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Monday, February 10, 2014
The Search for Answers: Fifth starter

By Mark Saxon

Josh Beckett arrived at the Dodgers’ spring training facility on Monday and told reporters he has little doubt he’ll be ready for the start of the season.

That’s sort of interesting all by itself, considering Beckett had a rib removed near his right shoulder to relieve nerve pressure just seven months ago, but it’s far from the whole story. If Beckett is, in fact, ready, will the Dodgers even need him?

Saturday, they finalized a $1.5 million major-league deal for one final piece of their pitching puzzle just before camp, adding veteran lefty Paul Maholm. Considering Maholm has pitched to a 3.89 ERA the past three seasons and Beckett, 33, hasn’t been that effective since 2011, the job might be Mahom’s to lose.

And, as usual, it’s not that simple.

Beckett is making 10 times Maholm’s salary and hasn’t pitched in relief since 2003, when he was 23 years old, making it hard to stash him if he isn’t in the rotation. It’s hard to imagine him adding much value to the bullpen, which already has seven veterans on guaranteed contracts. If anything, thrust into an unfamiliar role, he might hurt the bullpen by taking a roster spot away from hard thrower Chris Withrow, a pleasant surprise late last summer.

Maholm was told he could be used either as a starter or long reliever. He has barely pitched in relief either (one career appearance, the day before the All-Star break), but the Dodgers had decent luck stashing Chris Capuano there last season, using him as a spot starter.

The beauty of spring training is that these things typically sort themselves out. You just have to wait. Beckett threw his first bullpen session in front of the Dodgers' pitching coaches Monday. Before that, the Dodgers hadn’t seen Beckett throw off a mound since May 13. Once he builds up his stamina, he’ll begin facing live hitters. The Dodgers will get a gauge on his stuff starting today and they’ll get a better read once they see how hitters are reacting to it.

As of now, they have limited data, since surgery to relieve thoracic outlet syndrome is far less common than elbow or shoulder procedures. There are examples of pitches who have bounced back from it, like Kenny Rogers and Matt Harrison, and examples of those who have not, like Chris Carpenter.

“Josh is doing really well, but he’s coming off tough surgery and there’s not a lot of history with that surgery, so we’ll see where things go,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly told’s Ken Gurnick.

The competition to be the Dodgers’ fifth starter will be one of the more intriguing ones this spring, but it’s not as if the suspense is coming to a head any time soon. One of the few advantages to starting the season 7,500 miles from home in Sydney, Australia, is the Dodgers won’t even need a fourth starter until their sixth game of the season and won’t need a fifth starter until mid-April.

By then, there are so many possibilities. What if one of the Dodgers’ young pitchers forces his way onto the field? The team would love to have the veterans excel this spring so it can keep Zach Lee, Ross Stripling, Matt Magill and Chris Reed stashed away in the minor leagues as insurance, but one of those guys could easily scramble those plans with an eye-opening performance this spring. The Dodgers are intent on avoiding another slow start, so they’ll take their most capable team into the season.

What if Beckett is good? What if he feels good and gets his old 94-mph fastball back? He hasn’t pitched as many as 200 innings since 2009, but then again, Maholm hasn’t done so since 2008.

Looking at it from the perspective of early February, it seems as if the Dodgers have nothing but questions about the back of their rotation, but you’d rather have them now than later.