Dodgers need to upgrade roster, attitude to get over the hump

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PHILADELPHIA -- When the NLCS was over, and the Dodgers were done again, eliminated just like the year before in five games by the Phillies, iconic Dodgers manager Joe Torre gathered his mostly young troops together, and he spoke of progress. It seems like a tough sell job, with the result from one year to the next being exactly the same. But Torre could sell parkas in L.A.

"You guys are getting there,'' Torre told them. "You guys are learning.''

He hopes, anyway.

The mostly young Dodgers team is said to have listened intently, and there were suggestions of several moist eyes in the clubhouse. The media was kept out several minutes longer than usual, apparently so the players could compose themselves.

When they were through, the best team in the National League during the regular season was out in a blowout of an NLCS, a resounding defeat that left them reeling. Almost to a man, they conceded that the Phillies were the better team, which is one good sign. (Matt Kemp, who's even younger than most Dodgers, was one exception. "They got hot at the right time,'' is the way he put it.)

The rest of the Dodgers appeared to grasp the obvious: If you're out in five games two straight years to the same team, maybe you're just a little bit short. The Dodgers won 95 games in the best of the three divisions of the National League. But losing the same way year after year in October can be no coincidence.

Here are some things the Dodgers need to do:

1. Time to toughen up. It won't be easy to match the Phillies in this area. "We've got a bunch of nice guys in here,'' one Dodger said. "Those guys over there, they are tough. (Shane) Victorino is a tough SOB. And (Chase) Utley, he drops a knee whenever the runner comes in at second. When Larry Bowa managed those guys he warned (Utley) that guys would get mad if he drops a knee on (baserunners), and Utley told him, "I don't give a ----.'' About the Phillies, Dodgers GM Ned Colletti said, "They're a tough club, not just wins and losses but how they approach the game. They play it hard, and they play it that way all the time. They play with a relentlessness, and they absolutely refuse to be beat.'' Using the Phillies as a measuring stick, the young Dodgers still have a little work to do. One young Dodgers star made it a point before every game to seek out Peter Gammons with the intention of high-fiving him. The Phillies players don't suck up to anyone.

2. Time to work harder. Some of the young Dodgers look happy just to be there. They think they're working. But not like the Phillies, whose intensity is exemplified by Utley and whose hard work is personified by the mildly talented yet long-lasting 46-year-old pitcher Jamie Moyer. When Joe Torre was naming the "serious-minded'' Dodgers while contrasting this loose group to his focused Yankees team of the '90s, Torre named the intellectual bench klatch of Dartmouth man Brad Ausmus and Northwestern product Mark Loretta, plus No. 8 hitter Casey Blake. And nobody's more solid than Jim Thome. A couple Dodgers suggested that a couple of the young stars who gained a rep for liking night life last year are curtailing that instinct now. Nonetheless, one other Dodger said, "You've got to like the work, not just the lifestyle.''

3. Time to get a No. 1 starter. This should probably be No. 1. They tried for Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee this summer. But while they made offers and perhaps even finished second for Lee, they never seemed to get close to either one. The Indians eventually determined that they were going to have to deal with the Phillies if they were going to receive prospects who might be major-league ready by 2010. Dodgers people aren't overly optimistic they're going to be able to pull off a coup to get that No. 1 starter, such as Halladay or free agent John Lackey, as they still don't possess a plethora of upper-level prospects or the big budget it takes. But they also have to know that if they had Lee, things might be different. "They don't have a dominating starter,'' one scout said. "That has to be their No. 1 issue.'' The departure of Derek Lowe left them with a collection of No. 3s, not a bad group at all, but not the kind that will normally carry a team through October. Putting together a playoff rotation, Torre may as well have picked out of a hat. And at times it seemed like he did. He pulled Hiroki Kuroda out of the instructional league in Arizona and Vicente Padilla off a scrap heap (the scrap-heap idea worked much better). Young Clayton Kershaw didn't look quite ready to pitch Game 1 of the NLCS, so perhaps Randy Wolf would have been the better call there. Even their vaunted bullpen looked worn out by the end, possibly the result of overuse necessitated by a rotation without a standout.

