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Dodgers' five off-season priorities

With a free agent market swollen with potential record-breaking contracts, the Dodgers will have to tread carefully. L.A. stands to lose Derek Lowe, Rafael Furcal, Casey Blake, and Brad Penny to free agency, not to mention Jeff Kent and Greg Maddux to possible retirement.

 

But after dutifully trudging up Chavez Ravine for decades to watch a team without a bonafide superstar, fans are demanding a big-name pickup, someone like this Manny Ramirez guy the Southland has gone ga-ga over. Ned Colletti will enter Monday's general manager's meeting in Dana Point with a roster full of holes and a limited payroll. Here are the Dodgers' main concerns, as well as some of the free agents you might see in Dodger Blue in 2009.

1. Manny Ramirez -- Whether ownership likes it or not, Manny is the team's biggest priority. A deep postseason run and thousands of faux dread locks have emboldened even the most apathetic Los Angeles fans. They haven't an ultimatum yet, but they'll be very disappointed if Ramirez isn't starting in left field next year. Considering the Colletti hadn't seen a player pack his turnstiles the way Ramirez did last season since Barry Bonds, he could have no choice but to overpay for Man-Ram. Manny won't take a pay cut and agent Scott Boras says he expects offers of $25 million-plus for at least three years. You do the math. If the Dodgers sign Ramirez, they will price themselves out of re-signing Furcal and will likely be maxed out to even talk to A.J. Burnett -- don't even think about C.C. Sabathia. They might have to settle for Mark Loretta and Braden Looper. Ned Colletti, I don't envy you.

2. Starting pitching -- Lowe is all but out of here. Brad Penny is an expensive option. Maddux could retire.  This means that not only could Chad Billingsley become the team's de facto ace, but 20-year-old Clayton Kershaw could become the No. 3 starter behind Hiroki Kuroda. If not for Manny Mania, this would be a huge priority. Now, it's looking like the elephant in the room. Sabathia has expressed a preference to pitching in his native California, but with teams like the Yankees and Braves courting him, he will likely be the most expensive pitcher in history. (If Barry "10-17" Zito is worth $126 million, what must CC cost?) Jake Peavy is still available but the Padres want pitching and middle infielders, meaning Kershaw, Blake Dewitt and either Matt Kemp or Andre Ethier will be sent down the 405 in return. The better option is A.J. Burnett, who is more affordable than Sabathia and Peavy and can be just as dominant when healthy. Also on the market: Ben Sheets, Ryan Dempster, Oliver Perez, Pedro Martinez, Mike Mussina.

3. Shortstop -- Re-signing Rafael Furcal should be the most important off-season concern for the Dodgers. There is no shortstop on the market -- and very few in the entire league -- who has the ability to take over a game from the lead-off spot like Furcal. With that said, like most of the best-case senarios listed here, it will be difficult to discuss Furcal and Manny Ramirez in the same breath. They just might have to settle on a stop gap like Angel Berroa; the Dodgers can't have Manny and eat their cake too. The closest replacement for Furcal on the market is Orlando Cabrera who won't be that much cheaper. If the Dodgers spend all their money on Manny and a quality starting pitcher, they could be swimming up the proverbial creek, minus a paddle and a good shortstop. Other possibilities: David Eckstein, Adam Everett, Nick Punto.

4. Second base -- I don't see how the Dodgers could re-sign Jeff Kent in his twilight years unless they actually think he will be donning a Dodger cap into the Hall of Fame. His absence creates problems, though. Chin-Lung Hu is still a few years from being an everyday player. Dewitt showed a good glove at the position late in the season. But there are some intriguing replacements on the market. Arizona's Orlando Hudson is an All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner can be pried away at a good price. If the Dodgers prefer a stop-gap, former Dodger Mark Grudzielanek has been hitting better his last three seasons with the Royals than his last three in L.A. But with the high-priced priorities mentioned above, the infield will probably get the shaft. Don't be surprised to see Dewitt starting at second where his offense is better suited. Also available: Ray Durham, Felipe Lopez.

5. Third base -- Colletti's fingers have likely lost circulation from staying crossed for so long on Nomar Garciaparra's behalf. In a perfect world, Nomar would start at third base and hit .300 next season. But I'm not sure he has another full year left in him. Casey Blake will be too expensive to re-sign, making Joe Crede look more and more like an inevitability. He's cheap, has some pop in his bat and can field an above-average hot corner. Former All-Star Hank Blalock is also an intriguing choice. But with his injury history, even the discounted price tage makes him a risk. Also available: Mike Lamb. 

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