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2015 Position Outlook: Starting pitchers

10/29/2014
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LOS ANGELES – Just replicating the performance of their starting rotation -- second-best in the majors to the Washington Nationals -- will be a major challenge for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2015.

It’s hard to ask Clayton Kershaw to perform any better after a season in which he was a Cy Young shoo-in and a likely league MVP, leaving aside his performance in the postseason. Beyond Zack Greinke – who could opt out of his deal at the conclusion of next season – and Hyun-Jin Ryu, the Dodgers lack depth. Josh Beckett has retired. Dan Haren will turn 35 in June. Roberto Hernandez and Kevin Correia weren’t good enough to merit much discussion about them returning.

The Dodgers’ only starting pitching prospect worth getting excited about, Julio Urias, turned 18 just a couple of months ago and would do well to spend most of next season at Double-A Tulsa.

The Dodgers, as everyone knows, need to pick up at least one starting pitcher via free agency and, for once, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There is a surprisingly robust selection of pitchers who will be looking for contracts this winter, and it could turn into a buyer’s market.

Before the team picked up Andrew Friedman from Tampa Bay to run its front office, the organization's thinking was to pursue second- and third-tier starting pitchers who aren’t connected to draft picks, which eliminated Max Scherzer and James Shields. Jon Lester won’t have a pick attached to him since he was traded in midseason, but the Dodgers don’t seem willing to lay out big money on a pitcher who will start 2015 as a 31-year old. They seem to have enough overripe contracts on the books. And giving up draft picks just isn’t part of the team’s philosophy. Even the Greinke deal didn’t cost them a pick since he had been traded to the Angels that year.

If anything, Friedman’s arrival figures to signal lower payrolls, reinforcing the notion the Dodgers will be looking for bargains, not big-headline splashes. It’s unlikely they’ll get under $200 million next season, but the notion is to streamline. Team president Stan Kasten says the Dodgers are entering what he calls “Phase 2,” and they’re hoping that will mean teams whose framework is homegrown players rather than free agents and high-priced trade targets. Friedman addressed that at his introductory news conference.

“I think we’re going to solve for winning, and I think the payroll part of it will be a byproduct of that,” Friedman said. “A healthy, highly functioning organization has a lot of good, young players interjected with veteran, star players. To be able to do that in a way that allows you remain competitive, that’s our challenge. That’s the thing that will drive us every single day in what we do.”

The next-costliest potential acquisition after Scherzer, Shields or Lester could be Japanese right-hander Kenta Maeda, presuming his team, the Hiroshima Carp, even puts him through the posting process. Maeda seems like a long shot for non-financial reasons, as well as financial ones (there has been speculation he could cost more than $100 million). He has reportedly expressed an interest in signing with the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox if he comes across the Pacific, and those two superpowers should be able to provide all the bidding war he needs to become fabulously wealthy. The Dodgers might eventually get linked to Maeda since they seem to eventually get linked to all high-priced free agents, but it seems less than probable they'll net him.

The Dodgers could also pursue left-hander Kwang Hyun-Kim, who was the second-best pitcher in Korea for many years after Ryu and is expected to be posted. But Kim is coming off a season in which he had a 3.42 ERA, and he dealt with injuries in his previous three seasons. He also doesn’t have the international track record of success that Ryu had, making him a far riskier proposition.

The next tier of free agents figures to be the pool the Dodgers spend the most time in: Ervin Santana seems like precisely the kind of pitcher the Dodgers are looking for, a reliable No. 4 starter-type, but his market might prove surprisingly robust. Jason Hammel could prove to be a bargain after he faded once he was traded to the Oakland A’s, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. The Dodgers had Edinson Volquez two Septembers ago before he re-established his value with the Pittsburgh Pirates, perhaps in part due to some mechanical adjustments Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt made with him.

Jake Peavy hasn’t exactly inspired confidence with his work in the World Series, Justin Masterson has questions about his health, and who knows about Brandon McCarthy, who was pretty awful pitching in the NL West, and Francisco Liriano, who doesn’t throw strikes?

The first major decision for Friedman’s front office will be whether to tender a qualifying offer to shortstop Hanley Ramirez, but the first real challenge for his team will be to pick the right starting pitcher or pitchers. One of the reasons Friedman got the Dodgers' job is that his predecessor, Ned Colletti, wasted so much money on a bullpen that proved the Dodgers’ biggest weakness. Friedman comes with a reputation for building powerhouse pitching staffs year after year even while trading off veterans as they approached free agency to save dollars and replenish young talent.

He also helped install a program that kept Tampa’s pitchers healthy, which is often half the battle.