Heading into the 2013 season, we figured that the Los Angeles Dodgers’ starting rotation would be a strong point. That turned out to be true, as the staff’s average game score (a Bill James creation that summarizes pitching outings into a single number) was the second-highest in baseball.
In 2014, the rotation figures to be of similar benefit for the Dodgers. Headlined by Clayton Kershaw and with a deep reservoir of talent to pull from throughout the season, the Dodgers’ rotation is the strength of the team and undoubtedly one of the best in the entire league.
The ace of this staff—or of any staff he could possibly be on—is Clayton Kershaw. He’s won two of the last three NL Cy Young Awards (he finished second in 2012) and he has led the NL in ERA in each of those three seasons.
Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball, and it probably isn’t even close.
Remarkably, he’s still young. He'll be only 26 for the 2014 season, and as someone who draws realistic comparisons to Sandy Koufax, Kershaw’s ceiling knows no bounds. The sky is truly the limit for the Dodger ace.
Like Kershaw, Zack Greinke had a remarkable 2013.
He finished fifth in ERA among qualified starters, with the only negative being his low-innings count—and that was due primarily to the broken collarbone he suffered during an April brawl, an incident which seems unlikely to repeat itself.
In terms of looking ahead to 2014, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Greinke. For his career, he’s been someone whose FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching on an ERA scale) has been lower than his ERA—which indicates either bad luck on Greinke's behalf or his inability to pitch with runners on base. In 2013, though, that trend reversed itself, as he was able to lower his ERA.
The only concern about Greinke is that his strikeout percentage dropped to its lowest total since 2010, but the fact that his contact percentage (the percent of his pitches that batters made contact with) remained low should alleviate that concern.
Hyun-Jin Ryu was the third key member of the Dodgers' remarkable staff last season. He posted an ERA of 3.00 to rank 14th in the majors among qualified starters—virtually identical to the ERA of Stephen Strasburg.
While that comparison is not exactly intellectually honest—both because Strasburg is better than he showed and because Ryu’s FIP and xFIP were both higher than his ERA—Ryu still showed enough skill to demonstrate that he is an above-average major league starting pitcher.
His strikeout percentage was virtually the league average, but his command set him apart. He walked only 6.3 percent of those batters that he faced, far below the league average of 7.9 percent. If he can continue to avoid giving up free baserunners, any regression that he suffers will be slight.
The “expensive” new addition for the Dodgers, Dan Haren signed a one-year, $10 million deal this offseason and will slot in at the back of the rotation. The Dodgers undoubtedly hope that he can return to the same Haren of three or four years ago after Haren struggled with injuries the past two seasons.
He cemented his reputation as one of baseball’s most durable pitchers with a string of 200-inning seasons from 2005 through 2011, but subsequently failed to crack 180 innings in either 2012 or 2013. However, if he can regain his success from his early years, minus the heavy workload of innings, the Dodgers will gladly take it.
Any optimism over Haran comes from the second half of his 2013 season. Since his DL stint came from June 23 to July 8, his pre- and post-All Star break (ASB) numbers have slightly more meaning than they might otherwise. In this case, those numbers support the idea that Haren was a different pitcher after his injury, as his FIP was lower by 1.30 of a run than his post-ASB percentage while his strikeout percentage jumped nearly 3.5 percent.
If Haren can again resemble the pitcher he was from July onward, then the Dodgers have found a legitimate anchor at the back of their rotation.
Josh Beckett is projected to be in the rotation on Opening Day by MLB Depth Charts, which seems reasonable. The Orange County Register’s Bill Plunkett reported that general manager Ned Colletti believes Beckett will have a “normal spring training.”
Whether or not Beckett will be able to last the season is anyone’s guess. When he first went on the DL last May, Beckett “worried he may never pitch again,” according to Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times (h/t CBS Boston).
Given that information, Beckett doesn’t seem the likeliest to make 30 starts. Even if he does, his uncertain health makes it difficult to project any sort of performance for Beckette—especially given his uneven performance over the past several years.
If Beckett is unable to pitch, or if Haren gets hurt again, the Dodgers have several viable alternatives to eat innings.
Matt Magill: He made six big league starts in 2013, and while he wasn’t particularly good (6.51 ERA), it’s hard to imagine that being the end of his big-league career given that he’s only 24 years old.
Stephen Fife: Fife is likely to be the first call-up if something happens to a member of the rotation, as he was last season’s most effective spot starter. His career 3.49 ERA in 15 starts inspires confidence despite his late start, as he’s already 27.
Zach Lee: One of the team’s top prospects, Lee spent half of 2012 and all of 2013 in Double-A, suggesting that he’s nearly ready for the majors. While he won’t be counted on to be a major contributor, his solid performance in the high minors indicates that he will see Dodger Stadium at some point in 2014.
Chad Billingsley: The veteran would be the ideal candidate to take over for Beckett since he’s the only pitcher on this list with a legitimate major league track record. However, he had Tommy John surgery last April and isn’t expected back until the middle the season.
Masahiro Tanaka: While the final name in play for the Dodgers’ rotation, no one is sure where he will land. He was officially posted by his Japanese league late in December, so any resolution must come by the end of January. According to Baseball America’s Ben Badler, the Mariners are the most likely destination for the Japanese righty, but the Dodgers are still in the mix.