Five questions about the rotation

January, 28, 2014
Jan 28
11:53
AM PT
There were a lot of rumors, a lot of discussions, but there was not a lot of action.

The Dodgers added veteran Dan Haren to the starting pitching rotation back in November and then flirted with the idea of trading for David Price. They then courted Masahiro Tanaka, but not as vigorously as the New York Yankees, who signed him to a record $155 million deal last week.

They might not be done, though they also might be. They’re still talking to the agents for some of the remaining starters on the market, a fairly robust group for this time of year. However, with a couple of the best remaining pitchers attached to draft-pick compensation, the Dodgers’ interest appears tepid. If they add a veteran, say a Bronson Arroyo, it would likely mean he fell into their lap.

Should they have worked harder to stockpile, as they did with bullpen arms, or is there a limit to how many expensive players a team should hoard? We’ll begin to get some of the answers in 11 days, when pitchers report to Camelback Ranch for spring training.

One observer, ESPN.com’s David Schoenfield, expects the Dodgers’ pitching to regress from its perch as the best staff in MLB. He ranks the Dodgers’ rotation, which had a 3.13 ERA last year, sixth behind the Yankees’, which had a 4.08 ERA last year.

Let’s take a look at some of the big questions for a rotation that, even lightly tampered with, carries big expectations:

How much does Haren have left?

On April 6, 2011, Haren pitched a brilliant game against the Tampa Bay Rays, going 7 2/3 innings and allowing just four hits in a 1-0 Angels’ win. Three days later, the Angels went extra innings against the Toronto Blue Jays and manager Mike Scioscia, out of pitchers, gave Haren the ball in the 14th inning. He pitched a perfect inning and the Angels rallied to win in the bottom half.

Remarkably for this era, Haren was on the mound again three days later. This time, he was outright brilliant, almost special, holding the Cleveland Indians to one hit over nine innings in a 3-0 complete-game shutout.

Haren went on to have an outstanding 2011 season, finishing seventh in Cy Young voting, but, looking back, was that the moment -- a stretch in which Haren threw 248 pitches in six days -- when the wear and tear began taking its toll?

From 2005 to 20011, Haren was the most durable starting pitcher in baseball. He literally never missed a start. He was also one of the most underrated players in the game, largely because his teams never reached the playoffs. But his combined ERA for the past two seasons, 4.50, is a radical departure and, in each of those seasons he has had to miss starts due to injuries.

Haren’s average fastball velocity, according to Fangraphs, dipped into the 80s for the first time in his career over those two seasons. That drop in velocity, though it may just be 2 mph, is crucial for Haren, because his strikeout pitch, the split-finger, relies on a decent separation with his four-seam fastball.

I liked the signing and still do. If Haren can regain just a little oomph on his fastball, he could be a bargain whether his deal turns into a one-year commitment or two. In fact, if he’s as good as he was in 2011, he’d be a pretty good approximation of Tanaka -- an extreme control pitcher with a devastating splitter -- at one-fifteenth the cost.

Will (can) Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley contribute?

If the Dodgers sign Arroyo or someone else, they could have about $28 million worth of starting pitching with nowhere to go. Josh Beckett, who makes $15.75 million next season, is supposed to be good to go following surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome and Chad Billingsley, who makes $12 million, is expected back in June from Tommy John surgery.
The prognosis for both pitchers, over the long term, is relatively decent. Beckett is still only 33. A good proportion of pitchers who underwent his surgery recovered fully. Billingsley is 29, in the midst of his prime.

Both pitchers also will be looking to put up numbers going into free agency, but if the rest of the Dodgers’ rotation stays healthy, there will be nowhere to put either of them. Neither pitcher seems like a good fit in the bullpen, which is crowded with veterans to begin with.

If Beckett comes out of spring training strong, the Dodgers could be stronger at the back of their rotation than people are giving them credit for. They’ll be stacked with experience and savvy, that's for sure.

Will Hyun-Jin Ryu slip?

On Monday, the Dodgers’ official Twitter feed posted a photo of Ryu hugging teammate Yasiel Puig in the team’s Dodger Stadium weight room. According to reports from Korea, Ryu flew to Los Angeles two weeks early to get in better condition for the 2014 season, intent on avoiding a sophomore slump.

Last spring, the photos of Ryu circulating on the Internet were taken at In ‘N Out burger and he was practically lapped in the pitchers’ first run at Camelback Ranch.

"As long as I can stay healthy, I don't think my stats will change that drastically,” Ryu told Korean reporters.

That would be good news, giving the Dodgers’ rotation excellent pitching depth once again. Ryu went 14-8 with a 3.00 ERA in 30 starts, striking out 154 batters and walking 48 in 192 innings. He finished strong, with a 2.57 ERA in his last 11 starts, but hitters will be more aware of his delivery and stuff in 2014, likely prompting some counter-adjustments.

Will there be any spillover from Kershaw’s final 2013 start?

On the conference call to discuss his new seven-year, $215 million contract extension, I asked Clayton Kershaw whether his final outing of 2013 has served as extra motivation for his off-season workouts.

“I don’t need any motivation. It definitely went wrong, definitely wasn’t a good start, definitely not a good time for it,” Kershaw said. “I definitely feel, obviously, pretty responsible for us ending our season. It definitely was not a good feeling. It leaves a little bitter taste in my mouth just having that be the last game I pitched all season. I definitely don’t want that to happen again.”

In winning his second Cy Young award in three seasons, Kershaw didn’t pitch fewer than five innings all season. He went four that evening in St. Louis.

The Cardinals had five hits in the third inning. Kershaw allowed five hits or fewer in 20 of his 33 starts last regular season.

It was an impressive performance by the Cardinals, possibly aided by their ability to pick up the location of his pitches before they were thrown, but will there be any impact -- negative of positive -- on Kershaw’s ability to lead the Dodgers’ staff in 2014?

What about the kids?

In 2013, Matt Palmer led the Albuquerque Isotopes in innings pitched. Palmer is 35 and has pitched in practically every competitive baseball league on earth (he currently is listed on the roster of the Seattle Mariners’ Triple-A club).

It’s fair to say the Dodgers didn’t have a lot of top-end talent stored in the minor leagues when they needed to tap into their starting pitching depth. Matt Magill gave them a few decent starts and two awful starts.

This year could be different. Magill, Zach Lee, Ross Stripling, Chris Reed, Stephen Fife and Red Patterson could all be options when the Dodgers need to make the call to the minor leagues. Lee (3.22 ERA, 131 strikeouts), Reed (3.86 ERA) and Stripling (2.78 ERA, 1.17 WHIP) were three of the better starters in the Southern League and figure to reach Triple-A at some point next season, meaning they’re a phone call away.

In fact, the Dodgers might be better served waiting for one of their homegrown pitchers to mature rather than overpaying for a veteran in free agency. Whichever path they take, they can’t entirely take the mystery out of the equation.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Dan Haren
WINS ERA SO IP
3 2.16 20 25
OTHER LEADERS
BAD. Gordon .375
HRA. Gonzalez 5
RBIA. Gonzalez 17
RA. Gonzalez 13
OPSA. Gonzalez .946
ERAH. Ryu 1.93
SOZ. Greinke 29