The patchwork roster surrounding established Los Angeles Dodgers stars like Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw this year would hint at a dearth of minor league chips to play with, but De Jon Watson would encourage you to ante up.
The Dodgers' assistant general manager in charge of player development has more than a poker hand's worth of serious starting pitcher candidates rising through the system, and would even argue for a few wild cards among the position players.
"It's been good stuff, man," Watson said of the franchise's depth at starting pitcher. "Our kids are coming. It's great to have that type of competition. If you have a hiccup or someone goes down for a little bit, you have a legitimate option waiting in the wings. The key is being as sharp as they can possibly be when that opportunity arises so you really don't miss a beat."
That doesn't change the Dodgers' pattern of leaning toward veterans at the start of the season. With Hiroki Kuroda leaving as a free agent and the team's 2010 minor league pitcher of the year, Rubby De La Rosa, recovering from Tommy John surgery, the Dodgers signed Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano rather than hand a starting rotation slot to Nathan Eovaldi, who had a 3.09 ERA in six starts at age 21 late last summer.
Shortstop Dee Gordon is the only 2011 Dodgers rookie who has the inside track on a starting spot with the team this season. Gordon, who had 24 stolen bases in 56 games and a .325 on-base percentage (.398 in September), will look to capitalize on his hot finish.
"The biggest thing to look for from him is going to be his on-base percentage," Watson said, "because his speed is going to change how they pitch to the guy that's behind him. He's going to apply pressure both from an offensive standpoint and a defensive standpoint for the opponent. So he has to get on base. For us, his key is understanding what type of hitter he is, understanding the strike zone."
Sands through the hourglass
Meanwhile, Jerry Sands, who was the Dodgers' top minor league hitter in 2010, might be limited to a platoon role at best to start 2012, if he doesn't begin the year in Albuquerque.
However, crediting minor league hitting gurus Eric Owens and John Valentin with tireless guidance, Watson enthused about the adjustments Sands made with the Dodgers last year. After a .622 OPS in his April-June debut, Sands had a .908 OPS in September.
"It's usually difficult for guys to make swing adjustments during a season, but he bought in," Watson said. "He put in the work and the effort and time along with our coaching staff to make a really conscious effort at improving where he was to get into a better place to attack the baseball."
And over the next couple of years, a steady stream of young arms should come up through the pipeline, following in the footsteps of homegrown standouts like Kershaw and Kenley Jansen, who set a major league record for strikeouts per nine innings last year.
Evolution of Eovaldi
With the pitchers having played a bit of leapfrog in their development, Eovaldi currently sits at the head of the lily pad. Assuming the major league rotation is set for April with Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly, Harang and Capuano, Eovaldi will begin 2012 either as a long man in the bullpen or honing his starting skills a bit longer in the minors.
"He's definitely capable of pitching out of the bullpen," Watson said, "but it's a little hard to find quality starters and to develop young starters, so for us I think it'll be a tough decision at the end of camp on where we place him."
Eovaldi took a step forward with Double-A Chattanooga last year, posting a 2.62 ERA and striking out 99 in 103 innings as the only rookie pitcher to start for the Dodgers besides De La Rosa.
"His fastball command was the thing that really kind of grew and separated him from some of the other kids," Watson said. "He's always had a power mix. His fastball is anywhere from, goodness, 93 to 98 or 99.
"He was able to repeat his delivery and command the fastball to both sides of the plate. The slider is ever evolving, as well as his changeup, but the fastball-slider mix right now is pretty good. If he's able to improve his changeup, to add that as a viable option for him, I think that'll make him that much better."
The other young guns
Eovaldi's position as the Dodgers' top young right-hander could be tenuous, no matter how well he pitches in 2012. Watson said De La Rosa, who had a 3.88 ERA and 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings in 10 major league starts at age 22 before going under the knife in August, was throwing from 90 feet during rehab in Arizona this week and is on pace to pitch in minor league games by June.
Watson added that Allen Webster and Chris Withrow are among those who made strides last year (even if their stats didn't always show it), and coming up fast behind them are a pair of 20-year-olds who spent last year with Single-A Great Lakes, Garrett Gould (2.40 ERA) and 2010 first-round draft pick Zach Lee (3.47 ERA).
"I think [Gould] and Zach will both be pushing the envelope and challenging those guys who are ahead of them," Watson said. "They both have good stuff. I mean, Gouldy's 90-94 with a very good breaking ball and an evolving changeup.
"I think the biggest thing for him was trusting his secondary pitches. When he was behind in counts and he was able to do that last year, and he was starting to see the results."
Lee, whom the Dodgers pried away from Louisiana State quarterbackhood with a $5.25 million singing bonus, will push to pitch in Chattanooga this year.
"Zach is on time," Watson said. "Once he gets in the Double-A mix, it's just a matter of finishing off his pitches and understanding how he's going to attack hitters and put them away.
