Friday, October 12, 2012
Grading the rotation
By Mark Saxon
The Dodgers scoured the country for opinions on Clayton Kershaw's injured right hip, consulting three of the best-known specialists. All three said Kershaw did not need surgery, general manager Ned Colletti said.
That means the Dodgers have to hope Kershaw can strengthen the joint through off-season exercises, then cross their fingers and hope it doesn't return in 2013. While they're at it, they may as well cross the rest of their fingers, too. They're hoping Chad Billingsley doesn't miss 2013 recovering from Tommy John surgery and that Ted Lilly's shoulder bounces back strong.
Add the mystery of whether they'll be able to land one of the top free-agent starters on the market over the next few months and you've got a lot of "ifs" for 2013. Then again, the Dodgers' starting rotation withstood a lot of doubt in 2012, as well, including injuries to each of the three pitches mentioned above, and soldiered on stoutly. Dodgers starters, led by a borderline Cy Young season from Kershaw, collectively had a 3.34 ERA, second in the National League to the Washington Nationals.
The only glaring difference between Kershaw's 2011 Cy Young year and last season was run and bullpen support -- in other words wins, which went from 21 to 14. For the second year in a row, he led the league in ERA, WHIP and hits per nine innings. His strikeouts were down modestly, from 248 to 229, but that can be accounted for by missing a couple of starts near the end of the season. Assuming he stays healthy, Kershaw might actually get better. Starting pitchers typically reach the apex of their abilities in their age 29 season, five years away for Kershaw.
Getting Kershaw signed beyond 2013 would have been a major priority this winter, but now the team might have to wait to see how his hip responds next season before ramping up those talks.
Colletti wasn't exactly widely praised when he signed Chris Capuano (two years, $10 million) and Aaron Harang (two years, $12 million) last winter, but now they look like relative bargains. Between them, they won 22 games and each pitched more than 175 innings and had sub 3.80 ERAs. Colletti might look at those two examples and decide to shop for a bargain rather than offering a five- or six-year deal to a No. 1 starter such as Zack Greinke. Long-term, nine-figure deals with starting pitchers in their 30s rarely work out well in the end.
The Dodgers have to plan this winter as if they'll be without Lilly and Billingsley. Losing them both would be a major blow, though each was only sporadically available to Don Mattingly last season. Lilly only pitched eight games, but he was 5-1 with a 3.14 ERA in them. Billingsley was on a serious roll when he injured his elbow for the second time in the season. He was headed for his best season since his second year in the big leagues, 2007.
The Dodgers should know within a couple of weeks whether Billingsley will undergo Tommy John surgery. They may not know Lilly's status until spring training.
Josh Beckett seemed to benefit from getting out of Boston and, by extension, the more-rugged American League. In 21 starts for the Red Sox, he was 5-11 with a 5.23 ERA. In seven starts for the Dodgers, he was 2-3 with a 2.93 ERA.
He did well for the Dodgers, but, at 33, is he a bona fide No. 2 starter any more? The Dodgers' inclination seems to be finding a No. 2 guy they can slip between Kershaw and Beckett. Depth isn't their major worry. Top-of-the-rotation talent is.
They'll likely lose Joe Blanton to free agency, but Stephen Fife pitched better anyway. They already lost Rubby De La Rosa in the deal with Boston and that could easily make them look bad in a season or two, especially if Beckett's struggles resume.
The Dodgers do have serious questions about their pitching going into next spring, but fewer than most teams. And they've already proven they're pretty adept at patching things together.