4. Time to spend. The Dodgers led baseball in attendance yet operate almost like a mid-market club under owner Frank McCourt. Their payroll actually went down about $20 million, from about $122 million to just over $100 million (or even slightly less if you count the money saved during Manny's suspension), so it's impressive that they were at least as good a team. Colletti proved two years running he could improve the team without making significant payroll increases; in 2008 they got Ramirez and paid him nothing in a deal that's tough to top but parted with top catching prospect Carlos Santana for Casey Blake in order to get the small-market Indians to pay his salary. This year, Colletti's collection of worthwhile pickups all came on the relative cheap, from Padilla to Jon Garland to Ronnie Belliard to Jim Thome to George Sherrill. As if the lack of spending funds wasn't hindrance enough, there's going to be considerable question whether their newly dicey ownership situation might hamper them this winter. The McCourts are divorcing, both are actively involved in the team, and both want to stay involved (presumably without the other around). They did agree to get Colletti's multiyear extension done the other day. But big free agents might be a tougher thing to agree on. Besides, big free-agent deals change a balance sheet, and that could affect the valuation and potential transfer of the team.

5. Time to figure out what happened to James Loney, Russell Martin and Chad Billingsley, and perhaps consider trading one or all of them. Loney suffered a power shortfall (13 home runs) that had them considering packaging him up with prospects to make a play for Adrian Gonzalez. "They need 25 to 30 home runs there, and I just don't see it from (Loney),'' one scout said. That sort of trade still makes sense if they can pull it off, especially because Gonzalez has proven to be able to homer in a pitchers' park. Martin "seemed to lose confidence'' one Dodger person said. And why not? He hit a weak .250 and struggled to even get there.'' Meanwhile, Billingsley was "like two different pitchers from the first half to the second,'' one Dodger said. His second-half record was 3-7 with a 5.20 ERA after going 9-4 with a 3.38 ERA in the first half, which explains how someone who started the year as the No. 1 starter could pitch his way out of the rotation by the NLCS. One scout said such slippage was a waste, as Billingsley "should be an All-Star."

6. Time to add another veteran presence who's an everyday player.Manny Ramirez is a great guy to loosen up the troops. But these troops don't need any more loosening. They probably need another everyday player who does things right, who goes by the book, who stays out of the shower until the game is over. One Dodger observer wondered aloud whether benching Orlando Hudson (who homered as a pinch hitter in the 10-4 Game 5 defeat) left them lacking inspiration. But folks in the clubhouse denied that the decision to play the hotter hand in Belliard factored significantly into the outcome. They are an awfully young team, with the bulk of the nucleus 20-something (contrast that with the Phillies, whose stars are almost all about 30). "Experience isn't necessarily determinative, but generally speaking it is an important factor,'' Ausmus said. "Experience is very important, especially in the postseason. You start to understand that despite the postseason energy and atmosphere that the game itself doesn't change. (The Phillies) are obviously talented, as well. But I'm willing to bet their experience helped them this year.'' Meanwhile, a couple of the younger Dodgers denied that experience counts. Which only shows you how young they are.

• Bobby Valentine goes for his interview in Cleveland today. Valentine made $4 million with Chiba Lotte this year past year, so some small-market teams have shied away. But GM Mark Shapiro said, "I don't think money's going to be a factor.'' The Indians paid Eric Wedge close to $1.5 million, and it may be possible they'd be willing to bump that a bit, perhaps to about $2.5 million. The diverse foursome of Manny Acta, Torey Lovullo, Don Mattingly and Valentine appears to be the final four. Shapiro didn't give a timetable but the elimination of Mattingly's Dodgers might give them a chance to hire someone slightly sooner.

• Red Sox executive Jed Hoyer still appears to be the favorite for the Padres GM job. Meanwhile some Dodgers people will be annoyed if their assistant GM Kim Ng is passed over again. They point out she has three rings (Hoyer has two) and has worked for three successful organizations.

• Outgoing union chief Don Fehr reportedly got an $11 million parting gift from players, according to ESPN. Money well spent.

• MLB people are not at all happy about the awful umpiring in both the Division Series and League Championship Series. It would be a surprise if no action is taken. One thing that needs to go is the sort of favoritism that rewarded some umpires with undeserved playoff assignments.

• The possibility of a Yankees-Phillies World Series has some Mets people cringing. It's been some kind of year for them, hasn't it?