"He's got good fastball command at both sides of the plate. The slider is still developing, [and] the changeup is another pitch we're trying to finish off for him. And he also has a curve. So he's got four pitches, [and] the key is being able to master three of the four. If we can get those mastered, I think you'll see him ascending as well and pushing us to make some tougher decisions."
These things take time
Either Gould or Lee could face setbacks in Chattanooga that their (slightly) older colleagues have already experienced, which is why Watson urges the faithful not to lose faith in someone like Webster, even after his ERA rose to 5.04 in 18 Double-A outings. Watson attributed the struggles to fastball command, but believes that an adjustment in his release point will help get Webster back on track.
"He's got four legitimate pitches right now," Watson said. "He's 93 to 97 with his fastball, throws both a two- and four-seamer. His changeup is a plus-plus changeup, and sometimes he tends to fall in love with it. We have to get him to understand his curveball and his slider is above-average."
Withrow, a strikeout pitcher with control issues, has been in Chattanooga since 2009 after surgery limited the former first-round draft pick to four innings in 2008. He still won't be 23 until April.
"This past year was a really good year for him," Watson said, "because he didn't miss a start, he was durable, he repeated [his delivery] and he's added a slider to his mix that gave him something that stayed on the plate," Watson said. "It seems like he's been here a long time, but he's right where he should be, and we're excited about where he's going."
With the six-pack of Eovaldi, De La Rosa, Lee, Gould, Webster and Withrow taking up so much conversation time, there was hardly time to discuss others -- such as lefty Chris Reed, the 2011 first-round pick from Stanford who has impressed Watson -- especially given the need to address other areas of the system.
The Dodgers' major league bullpen already has taken on a youthful tinge with Jansen, Javy Guerra, Scott Elbert and Josh Lindblom all rookies last year. But more young fireballers thick with promise await.
Shawn Tolleson, a 24-year-old righty, sizzled to 2011 Dodgers minor league pitcher of the year honors by dominating at three different levels. After striking out an astonishing 33 of 56 batters he faced for Great Lakes with a 0.00 ERA, Tolleson made a quick stop at High-A Rancho Cucamonga (0.93 ERA, 17 strikeouts in 9 2/3 innings) before settling in at Chattanooga, where he had a 1.62 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 44 1/3 innings.
"Every level we challenged him," Watson said, "and he stepped up and pitched better than the competition. It'll be interesting to see what he looks like this year in camp.
"His fastball velocity spiked [last year]. It went from being 88-91 to 92-96, touching 97 on occasion. His slider is solid-average; at times it can be above-average for him. I think if we can get his changeup to add to his mix for left-handed hitters, it's going to make him that much better."
Watson added that Steven Ames, who finished 2011 with 41 strikeouts and a 2.48 ERA in 32 2/3 innings for Chattanooga, has likable stuff. Ames has been improving his fastball command and the consistency of his slider, though the latter needs to be "a little bit better and tighter," Watson said.
And the hits keep coming
The Dodgers' 2011 minor league hitter of the year also played in Tennessee. First baseman/outfielder Scott Van Slyke, the 25-year-old son of former major leaguer Andy Van Slyke, had 20 homers, 45 doubles, a .427 on-base percentage and .595 slugging percentage, statistics more typically associated with hit-happy Albuquerque than pitcher-tolerant Chattanooga.
"His skills offensively have grown so much, and last year was a breakout year for him," Watson said. "Sometimes it just takes these kids a little longer to figure things out, but I think that offensively there's enough power there to be a contributor at the major league level. He'll be an interesting guy for us in the future.
"And the age -- I don't recall anyone asking how old someone is when they write up a lineup up there," Watson continued. "You get the best players to play the game that can help you win baseball games."
The Dodgers could also see a bit of help down the road from the player they acquired in exchange for Rafael Furcal last summer, 25-year-old Alex Castellanos. His Double-A numbers (.386 OBP, .573 slugging) impressed, but the key could be whether he can convert back from the outfield to the infield. The Dodgers have begun working with him at his original pro positions, second base and third, positions currently manned at the major league level by Mark Ellis and Juan Uribe.
"Just trying to see if the hands [and] feet work," Watson said. "It's early in this process. He will primarily be an outfielder [this year], but we will try to get him some work on the infield to see if that's something we can utilize and maximize going forward."
Watson still holds out hope for third baseman Pedro Baez, a two-time Futures Game participant who is coming back from a knee injury. At one point in 2010, rumors emerged that Sands might be tried at third base, but Watson said the Dodgers had no intentions in that area.
If this seems like a team in transition, well, that would only make sense, given what's happening in the Dodgers' ownership box. But while the cloud over the franchise might seem a long time going, sliver linings will be sprinkled throughout the farm system, especially on its pitcher's mounds.
Jon Weisman is the author of Dodger Thoughts and a features editor and TV reporter at Variety.