- Mark Saxon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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It's no secret the Dodgers would like to add a starting pitcher, ideally in the No. 2 spot behind Clayton Kershaw. In fact, their ability to improve the rotation might prove decisive in whether they can close the gap on the pitching-rich San Francisco Giants.
And, now that free agency is underway, it's a good bet the Dodgers have reached out to at least one or two available pitchers' agents. Let's take a look at some of the candidates and discuss how they might fare in a Dodgers uniform:
1. James Shields
Technically, he's not available. But everyone views him as available. The Tampa Bay Rays last week picked up his $10.25 million option for 2013, making Shields the highest-paid player in the history of the Rays' franchise and, with David Price due for a huge raise via arbitration, the Rays probably can't afford them both.
The Rays could have seven starting pitchers going into spring training and they desperately need position players. Just after the Rays announced they had picked up his option, Shields acknowledged he could be traded.
"In the past years, my name has been thrown out there quite a bit and I expect it to be thrown out there this off-season as well," Shields told Tampa-area reporters.
The Dodgers would have competition, but it's not out of the question they could acquire Shields this winter. At their organizational meetings shortly after the season ended, according to a source, they identified him as their top target. They could put a package together around shortstop Dee Gordon, who would otherwise figure to start next season at Triple-A, to get the conversation started.
Shields, 30, couldn't match his Cy Young-caliber form of the season before in 2012, but he was still better than solid pitching in the toughest division in baseball. He was 15-10 with a 3.52 ERA and 1.168 WHIP. His fastball velocity (92.3 mph) was actually up a tick from the year before, so his health appears sound. Luck might have been the main difference between his two seasons, as his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) rose from .258 in 2011 to .292 last year.
Shields' crucial edge over the rest of the pitchers on this list is cost control. As fragile as pitchers are, long-term contracts for free agents rarely wind up making financial sense. The Dodgers' risk would be limited to one or two seasons with Shields, who also has a club option for 2014 (at $12 million). It's pretty clear why Shields is the Dodgers' preferred choice, but it will take more than writing the biggest check to land him and that's the tricky part.
2. Zack Greinke
Here is what ESPN's Keith Law wrote about the highest-profile free agent pitcher on the market:
What you will hear about Greinke, unfortunately, are references to his battles with anxiety and depression, as if they constitute bad makeup or make him unfit to play in a high-pressure market. Greinke's condition, which is a medical matter and not a personality defect, has been under control for years, and he has pitched in pennant races the past two years, this last one in a major media market. If he is not a true No. 1 starter, then he's a 1A, which is more about an occasional tendency to get too much of the plate than about any softness in his character. I'd be very comfortable giving him a five-year deal.
The question around Greinke has always been where he would be comfortable playing. His first two stops were in smaller markets in the middle of the country, Kansas City and Milwaukee. After he was traded to the Angels last season, he said he liked Southern California and had no trouble pitching in this market.
The fact that New York and Boston are off the table is a huge assist to the Angels and Dodgers, but the price could still soar if the two local teams are pitted in a bidding war for Greinke.
The Angels, who have lost Ervin Santana and Dan Haren this winter, might be more desperate to land Greinke, but the Dodgers proved last summer there's virtually no limit to the amount of money they're willing to spend to improve the team. Local TV deals have shifted the balance of power -- at least financially -- to the West Coast, which could make Southern California the center of the off-season universe.
Pitching for mostly bad teams, Greinke is 91-78 with a 3.77 ERA lifetime. He just turned 29, so he is less risky than many pitchers who reach free agency. The question you have to ask is whether he'll be worth $100 million or more over five years. Also, signing Greinke to a mega-deal could make it even more expensive to lock up Kershaw, who -- justifiably -- would likely want to be the team's highest-paid pitcher.
3. Kyle Lohse
His numbers last season (16-3, 2.86 ERA) were easily the best of any pitcher on this list and he answered some questions about his ability to pitch under pressure with some good post-season starts (and one really bad one). But is he the kind of guy you want to lean on in Game 2 of a playoff series? That's what contending teams will be asking themselves this winter, because Lohse will probably get the second most-lucrative free agent contract for a pitcher.
His stuff, with a fastball that barely touches 90 mph, doesn't suggest he'll be a top-of-the-rotation starter and he has reached 200 innings just three times in a 12-year career. If the Dodgers can't land Shields or Greinke, he's a good fall-back option, but fans shouldn't view him as a major difference maker.
4. Hiroki Kuroda
He seemed like just another aging veteran the New York Yankees were collecting to guard against injuries in their rotation, but he pitched one of his finest seasons -- in the toughest division and one of the toughest places to pitch. Kuroda was 16-11 with a 3.32 over 219 2/3 innings. Those numbers are the absolute definition of a good No. 2 starter.
Kuroda's first four seasons were in Los Angeles, so we know he's willing to pitch in this market. The only red flags are age -- 38 -- and declining velocity. Still, the Dodgers might be better-served to scrape together a competitive two-year package for someone they know rather than risk a long-term deal on someone they don't.
5. Dan Haren
He's the X-factor in the free-agent market. He could prove to be the steal of the winter or a painfully costly mistake and it all hinges on the health of his lower back and right arm.
Haren wasn't just one of the most durable starters in baseball for eight years, he was one of the best. From 2005 to 2011, he pitched at least 216 innings and struck out at least 140 batters a year. You could look at the heavy workloads in two ways, of course. You can say that he has the type of physique to handle such abuse or you can wonder whether all that wear and tear has finally taken its toll.
Haren's declining fastball velocity finally caught up with him last year as it didn't afford him enough separation from his strikeout pitch. If he can work in the 89-91 mph range, his split-finger fastball is far more devastating than when he works at 86-88, as he did much of last year.
A winter of rest, coupled with physical therapy, could allow Haren, 32, to bounce back strong in 2013 and he'll likely be determined to prove he's still got it. He's settled with his family in Irvine and might be willing to give the Dodgers a discount to stay close to home.