LOS ANGELES -- For all the sudden optimism about the future of the Los Angeles Dodgers -- you actually may have read some of it in this space a few days ago -- there was something about watching Dana Eveland get knocked around the park for the second start in a row on Wednesday night that suggested this club might have more than one issue to address this winter.
General manager Ned Colletti has gone on record, a handful of times, with his belief that the top priority for next season should be to add a big bat.
But now, after an 8-5 loss to the streaking San Francisco Giants before 32,334 at Dodger Stadium, the question has to be asked whether the Dodgers have enough starting pitching going forward.
There is a reason, after all, why the Evelands of the world struggle to hold their place in the major leagues, and why when they do, it's usually with a second-tier club. The big right-hander entered the game with a career mark of 18-23 and a 5.54 ERA over parts of seven seasons, so after he was stellar in his first two starts for the Dodgers this season, it really wasn't all that surprising when he was, well, less-than-stellar in his next two.
The point is, if the Dodgers are to contend for a playoff spot in 2012, with or without a strengthened lineup, Eveland probably isn't the kind of guy they want to have in their starting rotation, even if it's in the fifth spot.
He lasted just four innings in this one, giving up five earned runs on six hits.
It seems odd at this point to call the rotation into question, especially at the end of a season in which the Dodgers have had shortcomings in so many other areas. Even after Eveland's collapse, the team's starters now are a collective 60-60 with a 3.51 ERA -- an almost-perfect reflection of the Dodgers' overall record (77-77) and team ERA (3.61) -- and that win-loss record almost certainly would be much better if this hadn't been such a bad offensive club for so much of the season.
But what will this rotation look like by next spring?
Well, there will be Clayton Kershaw, likely the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, ready to take the ball on opening day. Behind him, there will be Chad Billingsley and Ted Lilly, both of whom are signed for next year but both of whom also are what they are, established big league pitchers with good-enough stuff to be outstanding at times, guys who routinely reach double figures in wins, but both of whom also have that tendency to fall into prolonged periods of struggle.
Beyond that, will there be Hiroki Kuroda? If Kuroda knows what he is planning to do when he reaches free agency this fall, he isn't saying it publicly. There is a good chance, though, that with his 37th birthday looming and no way of knowing how many more years are left in his aging right arm, he will fulfill an old promise to himself to return to the Hiroshima Carp for the final seasons of his career, leaving behind a gaping hole in the Dodgers' rotation.
That means there potentially will be two open spots. And if Eveland (2-2) isn't the answer for either of them, and Rubby De La Rosa can't really be counted on to return from Tommy John surgery until at least late in the season and maybe into 2013, then who is?
One obvious answer is Nathan Eovaldi, whose abbreviated rookie season has been promising, to say the least. He is in the bullpen now, but only because club officials want to be as conservative as possible with him and he already has thrown a relatively modest 137 1/3 innings between the minors and majors this year but still far more than he ever had thrown in any one professional season. For now, pencil him in for next year.
That leaves only the fifth spot, and fifth starters usually are fifth starters for a reason, and they normally begin the season in that role after winning it in spring training, a battle that usually is waged between a couple of middling prospects (think John Ely, or guys like him) and a couple of non-roster veterans picked up off the free-agent scrap heap (think Eveland, or guys like him).
The Dodgers will sign a handful of those guys this winter. We know this because they always do. And so, we probably can count on going into spring training without knowing who that fifth starter will be. The only way to avoid that would be an offseason trade or free-agent signing that would bring in an established starter to fill a permanent role in the rotation, and the still-bankrupt Dodgers don't figure to be in a position to take on a whole lot of salary, especially if they add that big bat Colletti covets.
The irony of all this is that even as the Dodgers' offense suddenly seems to be headed in the right direction, when it is no more than a piece away from being formidable, the one thing that has sustained this team all season and the main reason the Dodgers still have a chance to finish with a winning record (for whatever that is worth at this point) has been the starting pitching. And now, as we look to what many in the organization would like to believe is a brighter 2012, that starting pitching is suddenly a cause for concern.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.