It's not even May yet, but the Los Angeles Dodgers' once-deeper-than-deep starting pitching staff is down to a small handful of able bodies.
That's their excuse to go out and make a big splash. Round up the usual suspects! Actually, let's slow things down and get on the same page first.
A couple weeks ago, the Dodgers whittled down their starting pitching staff by trading Aaron Harang. Then Zack Greinke broke his collarbone when he was bulldozed by San Diego Padres outfielder Carlos Quentin. It turned out Chris Capuano was also hurt in that incident, according to Ken Gurnick of MLB.com.
This brings us to Tuesday's news, which is of the bad variety:
Chad Billingsley will undergo Tommy John surgery tomorrow, April 24. Recovery time is expected to be 12 months.— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) April 23, 2013
The Dodgers rotation is down to Clayton Kershaw, Josh Beckett, Ryu Hyun-Jin and the recently recalled Stephen Fife. Ted Lilly will make his return this week, but all bets are off on him, seeing as how he hasn't started since last May due to major shoulder woes.
So yeah, not good.
The Dodgers, of course, aren't going to be thin on starting pitching for the long haul. Capuano and Greinke will be back eventually. In the meantime, the Dodgers can look to tread water with in-house options. One of those is top prospect Zach Lee, who ESPN's Keith Law (Insider post) thinks is ready.
But these are the Dodgers we're talking about—they demonstrated last year that they prefer to respond to adversity by making big moves. And because they have more money than Scrooge McDuck, there are a lot of big moves they can make. If they see fit to solve their rotation issues by making a big splash, the smart money is on them doing just that.
The hard part is figuring out what kind of big splash they could make this season. It's a process of elimination.
What Do the Bad Teams Have?
The default plan of action in times like these is to pillage the bad teams. It's not like they need their best players, and they've been known to jump at chances to unload unwanted salaries.
The five worst teams so far this year are the Miami Marlins, San Diego Padres, Houston Astros and both Chicago clubs. Since the White Sox contended last year and are still members of a weak division, let's assume the Dodgers' best bet is to do business with the other four.
The most attainable starter on the Marlins is Ricky Nolasco, who is owed a salary of $11.5 million that's eating up a good chunk of Miami's payroll. But he's also a guy with a 4.68 ERA over the last four seasons, so he's not overly appealing.
The Astros have Bud Norris, who Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com said was "available and drawing interest" during spring training. But with a 4.43 career ERA and 1.40 WHIP to his name, he's another guy who's not very appealing.
The Padres, meanwhile, are a lousy team in large part thanks to lousy starting pitching. Per FanGraphs, they began Tuesday ranked 28th in starters ERA. Pillaging their starting pitching is not a good idea. To boot, none of their guys stand out as big-splash options.
The Cubs have Matt Garza to offer, and they may be willing to move him rather than lose him to free agency like with Ryan Dempster last year. He'd be a good guy for the Dodgers to target if they knew they could count on him being healthy. But they can't.
Between an elbow issue last year and a lat issue that popped up during spring training, Garza's health has been a question mark ever since last summer. The Dodgers don't need another starter with shaky health in their midst.
As for other free-agents-to-be the Dodgers could target...
The 2014-15 free-agent class is set to feature some big-name starting pitchers.
The trouble is that some of these big-name starters are attached to questionable talent. Others aren't going to be so easily attained.
Josh Johnson's name stands out, but he belongs to a team in the Toronto Blue Jays that isn't going to give up so easily—not after trying so very hard over the offseason to put itself in a position to contend after so many years of mediocrity.
Even if the Blue Jays do fall out of the race, Johnson's struggles so far this season—highlighted by a 6.86 ERA—muddy the picture. He's another guy who wouldn't be an automatic savior for the Dodgers.
Ditto Tim Lincecum, who's still exhibiting the bad habits that led to a disastrous season in 2012. Besides which, the Giants aren't trading him to the Dodgers because A) they can't spare the depth and B) they're the Dodgers.
Other pitchers that stand out on the list of free-agents-to-be are Roy Halladay—who has a vesting option he has no hope of activating—Phil Hughes, Jason Hammel, Hiroki Kuroda, Paul Maholm, Ervin Santana and Jason Vargas. But as with Johnson, they all play for teams that are looking to contend.
That's also true of the two superstar pitchers the Dodgers could look to acquire who aren't due for free agency at the end of the season.
The Long-Term Superstar Targets
I'll just go ahead and say the names: David Price and Cliff Lee.
The Tampa Bay Rays are going to have to trade Price eventually. That's obvious now more than ever in light of the huge contracts that have been handed out to ace pitchers recently, as ESPN's Buster Olney noted:
Verlander deal reinforces what execs have known: There is no way TB can afford to keep Price. $28m would account for 45 pct. of payroll.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) March 29, 2013
With Price due for free agency after 2015, the Rays stand to gain more by trading him sooner than later. But they won't trade him this summer if they're contending, and the Dodgers aren't a great fit for him anyway.
The Rays are going to demand elite prospects, and the Dodgers don't have a Jurickson Profar, Oscar Taveras or Dylan Bundy in their system. The best they've got is Yasiel Puig, who isn't in the same league as the aforementioned names.
The Dodgers stand a better chance of nabbing Lee. ESPN's Jayson Stark reported that the Dodgers claimed him off waivers last August, and Ken Rosenthal suggested recently that Lee could become available this summer if the Phillies fall out of the race.
The Dodgers may not have elite prospects, but they're the one team in the majors that could take Lee's entire remaining contract off Philly's hands with no fuss.
And if the Phillies see their future crumbling along with their present, they could let the Dodgers have him with very little coming back the other way.
If the Dodgers are going to make a move for a starting pitcher, they have a best-bet scenario and a best-hope scenario.
Their best bet is to get one of the lousy teams in the league to cough up a starter. To that end, getting the Marlins to surrender Ricky Nolasco is easily the most likely thing to happen. He may not be overly appealing, but he's very much attainable.
The Marlins will be free of big contracts if they unload Nolasco's salary, and there's no point in him being there for much longer anyway. The longer the Marlins keep him, the more they risk him getting hurt. And if he gets hurt, Jeffrey Loria has to pay millions of bucks for nothing.
The Dodgers' best hope, meanwhile, is that the Phillies plummet out of the race in the NL East and begin to consider jettisoning Cliff Lee.
It's not hard to see this happening. The Phillies are already under .500, and they share a division with the National League's best team (Atlanta Braves) and the best team in baseball last year (Washington Nationals). The New York Mets have some solid starting pitching, and their starting pitching can only get better if Zack Wheeler arrives and establishes himself.
If the Phillies do fall out of the race, it's going to be because guys like Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Michael Young just aren't getting it done. Since none of them are getting younger and three of them (Halladay, Utley and Young) are free agents at the end of the year, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro is going to have every reason to believe that his club's championship window is shut and that it's time to move on.
If he can bring himself to believe that, then he could bring himself to send Cliff Lee and his contract west.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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