VERO BEACH, Fla. -- The best Dodgers teams of the past 50 years, and the best teams managed by Joe Torre, have been built predominantly on starting pitching. And now Torre is trying to do the same with the 2008 Dodgers. Los Angeles doesn't have a Sandy Koufax, and it doesn't have a Roger Clemens-Andy Pettitte-David Cone trio. But Torre's eyes twinkle when he says, "Our rotation has a chance to be pretty good."
It starts with Brad Penny, who finished third in the National League Cy Young voting last year. Then there's Derek Lowe. "I love Derek Lowe," Torre said. "With him, it's just 'Give me the ball and leave me out there until you think I'm tired.'" Then there's Chad Billingsley. "He's special," Torre said. Then there's Hiroki Kuroda, who made his spring debut Friday.
Kuroda, according to a source in Japan, is more equipped in every way to handle pitching in the U.S. than Daisuke Matsuzaka was. And Kuroda won't have nearly the pressure Dice-K has.
The fifth spot in the rotation is up in the air until Jason Schmidt's shoulder is ready, which likely won't be until May 1. But one Dodgers official said Friday, "My guess is June." Until then, there are several options, including left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo, of whom Arizona's Eric Byrnes once said, "I hope I never see that guy again." Kuo has thrown very well this spring, but he has a history of elbow injuries. Then there are Esteban Loaiza, Tanyon Sturtze and a few others who also could be options. Schmidt has been throwing since November, but even after some encouraging work early in the spring, it's pretty clear he'll need more time to get healthy.
The fifth spot is all that's in question about the rotation. Last spring, Penny showed a dedication to conditioning -- including riding his bike to Dodgertown every day -- that he has carried over to this spring. And, he said, he found he was tipping his pitches, which he corrected last year. It showed. He went 16-4 with a 3.03 ERA, throwing 200 innings for the first time since 2001. Lowe won 12 games last season and has gone 92-64 the past six years.
Billingsley went 12-5 with a 3.31 ERA last year, his second in the major leagues. "I've faced him since I was 18 years old," Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur said of Billingsley. "I've said since the first time I faced him that he was going to be a big-time pitcher. And he already is. Have you seen his legs? One of his legs is bigger than both of mine."
One NL West manager said last season that "Billingsley will be the best pitcher in our division" within two years. That's some statement, given that Jake Peavy and Brandon Webb also pitch in the division.
Kuroda is the most intriguing pitcher in the Dodgers' rotation. "I saw him in Japan last year," one scout said. "Like all Japanese pitchers, he can throw his breaking ball for strikes. That's what our pitchers don't do as well over here. Maybe it's because Japanese pitchers throw so much more than our guys do here."
Kuroda "changes speeds very well," Torre said. "He throws one [pitch] at 84 [mph], then up to 88, then 93. And he's a grinder."
Kuroda doesn't seem to be awed by coming to America. When asked early in spring training about the difference between spring training in Japan and spring training in the U.S., Kuroda said, "It's shorter here." He smiled and said through his interpreter, "This isn't the army. I like this better."
Saito is very smart, as is Kuroda. Plus, both can sing. In his first spring training, Saito dazzled the Dodgers with his ability to sing in English when he couldn't speak the language. On Thursday in Vero Beach, the Dodgers held their second day of Dodger Idol, which included Nomar Garciaparra as Ryan Seacrest, Juan Pierre as Randy Jackson ("I don't know how to say 'dog' in Japanese," Pierre said) and Jeff Kent as Simon Cowell. Kuroda dressed up as Elvis Presley, including fake chest hair and fake sideburns. It was, by all accounts, hilarious. And, it appears, it was just another reason for teammates to like him.
"I was doing what all rookies do," Kuroda said. "If teammates take me in for that, that's great. If it continues my communication with the guys I just want to be one of the guys."
Like all Japanese pitchers, he can throw his breaking ball for strikes. That's what our pitchers don't do as well over here. Maybe it's because Japanese pitchers throw so much more than our guys do here.
--A scout, about Hiroki Kuroda
When asked where he got the Elvis costume, Kuroda smiled again and said, "no comment."
The Dodgers need Kuroda to pitch, not sing, and he pitched very well in his spring debut Friday. He allowed one hit in two innings against the Braves -- he threw 21 pitches, 16 for strikes. He got five outs on ground balls.
"I had a little bit of nerves," Kuroda said through his interpreter. "Obviously, this was my first time pitching in the States." When asked what was more nerve-wracking, pitching for the first time or singing in front of his teammates, Kuroda flashed another marvelous smile and said, without hesitation, "yesterday."
Kuroda said it was "good to get the first game out of the way, to see what was going good and what was not going good. My two-seam fastball against left-handed hitters was working well. I had a little trouble with my fastball and splitter, some of them got away from me."
After throwing the two innings, Kuroda went to the bullpen and threw some more, "to get the kinks out."
There won't be too many kinks in the L.A. rotation this season, especially from the front four. And if Schmidt returns to health, the Dodgers should have a pretty good rotation.
"A really good rotation," catcher Russell Martin said.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.