If there's a team in Major League Baseball that's well-equipped to deal with an injury to a starting pitcher, it's the Los Angeles Dodgers.
But that doesn't mean they should have no worries about the news regarding Zack Greinke. They have big plans for 2013, and he's a big part of those plans. Now it sounds like he may be a faulty part.
Though Greinke recently had to leave camp to get his right elbow checked out by the club's physician, the word on Monday was that the damage wasn't serious. Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times reported that the diagnosis was mere inflammation and that Greinke was treated accordingly.
But that was then. This is now, and the word now is much less encouraging.
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly had told Shaikin that he expected Greinke to be ready for an April 2 assignment against the San Francisco Giants. In addition to throwing water on that idea, Greinke is also refusing to play at optimism.
"I don’t know. I don’t know how it’s supposed to feel," he said when asked how his elbow felt, according to Hernandez. "I haven’t talked to the trainers yet. We’ll see. I don’t think I should be telling you too much information about what’s going on. Leave it up to them to tell you that stuff.”
No real surprise here. Honesty, thy name is Zack Greinke!
The Dodgers are surely going to proceed with utmost caution to protect their $147 million investment, as bad elbows have been known to become worse. If there's a bright side, however, it's that having to rough it without Greinke wouldn't make them a dead team walking.
Shaikin noted that the Dodgers won't need a full starting rotation until two weeks into the regular season, meaning they can give Greinke extra rest before they'll be missing him.
And even then, the Dodgers wouldn't necessarily be missing him right away. They have the personnel to cover for him for an extended period of time if it comes to that.
There were rumors during the winter that the Dodgers were going to trade one of their surplus starting pitchers, but no deal materialized and the club went into spring training with eight starting pitchers under contract. So far, Greinke's the only one who has been compromised.
Assuming Chad Billingsley's right elbow is all clear—he told Mark Saxon of ESPNLosAngeles.com last week that he's feeling good—following his issues last year, the Dodgers are going to have him, Josh Beckett and Ryu Hyun-Jin in their starting rotation after Clayton Kershaw. Setting that bunch aside, the Dodgers are left with three guys they can call on to fill in for Greinke.
Contestant No. 1 is probably veteran left-hander Chris Capuano. He had a 3.72 ERA in 198.1 innings pitched last season and was particularly effective at Dodger Stadium with a 3.19 ERA. He's not a frontline pitcher, but any hurler who can post an ERA in the 3.00s over roughly 200 innings is a fine addition to the back end of any rotation.
Contestant No. 2 is probably Aaron Harang. His starts were adventurous in 2012 thanks to 4.3 BB/9, but he managed to keep his ERA in the 3.60 range for a second straight season. He had only four starts that lasted fewer than five innings in 2012, a very acceptable rate for a back-end starter.
Then there's Ted Lilly, who is the wild card among the Dodgers' eight starting pitchers after having left-shoulder surgery in September. He hasn't pitched since last May, but the early returns in camp are of the positive variety.
"He hasn't been able to log innings on the field, but the ball's coming out good," said Mattingly on Sunday, via Ken Gurnick of MLB.com. "When you see Teddy at 88, 89 [mph], he's feeling good. He's healthy and he's bouncing back."
If Lilly's shoulder holds for the rest of spring training—knock on wood—indications are that he'll be put in the starting rotation ahead of Capuano and Harang, with the reason being that Lilly's last major league relief appearance came almost 10 years ago in August 2003.
The Dodgers would be in solid hands if Lilly were to maintain his health as a starter. He generally features good control, and his fly-ball style of pitching makes him a good fit for Dodger Stadium's cavernous dimensions.
Whether it's Capuano, Harang or Lilly who would be filling in for Greinke, the Dodgers would still be able to look forward to solid starting pitching. Remember, Dodgers starters ranked third in baseball in ERA last year (see FanGraphs). When the brass added Greinke and Ryu, a weakness wasn't being fixed. A strength was being augmented.
More likely, this is a club that's going to live or die by its offense, which must improve on its poor showing last season.
And it should. There are plenty of question marks surrounding the Dodgers offense—the health of Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez's power, Andre Ethier's production against southpaws—but a lineup with as many big names as theirs can only be so bad.
This year's offense surely won't be worse than last year's offense, which ranked 26th in baseball in runs scored. A transformation into the 1927 Yankees may not be in the cards, but an emergence from the depths sure is.
The Dodgers managed to win 86 games with very good starting pitching and a not-so-good offense last year. With or without Greinke, they're in line to win more games if their starting pitching holds steady and their offense improves. Taking him out of the equation thus wouldn't result in the team as a whole being immediately removed from the postseason equation.
But there's the rub (apologies for a second Shakespeare reference). Making the postseason would be nice, but these Dodgers are looking to make it there and then to the World Series. It's going to be more difficult for them to do so if they don't have a healthy Greinke.
Greinke is not a Chris Carpenter-esque postseason hero, as he only has three postseason starts to his name that come with a 6.48 ERA. But an ace is an ace is an ace. That's what the Dodgers paid $147 million for when they signed Greinke, and their faith in him was not misplaced.
Is Greinke ever going to get back to his Cy Young form from the 2009 season, when he won 16 games for a bad Kansas City Royals team with a 2.16 ERA? That's unlikely, but this is still a guy who's pitched over 200 innings in four of the last five seasons with a 3.16 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) over the last three seasons that ranks eighth among qualified starters (FanGraphs). This is also a guy who pitched at least seven innings and gave up two runs or fewer in 15 of his 34 starts last year.
Aces are a good thing to have in October, and the Dodgers will have two very good ones if Kershaw and Greinke are both healthy and ready to go. They have the talent to be what Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain were to the 2010 San Francisco Giants, a tantalizing prospect indeed.
This is a prospect that hinges on Greinke's right elbow surviving the season, and right now he doesn't want anybody thinking that his elbow isn't a question mark. That's the Dodgers' cue not to run him out to the mound until he can swear that he's good.
"Good enough" shouldn't be good enough for the Dodgers. They have hopes and dreams to watch out for. Not to mention a $147 million investment.
To this end, the Dodgers can trust Greinke to be honest about his elbow. He's proven that he's honest about anything, a fine trait.
Now the Dodgers must hope that Greinke can prove that he's a quick healer too.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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