Vero Beach, Fla. — The Los Angeles Dodgers, coming off back-to-back 73-89 seasons in which there was dissension in the clubhouse, confusion on the field, and a major shakeup in the front office, are currently a team in transition. Often that kind of situation triggers multiple adjustments, and adjustments usually take time. However, this is a class organization that has now recognized its problems and is in the process of doing something positive about them. Over the winter the Dodgers spent several million dollars to acquire some veteran players who could turn them into challengers again in the National League West. The catch is that each of them has missed a significant number of games during his career because of injuries.
For marquee value and RBI power, the Dodgers signed free-agent outfielder Kirk Gibson away from the Detroit Tigers. To fill a gaping defensive hole at shortstop, they acquired slick-fielding Alfredo Griffin from the Oakland A's. To reinforce a bullpen that hasn't been effective since Steve Howe ran into drug problems, they traded for veteran relief pitchers Jesse Orosco of the New York Mets and Jay Howell of the A's. They also added another former Oakland regular in outfielder Mike Davis, who hit 20 home runs during the first half of last season before sustaining an injury.
Of this quintet, Gibson and Griffin are assured of starting positions, while Orosco and Howell will work regularly out of the bullpen.
Davis probably gets to start only if L.A. trades outfielder-first baseman Mike Marshall, a distinct possibility if it can acquire either a front-line starting pitcher or a veteran third baseman who can hit.
Otherwise the outfield will have Gibson in left, John Shelby (last year's surprise package with 21 homers and 69 RBIs) in center, and Marshall in right.
The infield will have Pedro Guerrero or Marshall at first base; either Steve Sax or Mariano Duncan at second; Griffin at short; and more hopefuls for third than tried out for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in ``Gone With the Wind.''
If Jess Hamilton, a good fielder who batted .360 last year with Albuquerque but only .217 in 35 games with the Dodgers, shows that he can hit the curveball in spring training, he might get first crack at the job. Sax is also a possibility here as well as at second. And lately manager Tommy Lasorda has been experimenting again with Guerrero at third, a position Pedro tried regularly once before (in 1984) without much success in the field.
If no member of this trio turns out to be the answer, Lasorda probably would be tempted to go with veteran Mickey Hatcher. While not exactly a Brooks Robinson in the field, Hatcher nevertheless is the kind who tries for everything and is a tough hitter with runners in scoring position.
Mike Scioscia, who gets high marks for everything except his ability to drive in runs (he had 26 in 1986, 38 in '87), will do the bulk of the catching.
The Dodgers, who have always been known for their excellent starting rotation, are now down to a Big Two of Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser after trading Bob Welch (15-9 last year) to Oakland.
Even though Lasorda has penciled in 21-year-veteran and former Dodger Don Sutton (after stops with Houston, Milwaukee, Oakland, and the California Angels) as one of his starters, the 43-year-old right-hander has to be classified as a gamble. Last year he won 11 games, but finished only one of these, and gave up 38 home runs. It would be a mistake, however, for anyone to underestimate this man's desire.
After Sutton it's whoever gets hot in spring training. Those in the running include youngsters Tom Belcher, Shawn Hillegas, Brian Holton, and Ken Howell, plus veterans Alejandro Pena and Tim Leary.
The rebuilt bullpen, which now features Orosco from the left side and Jay Howell from the right, may well turn out to be the key to L.A.'s season, because this club should score at least 100 runs more than it did a year ago, and thus should be in many more close, late-inning situations where relief pitching makes the difference.
As for what turbulence might still remain in the Dodger clubhouse, I happened to be seated next to Hershiser at lunch one day when he volunteered the following information:
``We might have the kind of team this year that fights each other in the locker room, but then goes out and kills our opponents on the field.''
Hershiser immediately followed this statement up with a smile and a gleam in his eye that would have lighted up the bottom of a mine shaft!