After showing improvement last season, the Los Angeles Dodgers hope another busy offseason and one of the league’s best rotations will take them a step further to their first postseason series win in 19 years.
The Milwaukee Brewers’ playoff drought began long before that, but are also pinning their hopes on a bolstered rotation.
The teams square off in the season opener on Monday afternoon when the Brewers host the Dodgers to open a three-game series.
The Dodgers went 88-74 in 2006 in manager Grady Little’s first with the team, representing a big boost from their 71-91 record a year before. They captured the National League wild card, but were swept in a division series by the New York Mets.
Los Angeles is now even more determined to earn its first playoff series win since 1988, when it won the World Series.
“You look at the success we had last year—that was great, and now you want to build off that,” said Dodgers first baseman Nomar Garciaparra, the NL comeback player of the year last season when he hit .303 with 20 homers and 93 RBIs.
Los Angeles general manager Ned Colletti spent much of the offseason building as he signed former San Francisco ace Jason Schmidt and former Philadelphia left-hander Randy Wolf to join a rotation that includes Derek Lowe, Brad Penny and Brett Tomko.
“This is by far our best rotation since I have been here,” said Lowe, who went 16-8 with a 3.63 ERA in 2006, his second season with the Dodgers. “Everyone brings a different style and ability, and it’s going to make us not only good, but also a team that can contend in the playoffs.”
Lowe will take the mound in the opener on Monday and is 2-0 with a 0.64 ERA in two career starts at Miller Park—by far his best mark in any opponent’s stadium. The veteran sinkerballer will be backed be a strong bullpen led by closer Takashi Saito, who went 6-2 with a 2.07 ERA and 24 saves in 26 chances as a 36-year-old rookie last season.
The Dodgers will also have a revamped outfield after signing center fielder Juan Pierre and left fielder Juan Gonzalez. Pierre was inked to a $44 million, five-year deal, after hitting .292 with 87 runs scored for the Chicago Cubs last season.
Gonzalez was added because J.D. Drew opted out of the final three years of his contract and signed with Boston. Right fielder Andre Ethier will try to build on an impressive rookie season during which he hit .308 with 11 homers and 55 RBIs.
Los Angeles shortstop and leadoff hitter Rafael Furcal will begin the season on the 15-day disabled list with a sprained left ankle, but isn’t expected to miss too much time.
The Dodgers need improvement in the power department after finishing next-to-last in the NL with 153 homers overall in 2006, but did hit a league-leading .276.
Los Angeles will test its bats against Milwaukee right-hander Ben Sheets, who is 2-4 with a 3.80 ERA in seven career starts versus the Dodgers, but didn’t face them in 2006. Sheets began last season on the disabled list and missed half of the year with shoulder problems, finishing 6-7 with a 3.82 ERA in 17 starts.
He leads a rotation that includes left-hander Chris Capuano and right-handers Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush and Claudio Vargas. Suppan went 12-7 with a 4.12 ERA for St. Louis last season and was 1-1 with a 2.49 ERA in four postseason starts to help the Cardinals win the World Series.
The NLCS MVP signed a four-year, $42 million contract with the Brewers in the offseason—the largest deal in team history. Suppan joins a squad that finished 75-87 last season and hasn’t made a postseason appearance since 1982.
Closer Francisco Cordero, acquired at the end of July in the deal that sent Carlos Lee to Texas, went 3-1 with a 1.69 ERA in 28 appearances with the Brewers, converting 16 straight saves before blowing his final two of the season. Derrick Turnbow, who began last season as the Brewers’ closer, will be an eighth-inning setup man.
The Brewers struggled offensively in 2006, ranking 14th in the NL in runs scored (730), 13th in on-base percentage (.327) and 12th in slugging percentage (.420). Bill Hall, who provided much of that offense last season by hitting .270 with 35 homers, 85 RBIs and 101 runs scored, will move from shortstop to center field this season.
Tony Graffanino and Craig Counsell will split time at third base as Corey Koskie continues to struggle with post-concussion syndrome. Catcher Johnny Estrada, who hit .302 with 11 homers and 71 RBIs for Arizona in 2006, will replace veteran Damian Miller after being acquired as part of a six-player trade with the Diamondbacks in the offseason.
Despite their improved lineup, manager Ned Yost believes his club’s health may prove to be the biggest key to success.
“Expectations don’t mean anything,” said Yost, whose squad dropped four of six meetings with the Dodgers last season. “We all had expectations last year and injuries put a bit of a damper on it.”