Top priority

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

VERO BEACH, Fla. – Over the course of two months, first on the telephone and then along the concrete paths and tiled corridors of Dodgertown, Grady Little polled his coaches, consulted the organization's baseball minds, and made his own lists.

Since early December, his roster had held two players he considered to be true and great leadoff hitters: shortstop Rafael Furcal and center fielder Juan Pierre. He would choose one in that role and bat the other next.

Now, some would regard Furcal and Pierre as neither true nor great in the classic model of leadoff hitters, but this is Little's story, and these were his months of ambivalence, and this was where his personal dilemma lay.

The Los Angeles Dodgers had come off an 88-win season, built primarily on runs that seemed to appear magically (only two players – J.D. Drew and Nomar Garciaparra – hit as many as 20 home runs) and a pitching staff that covered for its middle-inning deficiencies with decent starters and an out-of-nowhere closer.

They'd then lost Drew through a contractual trap-door, signed Pierre for $44 million and replaced Drew with Luis Gonzalez. For 2½ weeks between the Pierre and Gonzalez signings, Little had pushed around the names and paused at an order that began with Pierre, followed by Russell Martin and Furcal.

"But we said to ourselves," third base coach Rich Donnelly said, "are we trying to be a little too tricky here?"

As they reworked the order with those pieces, general manager Ned Colletti signed Gonzalez, adding another.

"When that happened," Little said, "everything else kind of played out to where those two guys – Furky and Pierre – needed to be one-two for sure."

That was on Dec. 8. On Feb. 21, Little called Furcal into his office and told him he'd bat leadoff. Furcal, who led National League leadoff men in on-base percentage in 2006, nodded and left. A short while later, in front of Little and Donnelly, Pierre was told he'd bat second. Little had asked Donnelly to sit in because he'd known Pierre, a noted free swinger who rarely struck out or walked, from their time together with the Colorado Rockies.

"Grady told me, 'He's comfortable with you right now, he knows you, and he'll get to know me,'" Donnelly said.

The following day, Little advised the writers of his decision, Furcal and Pierre said publicly they were satisfied with it, and Little had eliminated one of a handful of potential spring issues, the others being naming an opening day starter (Derek Lowe), identifying the fifth starter and sorting through the right fielders.

Little's second spring training with the Dodgers had begun quietly. Players were showing up trim, content and eager to improve upon their three-and-out division series against the New York Mets. He hoped to smother the possible controversies quickly, and so it was the rare Dodgers baseball man who at some point didn't feel a hand on his shoulder, and turn to find Little with a question.

"The first day here," Little said, "I could go around to every coach and every instructor and ask them, 'Who's our leadoff hitter?'," Little said. "If I asked 50 people, it'd be 25 to 25, all with different reasons."

Maury Wills – "The legendary Maury Wills," as Pierre announced to the clubhouse Sunday morning – for one, preferred Pierre.

Some liked the switch-hitter, Furcal, at the top. They liked him for his power there, or his superior on-base percentage. Others liked Pierre, a left-handed hitter, and his bunting ability and leg hits.

"For me, I wouldn't have a problem with it either way," Furcal said, "because Juan Pierre can do it, too."

Pierre contended he was in no position to claim a job that Furcal performed well last season.

"It didn't matter to me," he said. "As long as I'm in the lineup, I'm happy. I don't think I've done anything in this game to say I should bat leadoff or not. That's for other people to say."

They both broke into the big leagues in 2000. Furcal was NL Rookie of the Year with the Atlanta Braves and Pierre, with the Rockies, finished sixth in the same ballot. Since then, Furcal batted leadoff in 875 of 976 games, while Pierre hit first in 899 of 1,007. Their career on-base percentages stand one-one-thousandth of a point apart. Pierre has stolen about 100 more bases, Furcal has nearly 100 more extra-base hits, and there they stood, before Little, who would decide what worked best for his team, this lineup.

As Donnelly wryly pointed out, "Somebody has to hit second. That's a rule in Major League baseball. One guy has to hit first and another guy has to hit second."

So, Little said, "I looked at the numbers. I looked at the persons. I looked at the fact neither misses games."

What it may have come down to: The Dodgers believe their back-of-the-order hitters – Wilson Betemit, Andre Ethier and Martin – have the potential to reach base often. If they do, considering the pitcher's spot, the leadoff hitter could routinely come to the plate with a man or two on and two out. Furcal, as leadoff hitters go, has more power than Pierre, and therefore would be more likely to extend the inning and drive in the run.

That's how narrow the gap was.

Watching batting practice with his arms folded Sunday morning, Little said, "We could stand right here all morning and change our minds three or four times."

But, that's it. It's Furcal.

Besides, he said, "If it's not working, we'll switch it."

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