For some clubs, the fifth spot in the starting rotation is a veritable afterthought. It often is destined to be filled by some poster boy for mediocrity who can tolerate being skipped every time there is an off day. For the Dodgers, who officially open spring training on Friday in Vero Beach, Fla., the battle for that final starting job will be the most compelling story of the next six weeks. And that alone speaks volumes of how far the team has come in the past year. That’s why the only thing left to hash out is who gets to pitch on the rare day when neither Jason Schmidt, Derek Lowe, Randy Wolf nor Brad Penny is scheduled to start. The Dodgers’ own version of “Survivor” will start with six contestants. Two of them, veterans Mark Hendrickson and Brett Tomko, have the luxury of knowing there is a bullpen spot waiting if he doesn’t land in the rotation. “Whatever happens in the competition for the fifth spot also will have an impact on the competition for bullpen spots,” Colletti said. The rest – Chad Billingsley, Hong-Chih Kuo, Eric Stults and long shot D.J. Houlton – know they could start the season in the minors. It’s impossible to identify a favorite at this stage, but club officials probably are rooting for Billingsley. The Dodgers’ top pitching prospect for several years struggled in his big league debut last season despite going 7-4 with a 3.80 ERA. His problems stemmed from throwing too many pitches and walking too many batters (58 in 90 innings), an issue that has plagued him throughout his professional career and might not be fixable. But Billingsley, still just 22, potentially is devastating as a power pitcher, a fact that makes all those deep counts a little more tolerable. Kuo, 25, was awful out of the bullpen last year in going 0-4 with a 5.34 ERA. But he turned in six scoreless innings in his first career start on Sept. 8 against the New York Mets and stayed in the rotation thereafter with a 1-1 record and 3.07 ERA. He also displayed more poise than Billingsley, a fact that might make Kuo the odds-on favorite going into the spring. He could be helped by the fact he would give the Dodgers a second left-hander, with Wolf, in the rotation. For that matter, so would Hendrickson, 32, who went to the bullpen when Kuo became a starter. At that time, Hendrickson was 1-7 since being acquired from Tampa Bay on June 27. Thereafter, as a reliever, he allowed just one run in 10 appearances. Tomko, whose career has been a testament to unfilled expectations, agreed last July to go to the bullpen after going 6-6 with a 5.12 ERA as a starter. But he made the switch believing he eventually would work into a prominent, late-innings role. He instead pitched mostly in middle relief. Stults, another left-hander, made two impressive starts last season, but he is 27 and not a top-tier prospect. The odds of him making the rotation are long. Houlton also is 27 and didn’t pitch in the majors at all last year after a mediocre rookie season in 2005 when he had to stay in the big leagues because he was a Rule 5 pick. He’ll need a phenomenal spring, much like he had two years ago, to win this battle. If none of these candidates distinguishes himself, the job still could fall to veteran Elmer Dessens. But that seems highly unlikely. “We like him in the (middle relief) role we have him in now,” Colletti said. [email protected] (818) 713-3607 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! In 2006, the Dodgers went to camp after being quickly patched together by new general manager Ned Colletti, who got the job only after several others withdrew from consideration because of the organization’s league-wide image problem. Colletti and his hand-picked manager, Grady Little, rebuilt the club not only to the point that it made the playoffs last fall, but to where it arguably boasts the league’s deepest rotation.