|LOS ANGELES DODGERS|
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While Dodgers fans obsess about Manny Ramirez and leaving Vero Beach, the team that shows up in Arizona is going to be relying on names like Eric Stults and Claudio Vargas while trying to make another playoff run. Sure, Manny Ramirez would help the offense of any team, but the Dodgers right now-the team of Koufax, Drysdale, Fernando, and Hershiser-is facing a crisis on its pitching staff. Each season at Baseball Prospectus, I do Team Health Reports for all 30 MLB squads using a system that uses twelve factors to help predict the risk of injury. I assign a red, yellow, or green flag to each player. Red, naturally, is the riskiest. The bad news in this LA story? It looks like the team has swapped from Dodgers blue to Dodgers red.
Each team has 162 games to pencil in a starter, easy enough to do if you have a five-man rotation that has five guys who can be counted on for thirty or so starts. Unfortunately, baseball seldom works that way. In 2008, the average NL team used 10.5 starters, meaning that it’s not five guys a team ends up depending on, it’s nine or ten starters (or more) that have to be available. ‘Available’ can mean somebody at Triple-A, or it can be someone you’ve stashed in the bullpen, but the last thing a team can afford is their general manager having to make desperation calls immediately after he (inevitably) has to put a starter on the DL.
Even with the recent signing of Randy Wolf, the Dodgers begin the season with questions starting at the top, barely making it to five solid options, let alone nine or ten. With three red lights and two yellow ones assigned to their five expected starters, the Dodgers find themselves in the same position as last year’s Cleveland Indians, who had that same mix. Did that spell doom? While CC Sabathia had a nice season (to say the least), injuries to Jake Westbrook and Fausto Carmona helped drag down a team favored by many to contend in the AL Central. Then again, the Phillies had the same mix and got healthy seasons from Cole Hamels and Brett Myers, both graded as red, though Pat Gillick was nevertheless forced to trade for Joe Blanton to solidify things at the back end.
It’s all the more noticeable for the 2009 Dodgers because of their off-season changes. After losing Derek Lowe and seeing Chad Billingsley break his leg during the winter, they head to spring training counting on too many young arms to evaluate and too many comebacks in progress, and come out with too few innings they’re sure to get from their starting staff. Let’s take a look at each candidate and his risks heading into spring training:
Randy Wolf: Wolf was signed to solidify the rotation, but he’s only a year removed from shoulder surgery, and just two years removed from a Tommy John surgery on his elbow. Maybe scar tissue is the solid Ned Colletti is looking for.
Chad Billingsley: He broke his leg after slipping on ice, putting his conditioning in even more question than it was before. Sir Mix-A-Lot’s favorite pitcher has a lot of questions to answer in spring training, and to add to the risk, a lot of miles already on his young arm.
Hiroki Kuroda: Like many Japanese pitchers, Kuroda hit a wall at the end of the season. Most tend to adjust, however, and Kuroda wasn’t used as heavily in Japan as most.
Clayton Kershaw: Kershaw threw 160 innings as a 20-year-old. If he lasts the season and makes 30-plus starts, he’ll push past 200 IP unless the organization places draconian limits on his workload. Find me a recent pitcher who did that at those ages and lasted.
Jason Schmidt: The Dodgers are both penciling Schmidt into their rotation and suing their insurance company to help pay for his damaged arm. Does anyone seriously expect him to contribute?
Eric Stults: I loved this guy in Some Kind of Wonderful? No? This one is a Quad-A pitcher who is precisely the kind of guy you keep in Triple-A to soak up the innings that you shouldn’t push onto Kershaw.
Claudio Vargas: Vargas has three partial seasons’ worth of experience starting, but has never been able to pitch well enough to lock down the job. He’ll start off in the Dodgers’ pen, but with this group listed above ahead of him, you have to think that he’s likely to see ten starts along the way. Good thing is, he’s proven he can do that without breaking.
James McDonald: The Dodgers want to ease McDonald in more than they were able to do last season with Kershaw. It’s a smart plan, one that goes back to pitching coach Johnny Sain and Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver as far as a way to handle young talent effectively. Like Vargas, he’ll start in the pen, but the deceptive righty is a real sleeper.
Remember, this is about probabilities and risk, not certainties. Just as no one predicted that Blake DeWitt would end up a key component of a playoff team, unlikely events happen in baseball. If the Dodgers stay healthy, the MVP of the team won’t be someone in uniform, it will be Stan Conte, the team’s outstanding athletic trainer.