"Great stuff, great makeup -- I will put my reputation on Hiroki Kuroda."
When infielders Nomar Garciaparra and Mark Sweeney organized Dodger Idol, a talent show for first-year Dodgertown campers, they were prepared to let rookie Hiroki Kuroda off the hook. The veteran Japanese pitcher had just arrived in the U.S. and barely spoke a word of English, but when the newbie hazing took place in the clubhouse in late February, there was Kuroda -- outfitted in a wig and fake sideburns and chest hair -- at the mike in front of his new teammates, mangling Love Me Tender. "Elvis had a better voice," says Sweeney, "but even Simon Cowell would dig this guy's guts."
The Dodgers dig Kuroda's five-pitch arsenal, which is why, during their off-season hunt for a starter to complement ace Brad Penny, they opted to sign the righthander to a three-year, $35.3 million deal rather than trade some of their premium prospects to land Johan Santana or Erik Bedard. If the three-time Japanese Central League All-Star is as good as they think he is ("Great stuff, great makeup -- I put my reputation on the guy," says L.A. assistant general manager and scouting maven Logan White), Chavez Ravine could be home to the league's deepest rotation.
Nicknamed Mr. Complete Game in his native country, where he finished roughly 30% of his starts over an 11-year career with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, Kuroda was 40-26 with a 2.86 ERA over the last three seasons despite a home ballpark that is the most hitter-friendly in the Central League. His impressive array of pitches -- low-90s fastball, cutter, forkball, slider and shuuto (hard sinker that cuts left) -- was the buzz of camp, but there are signs, however small, that Kuroda, who turned down four-year offers from the Diamondbacks, Mariners and Royals, could turn out to be more like Kei Igawa than Daisuke Matsuzaka. He is 33, his strikeout rate has declined in each of the last three years, and for all his complete games, he has logged more than 200 innings in a season only twice in his career. "Certainly he's not in his prime years, but his competitive nature is off the charts," says White, who scouted Kuroda in Japan. "He always turned it up a notch when guys got on."
Beyond Kuroda and Penny, the Dodgers expect a breakout season from Chad Billingsley, who worked out of the bullpen for the first three months of last season, then had a 3.12 ERA as a starter after the All-Star break. The pear-shaped 23-year-old unveiled a changeup this spring to add to his devastating fastball-curve combo. Says an NL general manager, "He's one of the top five pitchers under 25. He could be the ace of that staff by the end of the year."
How much run support the ensemble gets will depend on new manager Joe Torre's willingness to bench 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, and Andre Ethier, 25, scratching for at bats? And when third baseman Andy LaRoche (.589 slugging at Triple A Las Vegas) returns from thumb surgery in May, will Torre tap the 24-year-old if the struggles of Garciaparra, a defensive liability and owner of a .328 OBP in '07, continue?
The Dodgers, who were 10th in the NL in scoring, hope to see a boost in run production with the addition of free agent Andruw Jones. The centerfielder raised eyebrows when he arrived in camp at least 10 pounds heavier than his '07 playing weight of 225 pounds, but Jones, coming off a down year, says that adding the extra flab was intentional. "I was too light [last year]," he says. "I never felt right. So [this winter] I just ate what I wanted."
Jones played in the postseason in each of his first 10 seasons with the Braves but watched from home the last two Octobers. "I expect to be back in the playoffs," he says. "I wouldn't have signed here if I didn't believe this team will go far."
How far the Dodgers go could come down to whether the team's new Elvis impersonator can hit his notes on the mound. -- Albert Chen
Issue date: March 31, 2008