Chances running out for these Dodgers

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Normally, Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti would prefer to have this kind of chat in his office. Upstairs, away from prying eyes, out of earshot.

But on this day he preferred to be outdoors in the sun, in full view of every Dodgers player or coach who walked past.

He is always watching closely. A general manager can never truly rest.

But this year he appears to be both watching and making sure everybody knows he's watching.

Over the next few seasons, Colletti will need to make some of the most important decisions of his career.

The Dodgers' so-called "kids" -- the talented group of 20-somethings who led them to back-to-back National League Championship Series in 2008 and 2009 -- are approaching free agency.

Jonathan Broxton will be a free agent after this season; Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, Chad Billingsley and James Loney will be eligible for free agency the season after that.

At approximately the same time as those players are hitting the open market, the next group of prospects -- Jerry Sands, Dee Gordon, Trayvon Robinson, Zach Lee and Rubby De La Rosa -- should be ready for the big leagues.

All of which makes this year one of the last chances for this group of kids to finally grow up.

There is still room to develop and mature, but the most important developments have already taken place.

"At this stage of their careers," Colletti said, "they've matured and they've grown into the players that they're going to be."

What Colletti really needs to see this year is how that group responds to its first real adversity. Last season, with the exception of Billingsley, the entire group regressed into a frustrated mess.

The question Colletti and his staff must answer is whether that regression was simply a bad year snowballing on each player, or a regression to a more mediocre mean.

"I think the true testament of anybody is really how they persevere or handle situations when they don't go as planned," Colletti said.

"We had a little bit of that in '09; we learned a lot when Manny [Ramirez] left. That wasn't planned. But we not only survived it, but we thrived in it.

"Then last year we just couldn't get untracked … we underachieved."

What Colletti is really saying is that this year will go a long way toward determining which players in that group are part of the Dodgers' long-term future.

"You learn every year, but we're getting to the point that we're going to have some difficult decisions that come up," he noted. "Hopefully they'll be easy decisions in a positive way."

It would be hard to let all of them approach free agency in the same year. Having four key players carrying the burden of a contract year could be a needless distraction for a team that still fashions itself as a contender in the National League.

It's also not a great business decision, since a player's trade value diminishes the closer he gets to free agency.

Colletti understands all of this. He has to have a long-term view of the club.

On some level, so do the players.

But in the interim, all they can do is use this year to prove last year was just a setback, not a downward spiral.

"You always prepare to be the best, but if you stick around long enough, you're probably not going to have a great year every year," Loney said when asked to explain last season's regression.

"I mean, you want to, but there's times when things just aren't going to happen for everybody, all at once, and it gets worse."

Loney has always been the most even-keeled of the group. From game-to-game, month-to-month, his demeanor rarely changes. He handles disappointment better than the rest, shaking off bad at-bats and slumps with one long exhale.

What's interesting is that the Dodgers seem to have done the same in the offseason.

Instead of panicking after last season's disappointment -- as the hated Giants won the World Series -- the Dodgers simply added a new group of veterans to complement the young core, turned things over to new manager Don Mattingly, and decided to make another run with essentially the same group.

"We had a bad second half," Mattingly said. "You can go down the list, but pretty much everything went bad last year.

"But I'm pretty sure we had one of the top offenses in 2009. So I have no reason to think this isn't the same offense. We're just going to have to go out and prove it."

More than just the season is at stake.

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.