Dodgers Make a Risky Bet on Rotation Health

Depth. Especially in the starting rotation. From the day Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi took over the Dodgers front office, it was preached. Every Spring Training it seemed the Dodgers had eight or nine starting pitchers for five rotation spots, with the “it’s a good problem to have,” cliché regurgitated ad nauseum by Don Mattingly and then Dave Roberts. Until this off-season.

Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir were shipped to Atlanta in a trade for Matt Kemp. They were never really in the running to re-sign Yu Darvish, as resetting the penalty for exceeding the luxury tax threshold was the top priority, presumably with an eye on backing a Brinks truck of gold bullion into Clayton Kershaw’s driveway next off-season.  Jake Arrieta’s name never really came up in connection with the Dodgers, nor did there ever seem to be any serious discussions with anyone in the next tier of free agent starters, like Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb. In previous years, we saw reclamation projects like Justin Masterson or Jair Jurrjens signed for AAA depth, but not this off-season. What you see is what you get.

Fortunately, what you see is pretty darn good. Clayton Kershaw is still the best pitcher on the planet, despite the persistence from certain baseball media members in their attempts to anoint great but mortal pitchers like Max Scherzer and Corey Kluber as the new pitching standard bearers. Rich Hill is excellent, as evidenced by having taken multiple perfect games through at least seven innings since joining the Blue Crew. Kenta Maeda has already justified his 8-year deal after just two seasons. Alex Wood was an all-star and early Cy Young contender in 2017. And the underappreciated Hyun Jin Ryu, who once outpitched peak Adam Wainwright in a post-season, win-or-go-home game, is your number five. I repeat, pretty darn good.

So, as Martin Lawrence might say, what the problem is!?

It’s simple. What if something happens to one (or more) of them? Former top prospect Julio Urias is still several months away from competitive baseball following shoulder surgery. Current top prospect Walker Buehler is exciting, but going to be on an innings limit. Ross Stripling pitched nearly exclusively in relief last season. Brock Stewart has been generally appalling as a starter, while flashing big upside as a reliever. Wilmer Font has been mostly awful in his, albeit limited, big league exposure.

Peeking into the minors, you’ll see names like Dennis Santana and Dustin May, who may both have bright futures but are a ways away from being big league ready. Trevor Oaks was likely close to big league ready but shipped to Kansas City as part of the Scott Alexander trade. Show of hands, who is comfortable with the idea of Dennis Santana and Brock Stewart combining to make 20 plus starts for the big club this season?

Obviously, the front office along with every fan is hoping this doesn’t happen, but the unfortunate likelihood is that it will. While there are those who will tell you that injuries are impossible to predict, there are also those who will tell you that greatest predictor of injuries is previous injuries. And a quick look at the Dodger starting rotation reveals a lot of injuries.

Kershaw, the fearless leader of the staff, has seen the disabled list in three consecutive seasons. Now, I’m not a doctor but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. And I can tell you with certainty, back issues are tricky. Even Kershaw himself, who notoriously plays his cards close to the vest, conceded that he tailored his off-season conditioning program to prepare his back for the 2018 season.

Hill made 25 starts for the team in 2017, and was generally outstanding over 135 innings, not counting the 33 and change he tossed in the post-season. That total represents the 38-year-old lefty’s second highest single-season total in his career, and only the third time he’s hit triple digits. And it isn’t because he was taking a paid vacation in those other years. Hill is probably as tough as they come, and has endured unspeakable personal and professional hardship. Unfortunately, the fact remains that you generally don’t become more durable the closer you get to 40.

Maeda has been generally sturdy since he joined the team in 2016. However, there’s a reason why we secured a pitcher of his pedigree for pennies on the expected dollar. His pre-contract MRI revealed anomalies in his pitching elbow. Pitcher’s elbows are generally ticking time bombs as it is. It stands to reason that those with anomalies could tick a little faster.

Wood has had multiple serious surgeries on his pitching elbow, including Tommy John ligament replacement. As brilliant as he was in 2017, his velocity in October was way down from April and hasn’t really reappeared. Wood has proven he doesn’t need Aroldis Chapman velocity to be effective, but a reduced velocity is worrisome nonetheless. And most often the cause of that is, all together now…exactly.

Ryu missed two whole seasons with shoulder problems, making only one start in those years before making 24 in 2018. Do we really need to expand on that?

At the risk of belaboring the point and being labeled a negative Nancy, the issues don’t end there. Two of the potential fill-ins should the injury bug strike, Stripling and Buehler, have both undergone Tommy John surgery.


None of this is to say that the front office was right or wrong in making the choices they made. It’s just worth pointing out that this off-season’s philosophy was a divergence from off-seasons past. Where depth used to be king, it’s now perhaps the team’s only real weakness in its quest to October.

Did I miss anything or anyone of note? Let me know on Twitter @thestainsports. Thank you for reading.

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  1. Let’s see how Stewart does going back to SP — he was Dodgers minor league pitcher of the year a couple of seasons ago as a starter. I still think Stripling would make a solid no. 5 starter. Do not overlook Mitchell White who will likely be ready to contribute in second half of season. Dodgers pitching coaches have found ways to turn around pitchers careers, perhaps Henry Owens or Manny Banuelos will be the next success story(ies). Caleb Ferguson and/or Josh Sborz could contribute in second half. AND, Dodgers can find a way to acquire a starter at the trade deadline if needed.

  2. Yes, Dodgers starting pitching will be interesting to watch as the season progresses. So far, I’m very encouraged in what I see. For the most part they’ve been solid, but I must say, for starting pitching to be successful they need and depend on consistent and productive offense to lighten the load on our pitchers. So far, they have failed miserably. If this lack of offense trend continues, our pitching is doomed. IMO, many bad decisions not to bolster pitching in the off season was a grave mistake. Only time will tell, but being shutout three times in the first week of play is about as bad as it can get. I know I’ll be called names for saying these things, but I call them as I see them.

  3. I have bled Dodger Blue for over 60 years, so I might as well continue, but you heard it here first: the Dodgers are not going back to the World Series this year unless everything that has happened in week one changes, i.e. score runs when they get good pitching, hold a lead when you have it late in the game, get another healthy dependable starter right now, etc.

  4. What’s the problem? This group is no better and no worse than the group of minor league pitchers we’ve had as back-up the past 3/4 years. Let’s not confuse any of them with major league pitchers. We are lucky to have 5. Most teams don’t even have 4.