Dodgers seek third consecutive NL West title |

Dodgers seek third consecutive NL West title

LOS ANGELES – The Dodgers head into a new season seeking their third consecutive NL West title, something no team has won in the wild-card era.

But they did little to improve their roster over the winter, thanks in part to the contentious divorce of owner Frank McCourt which threatens to overshadow what happens on the field.

A trial that could decide whether ownership of the team is shared because of McCourt’s divorce from estranged wife Jamie is set to begin Aug. 30, the same time the Dodgers expect to be battling for playoff position going into the final month of the regular season.

“You learn a long time ago, at least I did, your job is to manage the team that has been given to you,” Joe Torre said. “My job, besides managing, is to try to insulate any players from the distractions. I learned that from New York.”

Count Torre and Hall of Fame announcer Vin Scully among the off-the-field issues.

Torre is heading into the third and final year of his contract with no resolution on a possible extension. Last month, he told general manager Ned Colletti that he wanted to suspend talks until later.

Scully has said he’ll broadcast this season before deciding whether to retire at 82.

The Dodgers open the season April 5 at Pittsburgh. Their home opener is April 13 against Arizona.

“We’re not looking to just do what we did last season,” first baseman James Loney said. “The World Series is always the goal and we feel like we can get there. We’re confident in our team.”

They shed a slew of free agents, most notably left-hander Randy Wolf, who had a 3.23 ERA as the team’s most reliable starter. He went to Milwaukee.

Once again, they lack a true ace among the projected rotation of Vicente Padilla, left-hander Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda and knuckleballer Charlie Haeger.

“His versatility is a plus,” Torre said of Haeger. “We’ll give him a shot.”

The Dodgers led the NL in team ERA last season.

“We expect a lot out of ourselves this year,” Billingsley said. “We’re just going to control what we can control.”

Billingsley got off to a hot start last season, with a 9-4 record and 3.38 ERA to earn All-Star honors for the first time. But the 25-year-old right-hander slumped in the second half, going 3-7 with a 5.20 ERA. He struggled with mechanics and his mindset so much that Torre used him only once in the playoffs and that was out of the bullpen.

“With every year, you’re supposed to get better,” Kershaw said. “Hopefully everybody does what they’re supposed to do.”

Once considered a strength, the Dodgers’ bullpen is facing all sorts of issues.

Cory Wade is expected to miss at least three months after undergoing right shoulder surgery. Setup man George Sherrill struggled in exhibition games, and Ronald Belisario missed all of spring training because of visa issues in Venezuela. He went 4-3 with a 2.04 ERA in 69 games as a rookie last year, but after arriving last week, the Dodgers put him on the restricted list, where he can remain up to 30 days.

“They were a huge part of our success last year,” Billingsley said of the bullpen. “If guys stay healthy that will be a big part of our season. Guys are going to get bumps and bruises and miss a day or two, but if we stay healthy we expect great things.”

The NL’s best-hitting outfield of left fielder Manny Ramirez, center fielder Matt Kemp and right fielder Andre Ethier remains intact, although they’ll have to contend with the likes of two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum of the rival Giants, Dan Haren of Arizona, and Ubaldo Jimenez of Colorado.

“Pitching in our division is top-notch,” Torre said. “We have four quality (pitchers) and hopefully we can keep them healthy.”

Ramirez had a quiet spring on and off the field, and will try to regain the form he lost after returning from a 50-game suspension last season for violating baseball’s drug rules. The slugger was 5 for 19 with one home run and two RBIs against Philadelphia in the NL championship series.

Blake DeWitt starts the season at second base, but his defensive struggles could create playing time for Ronnie Belliard.

“We’re still trying to put the pieces together,” Torre said.

Two-time All-Star catcher Russell Martin was expected to be ready for the opener after being out since March 7 with a groin injury.

The Dodgers lost to Philadelphia in the NLCS for the second straight season despite their NL-best 95 wins.

“What we’ve done the past couple of years is to raise expectations. The fans are expecting more and it is our job to deliver it,” Torre said. “We’re going to have the toughest division in the National League. You have Arizona, the Giants, Colorado, and San Diego is going through a transition, but they can still beat you up.”

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