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Dodgers' under-the-radar moves paying off

CHICAGO -- With new owners in place back home, general manager Ned Colletti rejoined his first-place club Thursday with decisions looming on making the Dodgers even better.

The signing of Bobby Abreu for the bench appears imminent, while reliever Ronald Belisario, who has served his 25-game suspension for violating MLB's drug policy, was activated, replacing Mike MacDougal, who was designated for assignment.

Meanwhile, the decisions that Colletti made over the winter, for the most part, have worked out so far. Aside from extending Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, there was little fanfare for the signings of starting pitchers Chris Capunao and Aaron Harang, second baseman Mark Ellis, role players like Jerry Hairston, Adam Kennedy and Matt Treanor, reliever Todd Coffey, the re-signing of Juan Rivera or handing the starting catching job to out-of-options A.J. Ellis and the starting shortstop job to Dee Gordon.

For all the credit that obviously should go to Kemp, who was named the National League's Player of the Month on Wednesday, and RBI machine Andre Ethier for the team's fast start, the pieces that were added have upgraded its supporting cast.

Rivera has been out a week with a slight left hamstring strain, the contributions of Kennedy, Treanor and Coffey have been limited while Gordon has been brilliant at times but struggled at others.

Overall, working strategically with a slashed payroll, Colletti seems to have succeeded with his goals of signing two starting pitchers for the price of one Hiroki Kuroda; of improving defense at second base; and the addition of a versatile right-handed bat in Hairston to counter opposing left-handed pitching.

"I felt there were areas we needed to upgrade," said Colletti. "Mark Ellis has been really good for us, defensively and with key hits. A.J. has been exactly what the staff said he'd be -- a hard worker, a handler of the pitchers, a guy with a great on-base percentage. His diligence wasn't lost on us. And Hairston has given us defensively versatility. The pitchers have kept us in the game, which is what you ask from the back end of the rotation, and they've really done that.

"We're going to need to be more balanced offensively. We can't leave everything at the feet of Matt and Andre. We're going to have to pass it around."

Manager Don Mattingly has been especially impressed with the two Ellises.

Here's what he said about Mark Ellis, who is batting .276 and handling the unselfish role of No. 2 hitter ahead of Kemp:

"He's been great, better than I honestly thought he was. I didn't do enough research. He grows on you all the time. He's been tremendous at second. But he's also a good hitter, he knows exactly what to do at the plate. He's given himself up six or seven times. For me, I love him."

Mark Ellis isn't surprised by his manager's reaction.

"I'm just doing what I always do, this is who I am and I try to be the same guy," said the 11-year veteran. "I played most of my career in Oakland, and not a lot of people see you on the West Coast, and the last couple years, we didn't have a very good team. I fly under the radar, and that's fine. I get in trouble when I try to do too much. This team, I don't have to do that. I know what a good play is and what a bad play is. I take pride in playing the game the right way."

Here's what Mattingly said about A.J. Ellis, who has a .306 average and .449 on-base percentage, third in the league:

"He's been really good, even better than I thought. The biggest area -- I'm not talking about his hits -- is the leadership, and you can just see it. You can tell he's slowed the game down. He's taking charge. We had a first-and-third and I got busy with something and he was waiting for a sign and he just put the play on himself. I looked up and he was already all over it. He's been everything we want. He studies, he knows what he's calling. Everybody is trying to find offense, but A.J. has been that guy you want back there. He has such a good feeling, you know he's studied and he knows where he's going to go."

Los Angeles Dodgers, Ronald Belisario, Chris Capuano, Todd Coffey, A.J. Ellis, Mark Ellis, Jerry Hairston, Aaron Harang, Matt Kemp, Adam Kennedy, Clayton Kershaw, Matt Treanor