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PLAYER TO WATCH
His warmup shirt darkened with sweat, Chad Billingsley repeatedly threw a heavy ball with both hands at a wall one morning outside the Dodgers' spring clubhouse in Glendale, Ariz. The 6'1" 245-pounder was working to build up his arm, hopefully to gain enough strength to pitch effectively for a full season.
A smart move, but arm fatigue wasn't his problem last season. In the first half the 25-year-old righthander went 9--4 with a 3.38 ERA and was named to his first All-Star Game. Then, in his first start after the midsummer classic, he was thumped by the Astros for six earned runs in 1 2/3 innings, and he never recovered. Billingsley was 3--7 with a 5.20 ERA in the second half, his falloff so dramatic that manager Joe Torre used him only once in the playoffs—and then as a reliever. "Chad got derailed mechanically," catcher Brad Ausmus says. "And then it affected him mentally. It snowballed a little bit."
Billingsley acknowledges that the slump got into his head; he says he tinkered with his mechanics and routine so much late last season that he even tried tying his shoes a different way. In August he also suffered from a strain in his left hamstring and a cramp in his right. Whether his demise was mental or physical, the Dodgers, who led the NL in team ERA last year but made few roster upgrades during the off-season, are counting on him to return to his pre-All-Star break form.
Percentage of the strikes thrown to Manny Ramirez that he swung at last season, his lowest rate since 1995. A lack of aggressiveness was one likely reason for Ramirez's off year, but it helped keep his OBP high (.418). He walked 16.5% of the time, his second-highest rate ever.
One of the disappointments of the Dodgers' spring was the failure of Blake DeWitt, a quality hitter who struggles defensively, to remove all doubt about his claim to the second base job. Ronnie Belliard could inherit some playing time, but an approach with more upside would be to move shortstop prospect Chin-lung Hu to second. Hu is an excellent defensive shortstop who has been blocked in Los Angeles by Rafael Furcal, and while Hu didn't hit while replacing the injured Furcal in 2008 (he had a .181 average and .252 OBP in 65 games), he has since put up good numbers at Triple A. The Dodgers' pitching staff throws so many ground balls that maximizing the infield defense is a worthwhile goal, even at a cost of some runs scored. By playing Hu at second, the Dodgers can get the benefits of his range while evaluating him as a successor to Furcal in 2011.