Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Dodgers may have a bargain with Padilla
By Tony Jackson
Vicente Padilla and Randy Wolf were teammates for six seasons in Philadelphia, from 2000 through 2005. During that time, they put up numbers that, while certainly not identical, were at least similar.
Wolf went 59-51 for the Phillies during those years, while Padilla was 49-49. But their ERAs -- 3.98 for Wolf, 3.97 for Padilla -- were remarkably close, and Wolf's WHIP (1.28) was only slightly better than Padilla's (1.34). So what does all this mean in 2010? Well, not much in the grand scheme of things. But it does make a point where the 2010 Dodgers are concerned.
There was a great hue and cry in Los Angeles this offseason because the Dodgers didn't make a serious effort to re-sign Wolf -- not even offering him arbitration -- a decision made from the somewhat irrational fear that he might actually accept it. Instead, the Dodgers chose to fill Wolf's spot in the rotation by re-signing Padilla, a guy with a spottier past but who otherwise stacks up favorably.
Wolf is a fine pitcher, good enough that the Milwaukee Brewers were willing to give him a three-year, $29.75 million contract this winter. But is Padilla, whom the Dodgers got at the bargain basement rate of $5.025 million for one year, really that much of a drop-off?
After signing with the Dodgers last Aug. 20, Padilla went 4-0 with a 3.20 ERA down the stretch. Toss in his three playoff starts, and he was 5-1 with a 3.36 ERA. After Padilla's arrival, Wolf was 4-1 with a 2.61 ERA the rest of the regular season, 4-1 with a 2.97 ERA including his two postseason starts.
The one glaring discrepancy between the two pitchers last season was that Wolf was an innings eater, pitching 214 1/3 of them for the Dodgers, while Padilla hasn't reached the 200-inning plateau since 2006. But before last season, Wolf hadn't gotten to 200 innings since 2003, and he still has done it just once more in his career (four times) than Padilla has in his (three).
Oh, and Padilla, at 32, is also a year younger than Wolf.
So, for better or worse, Padilla will take up his position in a starting rotation with Hiroki Kuroda, Chad Billingsley and lefty Clayton Kershaw, with a host of spring training competitors left to vie for the fifth spot.
By most accounts, including his own, Kuroda's second season in the U.S. was a disappointment, especially given that he missed two months early with an oblique injury and two weeks late after Arizona's Rusty Ryal lined a ball off the right side of his head and into the front row of the stands behind the third-base dugout.
When healthy, though, Kuroda was at least serviceable. His ERA (3.76) was up just three hundredths of a run from his rookie season, his WHIP was an outstanding 1.14 and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was better than 3.6 to 1. But he entered the offseason with a sour aftertaste after blowing up in his only playoff start, a National League Championship Series loss to Philadelphia in which he was torched for six runs in 1 1/3 innings.
At 35, Kuroda is the elder statesman of the rotation, and if you count those 11 years he spent with the Hiroshima Carp, he is also the Dodgers' most experienced starter. He'll likely draw the opening-day nod for the second year in a row.
The Dodgers' most important starter, however, is probably Billingsley. Now entering his fifth season in the majors, he no longer has the luxury of hiding behind his potential. The time for him to get it done is now, and after winning 16 games in 2008 and nine more before last year's All-Star break, he mostly didn't get it done down the stretch.
As he was going 3-7 with a 5.20 ERA for the second half, Billingsley's biggest problem seemed to be an inability to minimize damage, a problem that usually can be traced back to a lack of confidence when confronted with adverse situations. By the time the playoffs rolled around, that lack of confidence clearly had rubbed off on manager Joe Torre and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, who banished Billingsley to the bullpen and called on him just once.
Billingsley's career is now at a crossroads of sorts, but the Dodgers' hopes are right there with him. If he can't regain his old form, they could be in trouble.
Kershaw continued to make strides in his second big league season, but he also had a few pitfalls, none of which were surprising given the fact he still was just 21. Arguably the brightest pitching prospect the Dodgers have seen in a generation, Kershaw was mostly unfazed by an occasional lack of run support and allowed the fewest hits per nine innings (6.26) of any starting pitcher in the majors.
The list of fifth-starter candidates is long. It includes lefties Scott Elbert and Eric Stults, right-hander James McDonald and knuckleballer Charlie Haeger. It also will include two Rule 5 draft picks in Carlos Monasterios and Armando Zerpa.
It's not exactly an eye-popping rotation, and it doesn't match up that well with some of the others in the NL West (San Francisco, Arizona). But even after Wolf's departure, this group appears to be on a par with last year's, which if you recall was good enough for a second consecutive division title.
They say the best way to overcome your fears is to confront them head-on. Jonathan Broxton figures to get plenty of chances to confront Matt Stairs this season, what with Stairs having inked a one-year deal with division rival San Diego.
But Broxton's obvious unwillingness to pitch to Stairs in Game 4 of last fall's NLCS, after Stairs had hit a moon shot off Broxton in the same game of the same series the year before, was the beginning of the end for the Dodgers' World Series hopes.
Stairs aside, Broxton is still one of the league's best closers, and his stuff is unhittable at times. Last year, he struck out 38 percent of all the batters he faced, the highest rate for any major league pitcher in five years. He also averaged 95.2 mph for every pitch he threw last season, almost a full mile an hour faster than any other pitcher.
One of general manager Ned Colletti's shrewdest moves last season was the trading-deadline acquisition of set-up man George Sherrill from Baltimore, a former All-Star who would be under the team's control through 2011. All Sherrill did was post a 0.65 ERA in 30 appearances for the Dodgers, and the fact both he and Broxton are back means that if the Dodgers can grab an early lead, they can turn many of their games into seven-inning affairs.
The rest of the group returns almost intact, as well. Ronald Belisario and Ramon Troncoso had outstanding rookie campaigns. Lefty Hong-Chih Kuo has to be used judiciously because of his history of injuries, but that is his only downside. He held left-handed batters to a .152 average last year.
The last two spots will be decided in spring training. If McDonald doesn't make the rotation, he'll likely get one of them. The rest of the hopefuls are right-hander Cory Wade, who battled injuries last season; Elbert, who might be a long shot because both Kuo and Sherrill are lefties; and a handful of big league veterans in camp on minor league contracts, including Luis Ayala, Scott Dohmann, Justin Miller and Josh Towers.
A dark horse candidate is right-hander Francisco Felix, a homegrown prospect entering his sixth year in the organization. He had a breakout season last year, going a combined 4-2 with a 3.05 ERA in 43 appearances for Double-A Chattanooga and Triple-A Albuquerque.
This was arguably the best bullpen in the NL last season. Considering the quartet of Kuroda, Billingsley, Kershaw and Padilla combined to average fewer than six innings per start, it had better be one of the best bullpens in the league again.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.