They pulled off a stunning trade last week when they acquired former All-Star Hanley Ramirez and left-handed reliever Randy Choate from the Miami Marlins for 22-year-old pitcher Nate Eovaldi and lightly regarded relief pitching prospect Scott McGough.
That move was augmented by yesterday’s trade to acquire relief pitcher Brandon League from the Seattle Mariners, which then allowed the Dodgers to flip relief pitcher Josh Lindblom and prospect Ethan Martin to the Philadelphia Phillies for outfielder Shane Victorino.
Each of those moves dramatically improved the Dodgers’ postseason odds and sent a strong message to the rest of Major League Baseball that the new ownership group in Los Angeles is serious about winning now.
But as savvy as each of those trades were—especially since the Dodgers surrendered none of their top prospects to make the moves happen—there was a glaring hole in the strategy executed by Los Angeles general manager Ned Colletti: he failed to upgrade the starting rotation.
There’s no question that the Dodgers’ inability to consistently score runs was the biggest issue preventing them from being a legitimate threat to contend for a World Series in 2012 and beyond. But there are four reasons why not upgrading the starting pitching could cost Los Angeles dearly.
The acquisition of Hanley Ramirez paid immediate dividends for the Dodgers as he went 7-for-21 with five runs scored and six RBI in his first five games with Los Angeles. The fast start helped lead Los Angeles to a three-game sweep of the San Francisco Giants this past weekend, putting L.A. back in a tie for first in the NL West.
Ramirez immediately justified Dodgers fan’s initial excitement about the move, and while the moves to acquire Brandon League and Shane Victorino have also been well-received, there's an obvious feeling of disappointment that Los Angeles did not add another starting pitcher.
Unless you completely avoided watching ESPN or the MLB Network over the past month, you were well aware that the Dodgers were in the market for another starting pitcher.
Fans' excitement spiked when names like Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and James Shields were mentioned, but all signs pointed to Dempster, especially after he blocked a trade to the Atlanta Braves, making it known that Los Angeles was his preferred destination.
Now, after nearly a month of speculation, none of those players are playing for Los Angeles, an outcome that seemed unfathomable less than 24 hours ago. Dodgers fans can’t help but feel a little empty after so much hype.
The emotional letdown felt by Dodgers fans after not acquiring a starting pitcher prior to the trade deadline is very real; it pales in comparison to the fear that L.A.’s rotation may not be able to compete with the National League’s best in a playoff series.
Clayton Kershaw, last season’s NL Cy Young Winner, may be the league’s best pitcher. But the Washington Nationals (Stephen Strasburg), San Francisco Giants (Matt Cain), Pittsburgh Pirates (A.J. Burnett), Cincinnati Reds (Johnny Cueto) and Atlanta Braves (Tim Hudson) each have staff aces who could match Kershaw’s effort in a playoff game.
With the exception of Pittsburgh, you might even take each of those teams’ No. 2 and No. 3 starters over the L.A.’s as well, and the Braves addressed questions about their starting pitching depth by acquiring LHP Paul Maholm from the Chicago Cubs today.
The Dodgers are second in the National League in starter’s ERA (behind Washington), and the 2011 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals proved that you don’t need to have elite starting pitching to win the title. But without having a lineup that is head and shoulders above the competition, the Dodgers may regret not shoring up the rotation.
While the effects of the Brandon League and Shane Victorino acquisitions have yet to be felt on the field, the risk of not improving the rotation was immediately clear following last night’s 7-2 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
After defeating the Dodgers in the first game of a three-game series, Arizona is now just 3.5 games behind Los Angeles and San Francisco in the NL West standings.
Signing Aaron Harang to a two-year, $12 million contract last offseason was a low-risk signing by the Dodgers; he’s been solid as the team’s fifth starter. But in a playoff race sure to go down to the season’s final week, Harang cannot have many more performances like he had last night when he gave up seven earned runs in just five innings pitched.
The Dodgers can’t be sure what to expect from Ted Lilly when he returns form the disabled list. Chris Capuano has been superb for Los Angeles, but he’s faltered a bit in July, posting a 4.66 ERA and .317 BAA in five July starts. And, the Dodgers never know what to expect from the enigmatic Chad Billingsley.
All of this leads to an uncertain scenario where no one could tell you for sure who L.A.’s Game 2 starter would be if the playoffs started today. While the Dodgers were steadfast in their refusal to hold on to their top prospects, that stubbornness could cost the team a shot at an extended postseason run in 2012.
The Dodgers are committed to rebuilding a minor league system that was sorely neglected during the Frank McCourt ownership era. Part of staying true to that commitment involved not giving up top prospects in any of their pre-deadline dealings.
All three trades that Los Angeles made in the past week—and the reasons that other trades did not go through—showed a consistent theme: The Dodgers were willing to take on big contracts in lieu of giving up highly regarded prospects like Zach Lee, Allen Webster and Chris Reed.
While the effort to rebuild the minor league system is admirable, it could come at a price—quite literally a financial one.
It’s still possible that the Dodgers could land a front-of-the-rotation starter via free agency this coming winter. Players like Ryan Dempster and James Shields, two players who were discussed in trade rumors, could very well be calling Los Angeles home when the 2013 season begins.
But it will almost certainly cost the Dodgers more money to sign these players as free agents than it would had they acquired them via trade and worked out an extension before the end of 2012.
The current ownership group has proven that spending money is not a concern (see the Andre Ethier extension and Yasiel Puig signing). They’ll do what it takes to make the Dodgers a more competitive franchise, and it’s hard to argue with their long-term approach.
But now that a lack of depth in the starting rotation is a legitimate concern, fans in Los Angeles should be prepared to temper their expectations for a World Series title in 2012.