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New crew keeps with Colletti's vision

New crew keeps with Colletti's vision

LOS ANGELES -- Ned Colletti credits much of the Dodgers' success in 2006 to the play of rookies like Russell Martin and Andre Ethier, but that's not enough to get him to hand over starting roles to James Loney, Matt Kemp or Hong-Chih Kuo for 2007.

This is why Colletti on Wednesday was formally introducing to the media some of his new players, particularly ace Jason Schmidt and left fielder Luis Gonzalez. They fit the profile of Colletti's acquisitions since he got the job of Dodgers general manager 13 months ago.

Schmidt and Gonzalez, along with new backup catcher Mike Lieberthal, are former All-Stars. Schmidt and Gonzalez have World Series experience, Gonzalez with a ring he put on the fingers of the Arizona Diamondbacks with his walk-off single that won the 2001 World Series.

Colletti controls perhaps the most stacked Minor League system in baseball, and it must mean something to him. Other than the curious dealing of Joel Guzman for Julio Lugo, he's kept every big name. But neither Martin nor Ethier made the big-league club out of Spring Training last year, and there's no guarantee Loney or Kemp will in 2007, either. They'll have to earn it.

"The type of opportunity you give young players is important," Colletti said. "I'd rather have a young player competing for the opportunity than send him out there and say, 'It's all yours.' I don't want to believe it will work and hope it will work. I like to be as sure as I can be. If I find out in May that somebody wasn't ready and I haven't backed it up, it's a little late to correct a miscalculation and change course."

Check these numbers: Colletti has acquired 26 players for the Major League team since he arrived. Their average age at the time of acquisition was 32. Only seven were younger than 30 and nine were at least 35.

It's a reflection of the way the Giants built their club when Colletti was understudy to general manager Brian Sabean. That's why Loney's Triple-A batting title wasn't enough to earn him J.D. Drew's vacated outfield spot, which instead goes to Gonzalez. The acquisition of Schmidt deepens the starting rotation by moving everybody down a notch, although with the signing of Randy Wolf, it could bump Kuo into limbo.

Despite the speculation that Brad Penny will be traded for a big-time hitter like Vernon Wells, the braintrust is intrigued with the thought of Penny creating mismatches in the Dodgers' favor every time he goes against an opponent's No. 3 starter.

As the roster stands now, Schmidt (who played for manager Grady Little in the Braves' Minor League system) would be followed by Derek Lowe, Penny, Wolf and Chad Billingsley. Kuo, Mark Hendrickson and Brett Tomko are either in the bullpen or providing the depth to make a trade.

"I like where we're at right now," said Colletti, who a year ago had signed Rafael Furcal and Bill Mueller, but was still negotiating with Nomar Garciaparra and Kenny Lofton.

If Colletti's recent offseason moves haven't earned him universal acclaim -- particularly the five-year deal given to Juan Pierre -- they went a long way toward convincing the Schmidts and Gonzalezes of the world that Dodger Stadium might be a good place to continue their careers. And more than once, the players referred to the current franchise transformation as resembling the glory days of their youth.

"I grew up in a Dodger family and married into a Dodger household," said Schmidt, who will now live the Dodgers-Giants rivalry from the Southern California perspective after five years in San Francisco. "It'll be fun to be on the other side of that.

"I've watched the franchise, the ups and downs over the last five years. You see the transition in ownership, you see it's on the upswing. The tradition is still there."

"The organization has a history of great players," said Gonzalez. "As a young kid, I saw a lot of huge games from here on TV. I hope in the near future to be part of that again. I remember when I was with Houston and Glenn Davis brought me into the park through the center-field gates, not where the players usually enter. It's a place with a great history."

Unlike Schmidt and Gonzalez, Lieberthal will not have a starring role, signing after a series of injuries in Philadelphia to be the mentor to young catcher Russell Martin. But having grown up in Westlake Village and attended games at Dodger Stadium as a youth, he's in the best position to compare the current Dodgers image with the glory days.

"From what other players said, the atmosphere here five years ago was negative compared to this point," he said.

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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