRoche might be another weapon if he platoons with Betemit.

The key could be Gonzalez, whose presence in left field would allow Ethier to play right, where he's more comfortable, and whose presence at the plate could provide some needed middle-of-the-order power. Gonzalez hit 52 doubles with the Diamondbacks last year.

Furthermore, Pierre's arrival as part of a 1-2 stolen-base threat with Furcal will prompt manager Grady Little to orchestrate an enhanced running game, which could allow Garciaparra, Kent and Gonzalez to see more fastballs.

But it'll be the pitching, notably the starters, that'll determine how hot the Dodgers will be in 2007, and on paper, no other rotation in the NL West matches up. It'll be vital for the starters to go deep into games, considering the unsettled bullpen that will be without Eric Gagne.

Ned Colletti, who has been among the game's most active general managers since he was hired away from the Giants on Nov. 16, 2005, won't be afraid to pull the trigger approaching the July 31 trade deadline if the Dodgers need to bolster their roster for the push to the playoffs.

Atlanta's Andruw Jones could be available. Or Minnesota's Torii Hunter. Both are eligible for free agency next winter, and the Dodgers, without a World Series appearance since 1988, have waited too long not to go for it all.

Next in line
1. Phillies: Philadelphia, which has won 85-88 games four years in a row, is desperate to get over the hump, and that's why it acquired starting pitchers Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton. The Phillies already own the best young infield in the game, and now they're looking for 90-plus wins and to reach the playoffs.

2. Cubs: They had a busy offseason and bought Soriano for $136 million and retained Ramirez for $75 million. The rotation deepened with the signings of Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis, but the real hero will be new manager Lou Piniella if he turns these guys into lovable winners.

3. Rangers: New manager Ron Washington adds life to the Rangers, who could make noise in the AL West if the rotation finally gets it together after posting a 5.11 ERA in 2006, and the vibes are good after the re-signing of Vicente Padilla and the trade for Brandon McCarthy. If nothing else, there will be the entertainment value of Sammy Sosa's comeback bid.

4. Indians: Cleveland made some wise moves, trading for second baseman Josh Barfield and beefing up its bullpen by adding Joe Borowski, Keith Foulke, Aaron Fultz and Roberto Hernandez.

5. Marlins: Florida can't help but have an upside after using 22 rookies last season, though the pressure is on Fredi Gonzalez to at least match Joe Girardi's accomplishment as a rookie manager -- the Marlins won five fewer regular-season games than the World Series champion Cardinals.

John Shea is the national baseball writer for the San Francisco Chronicle.