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Howie Kendrick's and Jimmy Rollins' bats make Dodgers' front office look smart

LOS ANGELES -- After a winter of relentless change, it's difficult not to boil every question about the Los Angeles Dodgers down to what it says about the new front office.

And Matt Kemp driving in three runs off Clayton Kershaw on Opening Day wasn't a particularly flattering testimony to the maneuverings of Andrew Friedman and his well-educated roster of team executives, particularly when the man Kemp was traded for, Yasmani Grandal, never got off the bench.

Dealing a feared right-handed slugger to a division rival, particularly when three-fifths of your starting rotation is left-handed, is a dicey proposition to begin with -- even more so when your manager says afterward that slugger's swing path is dangerously in line with what your ace does best.

"Matt's strengths and what Clayton does kind of cross paths," Don Mattingly said.

Of course, if the Kemp-for-Grandal trade was the only move Friedman's group made, we would be left with an entirely different feel from Monday's 6-3 Los Angeles Dodgers win over Kemp's San Diego Padres. The term Friedman and his group used all winter was "functionality," which was sometimes construed as code for a cleaning up the clubhouse culture. What it really meant was that the pieces fit together rather than piled on top of one another, as they often did last season, to surprisingly good results.

Through six weeks of spring training and one day of regular-season baseball, two pieces seem to fit together so well they could at least counterweigh the loss of Kemp's run production: Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick up the middle.

All spring, the Dodgers have been gushing about what Rollins and Kendrick could do to solidify the defense, lengthen the lineup and bring an air of toughness and professionalism to the clubhouse. For all of Kemp's swagger, prodigious talent and wide smile, the Dodgers had plenty of that last season and found, in the end, it came up short to two teams -- the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants -- that seem to rely on toughness and togetherness as much as anything else.

What the Dodgers were going for was pretty much summed up in Rollins' eighth-inning at-bat, and not just the swing that sent Shawn Kelley's down-and-in fastball soaring into the seats in the right-field corner to win the game. It was the nasty sliders Rollins either took in the dirt or fouled off that allowed him to fight back from an 0-and-2 hole to get that pitch.

As he was watching Rollins' at-bat Monday, Mattingly said he was reminded of another Rollins at-bat. That one resulted in a two-run double into the corner that beat Jonathan Broxton and the Dodgers in Game 4 of the 2009 National League Championship Series.

"It was good to see him on our side today," Mattingly said.

Rollins grew up on the tough side of Alameda, a town separated by a narrow channel from Oakland, California. Whatever character traits he brought with him from there into professional baseball have been honed over 14 years in the major leagues, all with the Philadelphia Phillies. He waived his no-trade clause for the chance to join the Dodgers, because he figured they'd give him as good a chance to get another World Series ring as any other team.

If the Dodgers' clubhouse lacked something tangible last season, it might have been a touch of accountability. After tough losses, few of the veterans seemed interested in answering questions about the team's troubles. The Dodgers are hoping Rollins' attention to detail and professionalism will give rise to a new culture. He followed Yasiel Puig around all spring, keeping a dialogue going with the Dodgers' most talented but often most frustrating player.

After Monday's win, Rollins didn't hesitate to point out a blunder by one of the Dodgers' most popular players. Juan Uribe played back rather than charging a slow roller hit by San Diego catcher Derek Norris in the fifth inning. Norris hustled down the line and beat it out, and that extended the inning. With two runners on, that brought up Kemp, who lined a two-run double into the left-field corner.

"You don't want to start off in the loss column with your ace on the mound," Rollins said. "We had that mental error, they took the lead, and it doesn't look good because of who's on the mound, because we shouldn't make that mistake, first off. But to be able to battle back the way we did, it was a team effort and it felt good."

In some ways, Kendrick and Rollins are the pillars of what Friedman and his staff were trying to do, though the previous Dodgers regime had also entertained notions of trading for Kendrick, one of the game's best two-way second basemen. He hit a sun-aided triple off the base of the center-field wall and an RBI double to tie it.

Perhaps because they're newcomers, Kendrick and Rollins have bonded easily this spring. Kendrick had spent his entire career in the Los Angeles Angels organization before last December's trade. They're so close already, Kendrick told Rollins he felt like he hit the game-winning home run on Monday.

"That's how you want to feel. You want to be happy for the next guy," Kendrick said. "Hopefully, this year we all share in those duties, and I want to be happy for everybody."

The more you see these two in action, the more you see what the front office was trying to accomplish in its quest for "functionality."

The Dodgers traded Kemp largely to get out from under his huge contract, and they were able to off-load $75 million in the deal, but they also liked Grandal's bat and his ability to frame pitches. They didn't get any of that from Grandal on Monday. A.J. Ellis got the Opening Day start because of his chemistry with Kershaw. In a perfect pinch-hitting spot, Mattingly didn't use Grandal because he was fearful of being left without a catcher on the bench in case an injury knocked Grandal from the game in the final few innings.

Ellis, who was 0-for-3 with two strikeouts and a failed bunt, came to the plate with a runner at second and one out in the sixth inning of a game the Dodgers trailed by one run and with James Shields, a right-handed pitcher, starting to get tired. Ellis struck out, and the Dodgers didn't score.

So, if you're scoring at home, one trade has looked iffy through the first nine innings of what could turn out to be 1,500 or more for the Dodgers this season. Two more trades have looked eminently functional.