Because what could be more fun than talking about next season before the current one comes to its conclusion!? As they seem to do every year, injuries have cropped up and led to some interesting developments on the Dodgers pitching front. After starting the year in the bullpen, Ross Stripling has blossomed into a front-of-the-rotation stud. Walker Buehler, before the business end of a Trevor Story line drive caused a DL-requiring rib fracture, lived up to the hype with his video game stuff and pitching the first six innings of a combined no-hitter. The previously anonymous Caleb Ferguson has appeared promising in somewhat limited exposure. Not to mention, a certain other lefty may opt out of his contract, so it’s far from a certain thing that next year’s rotation will look anything like this year’s.
Here is how I see it shaping up.
#1 / Ace: Walker Buehler
The future has arrived and it is now. Buehler figures to log key innings down the stretch this year, and by next year the pesky restraints of an innings limit should be a thing of the past. No pitcher in the Dodgers organization, and many other organizations for that matter have the stuff and makeup of Buehler. Pitchers like peak Justin Verlander don’t come along often, but Buehler is one who can attain those lofty heights.
#2: Ross Stripling
Something happened. Stripling was a perfectly serviceable swingman/spot starter and appeared well on his way to carving out a nice career for himself in that role. Then he took his curveball, presumably under the advice of pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, and started throwing it as hard as he could. Suddenly, it’s one of the best pitches in baseball, and his results this season indicate that’s not hyperbole. He has struck out 103 batters so far in 2018, and walked only 13 unintentionally, an absurd 7.9 to 1 ratio. While his 2.74 FIP is slightly higher than his sparkling 2.22 ERA, it still confirms it. Stripling is legit and a starter to stay.
#3: Rich Hill
Well, for about 22 starts anyway, if the team is lucky. Nobody with even a tenuous grip on reality would wager on more from the injury-prone lefty, but when he’s healthy and blister-free, his production remains worth every penny of the $16 million he’ll earn in 2019, the final year of his three-year Dodger deal. 2018 started inauspiciously, with more blister issues and a string of poor starts, but a mechanical adjustment and return to health seems to have righted the ship, minus a pesky home run issue that cropped up. Still, with his competitiveness, there isn’t any reason to believe he won’t be as good as he generally is.
#4: Kenta Maeda
When you’re wrong, be wrong in style, I guess. I was among many who loudly proclaimed that Maeda should remain in the bullpen after a dominant 2017 postseason there, though I’m one of the few who actually admits it. Well, here I am, wearing it. Kenta has been mostly good in the rotation in 2018, and when he hasn’t been good, he’s been excellent. He’s striking out batters at a career-high rate, is being more aggressive with his fastball, and seems to have all but done away that soap bubble curveball – his only truly annoyingly hittable pitch. He’s still only averaging just over five innings a start, which could use some improvement, but hey. I can’t think of a better fourth starter in the National League.
#5: Hyun Jin Ryu
What? Were you expecting someone else? If you take the six starts he made this season before tearing a groin muscle off the bone… go ahead, I’ll give you a moment to wince… and remember the first one was a dumpster fire, his numbers indicate he was dominant. Sure, 29 innings isn’t a massive sample size, but he had a quality 2017 as well, and isn’t afraid of big games, as evidenced by the fact he once outpitched peak Adam Wainwright in a win-or-go-home playoff game. And, perhaps most importantly to the Andrew Friedman / Farhan Zaidi front office, he’s likely to be comparatively cheap. He’ll be a free agent after 2018 but is unlikely to get much in the way of multi-year offers from other teams, given his medical history. It’s not hard to see the Dodgers making him a one-year offer with a mutual option, and him staying where he’s comfortable and popular.
Swing / Depth: Caleb Ferguson and Dennis Santana
Neither name is sexy but they both have an appeal for good reasons. One, they’re already on the 40-man roster. Two, in admittedly limited sample sizes, neither has indicated they couldn’t handle briefly holding the fort down as a temporary starter if needed. Moreover, Ferguson has also shown, small sample size again acknowledged, he seems to have a pretty good handle on two to three-inning relief appearances.
Conspicuous by Their Absence
Nobody really, right? I can’t think of a single guy who I’ve left off…this…oh…right.
Clayton Kershaw: Am I blaspheming that I think 2018 will be the last year we see Kershaw in Dodger blue? Maybe. And sure, if he doesn’t opt out of his deal, keeping him with the team for a few more years, it blows this whole article’s set up to smithereens. And you know what, I wouldn’t be mad. Still, can you think of anyone more likely to bet on themselves than Kershaw? Nobody works harder, nobody is more intense, and quite frankly, nobody has been better in the last decade. That said, he’s now spent significant time on the disabled list for four seasons running. If he does opt out, some team will offer him five or six years at an average annual value around $35 million, and Dodger legend or not, there is zero chance the front office pays that kind of scratch for a man whose health isn’t a sure thing. The truth hurts, but that doesn’t make it less true.
Alex Wood: Again, don’t take this the wrong way. No one is saying Wood isn’t good. No one is saying they don’t WANT him here. But he’s about to get very expensive. After an excellent 2017, including a legendary World Series start in Houston, he’s been mostly good again this year. So that lovely little $6 million dollar price tag from this season is likely to double as he advances another step through arbitration. He’s also another guy with a spotty injury history, and a peculiar case of vanished velocity that’s heretofore unexplained, though it hasn’t hurt his results. There are enough pitching-needy teams out there that I’m betting the front office will gladly take a nice return for him in a trade.
There are a few decent starting pitchers who are part of the already legendary 2019 free agent class, but I don’t see the Dodgers making a run at any of them. Dallas Keuchel is very good, but he’ll get a lucrative multi-year deal from someone. JA Happ is low-key excellent, but he’ll get a longer deal from someone than the Dodgers are comfortable with for a 36-year-old. Gio Gonzalez has had a nice run with the Nationals but is slowly trending in the wrong direction. Garrett Richards is interesting, if inconsistent, but he’s now dealing with yet another potentially serious arm issue. If anyone, I could see the Dodgers working something out with Drew Pomeranz. He’s been pretty good in recent years for the Red Sox and Padres but his 2018 has been a dumpster fire of injuries and mediocrity – exactly the kind of low-risk, high reward guy the Dodgers have had some success with in recent years (see: Anderson, Brett in 2016).
Any names I didn’t cover? Want to shoot me into the sun for implying the Dodgers might be sans Kershaw in the future? Let us know on Twitter @thestainsports and @DodgersNation. Thank you for reading.
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