Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Updated: January 7, 1:57 PM ET
Leaders of the back of the pack
By Tony Jackson
You already know Chad Billingsley, the would-be staff ace who hasn't quite gotten there yet. You know all about Hiroki Kuroda, the Japanese import and the lone veteran presence. And you know Clayton Kershaw, the lefty wunderkind who by the time he was 21 already had drawn at least one comparison to Sandy Koufax.
But what of the rest of the Dodgers' starting rotation?
The front office is still on the lookout for a fourth starter, and there are still several candidates available on the quickly diminishing free-agent market. Recent history would suggest that general manager Ned Colletti will find a way to fill the void sometime before Opening Day, if not before the start of spring training. That will leave five candidates to compete for the final spot -- or if Colletti isn't able to find another starter, two spots -- in the rotation.
They are, in alphabetical order: Scott Elbert, Charlie Haeger, James McDonald, Carlos Monasterios and Eric Stults. Not a Cy Young Award candidate among the group, but at the same time, each one has at least some potential to be pretty good.
With the exception of Monasterios, a newcomer to the organization, Dodgers fans have gotten passing glimpses of each of the other four. But for the most part, that is all they have, so it's tough to predict what any of these guys will do if given a regular rotation spot over a long period of time.
For now, all we have to go on is their relatively limited histories. But for what it's worth, here is a nutshell look at each one of them, with a little help from Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt:
Scott Elbert, left-hander, 24 years old
A former first-round draft pick whose career was derailed by missing almost all of the 2007 season with a shoulder injury, he has yet to make a start in the majors. His 28 relief appearances over the past two years have been a mixed bag, but he turned one corner on July 11, 2009, his first appearance after the second of his four call-ups last season, when he relieved an ineffective Jeff Weaver and gave the Dodgers 2 2/3 shutout innings so manager Joe Torre didn't have to raid the bullpen. He turned another in September, when he allowed just one run in his final 10 appearances (playoffs included) pitching in a situational role.
Elbert has a power slider that he throws in multiple ways to create varying degrees of break and a changeup that he didn't need out of the 'pen. He'll need it now.
"He started smoothing out his delivery a little bit at the end of the season and came in and got some big outs for us,'' Honeycutt said. "Now we'll get a chance to see him get more innings in spring training and be able to use his third pitch. He didn't get a chance to use his changeup that much out of the bullpen. Scotty, to me, is a pitcher that has a lot of toughness in there, a killer-mentality kind of guy.''
Charlie Haeger, right-hander, 26
He throws the knuckleball primarily, but not exclusively. In the second of his three starts last season, he pitched seven shutout innings in a nationally televised game against the Chicago Cubs. But it was his first start, when he gave up three runs over seven innings against St. Louis on Aug. 17, which got Honeycutt's attention.
"He only went to one three-ball count and didn't walk anybody,'' Honeycutt said of that game. "The main thing about [the knuckleball] is that he is able to throw strikes with it and is consistently around the plate. He pitched ahead in the count, and you couldn't have asked for anything more from the first two outings he gave us at a time when we really needed it.''
Alas, his third outing was lackluster, and in the unforgiving world of big league baseball, that was enough to earn him a one-way ticket to the bullpen. Once there, he retired eight of 11 batters over three scoreless appearances, good enough that re-signing him this winter was a no-brainer for the club.
James McDonald, right-hander, 25
He came into last season as the organization's top pitching prospect, at least among those who were close to the majors. As with all rookies, there were growing pains. After beginning the season as the fifth starter, he was out of the rotation by the end of April with an inflated 8.78 ERA in four starts. But he became a solid presence in the bullpen, primarily in a sixth- and seventh-inning role, and might have the most potential of anyone in this group. As a reliever, McDonald had a 2.72 ERA in 41 appearances.
He throws a fastball, changeup and curve.
"Getting those [four] starts he got last year, he saw what it takes to become an every-fifth-day man in the rotation at the next level, even though he had been great at it in the minor leagues,'' Honeycutt said. "On the physical side, obviously the stuff is there. We saw some outings last year where you just go, 'Wow.' Now it's just a matter of continuing to get better at the mental part, that constant preparation that goes into it.''
Carlos Monasterios, right-hander, 23
He has never pitched above Double-A, but he had never been a full-time starter, either, until he got to the Venezuelan Winter League last fall and went 7-4 with a 4.35 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 2-1 for the Margarita Braves. The Dodgers wanted him so badly that they paid the New York Mets to take him from Philadelphia with their higher Rule 5 pick last month and then trade him to Los Angeles.
Monasterios is a power pitcher who throws a fastball, sinker, changeup and slider, but other than that, he is unknown to Honeycutt, who will get his first look in spring training. But the front office knows him well. As a Rule 5 pick, he could have a leg up in this competition because the Dodgers risk having to send him back to the Phillies if they don't keep him on the active roster all season.
The Dodgers have taken chances on similarly inexperienced pitchers before, with some success. Right-hander Ronald Belisario, who also hadn't pitched above Double-A, made the club out of camp last year and stayed all season, becoming a key cog in the bullpen.
Eric Stults, left-hander, 30
The quintessential organization guy, he has now spent four seasons shuttling back and forth between Triple-A and the majors, and his career body of work is less than eye-popping. He is 8-10 with a 4.84 ERA. But he has been brilliant at times, and he has almost as many complete-game shutouts (two) as Billingsley, Kuroda and Kershaw combined (three).
At his age, Stults probably isn't going to get a whole lot better. But Stults at his best is pretty good. Now, it's just a matter of being at his best consistently, and that might in turn be a matter of developing more confidence.
"When you look back at his time with us, it's amazing how every year, we have counted on him and he has come through with some very big starts at big times,'' Honeycutt said. "But when you're always on a winning team, there is obviously a certain amount of pressure and responsibility that goes along with that. I think for him, it's kind of unfortunate that at times, if there is a bad game or something goes wrong, what can happen to a young guy is he starts trying to do more and putting undue pressure on himself.''
Besides his fastball, curveball and what Honeycutt describes as a plus changeup, Stults made strides last season with a cutter that bears in on right-handed hitters.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.