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Troubles continue at back end of rotation

8/4/2014
With no bullpen work between starts since coming off the DL, Josh Beckett is having trouble rediscovering his mechanics, as evidenced by his loss to the Cubs on Sunday. Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES -- There was a vigorous debate around town after last week’s trade deadline, during which the Los Angeles Dodgers netted infielder Darwin Barney -- sent immediately to Triple-A Albuquerque -- and nothing else.

Should the Los Angeles Dodgers instead have gone full Billy Beane in pursuit of available aces Jon Lester and David Price?

General manager Ned Colletti says the cost in prospects -- and, by extension, the team’s long-term health -- would have been too high.

Determining whether Colletti is right or wrong will require not just the rest of this season but the next four or five years, at least.

In the now, however, it’s hard to argue the Dodgers don’t need another arm.

L.A.’s rotation is gravitating quickly toward two extremes.

On one end, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Hyun-Jin Ryu form a dominant top three.

At the other end? Well, Dan Haren (8-9) allowed 20 earned runs over 19 innings in July, then kicked off August by allowing six earned without escaping the fifth Friday against the Chicago Cubs in a Dodgers loss. And on Sunday, Josh Beckett (6-6) was hit hard in his first two starts since a left hip impingement landed him on the disabled list on July 8, needing 94 pitches to get 12 outs before losing the rubber match of L.A.’s three-game set against Cubs.

There were positive moments for Beckett on Sunday, including a stretch of four straight strikeouts ending the first and starting the second. But the consistency of Beckett’s location wasn’t there, most notably on a 1-2, fifth-inning changeup staying flat across the strike zone that was ripped over the wall in left center by Cubs left fielder Chris Coghlan to give Chicago a 3-1 lead.

“You’ve got to make better pitches in the big leagues,” Beckett said. “[The media] keep harping on how [the Cubs are] in last place, but if you don’t make good pitches to these guys, they get hits.

“I didn’t throw enough strikes, and the strikes I did throw weren’t good enough.”

Beckett said his hip felt better Sunday than it had before, but Dodgers manager Don Mattingly noted how the injury has torn the right-hander’s routine between starts to shreds.

“That’s just the way it is,” Mattingly said, “and I don’t think that’s going to really change.”

Beckett hasn’t thrown a bullpen session between starts since coming off the DL, instead trying to rediscover his mechanics on flat ground.

“I feel like it’s robbing Peter to pay Paul if I try to throw a bullpen,” he said. “I feel like I can shut my flat ground [sessions] down if I’m not mentally where I want. If I get on the mound, it just turns into a grind.”

And while he resisted using the injury and the limitations it has brought as an excuse, clearly Beckett isn’t working in the same context as he was before the DL, when he was a legitimate All-Star candidate through the 17 starts.

“I’m just trying to get some sort of feel for what is normal and allows me to get the ball down in the zone,” he said.

The need to plug holes at the back end of the rotation is certainly something with which the Dodgers have experience.

“Last year if you think back, we struggled with the back end and ended up getting Ricky [Nolasco] late in the year, and he pitched really good for us,” Mattingly said. “We ended up getting [Edinson] Volquez. He came up late. We were having trouble last year with these same slots.”

The Dodgers came through last season, winning the division and coming within two games of the World Series.

“This year, we weren’t [having trouble], but we have been lately,” Mattingly added. “Early in the year, Josh was fabulous, Danny was really good. Now it’s kind of flipped, where our back-end guys are struggling.”

The Dodgers are not unique across baseball, or even other playoff contenders, in needing to patch holes with their fourth and fifth starters, something fairly easy to forget once everyone gets used to a glut of great pitching.

But for a team with championship ambition, driven by pitching, any dents in the armor raise real concern.

The pressure on L.A.’s top three starters to stay healthy and dominate only increases, both now and in the postseason. The farm has few natural candidates to replace either Beckett or Haren, who at this point is scheduled to start Wednesday in Anaheim against the Los Angeles Angels. And predicting what will be available this month before the waiver trading deadline is tough.

As of Sunday, the Dodgers will cross their fingers, because for the time being, at least, help will be hard to find.

“You have to have a starter, and they have to start, or if you have a guy who comes out of the minor leagues, he has to have a roster spot,” Mattingly said. “It’s not quite as easy as, ‘Hey, we’re going to bring somebody in and give these guys a rest.’

“We’ve tried to use the off days to give Danny a little break. We used obviously the All-Star break and Josh going on the DL to give him a little break. You do what you can, but you just don’t have all these guys to be able to use anybody you want.”

Judging L.A.’s inaction based on less than a week of post-deadline baseball isn’t fair. Who knows if there were even deals to be made, anyway? (The other team gets a vote, after all.)

There are still avenues to improve the team. The Dodgers are still the class of the NL West, and arguably the National League. What they lack now is a margin for error, and the ability to extend little luxuries of preservation to Kershaw, Greinke and Ryu, who has the potential to be important in October.

Price or Lester, if they were tangible options, may have been too expensive. They may have represented excess. They certainly would have been risky.

But after this weekend, excess and risk would look awfully good in Dodger blue.