During the Los Angeles Dodgers' amazing 62-28 run to finish the 2013 regular season, it's no surprise that the team's top three starting pitchers—Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu—completely dominated.
As the eventual Cy Young Award winner, Kershaw went 11-4 with a 1.61 ERA in 17 starts while holding opposing hitters to a .503 OPS. Greinke went 12-2 in 19 starts while holding opposing hitters to a .589 OPS.
No. 3 starter Hyun-jin Ryu, who finished fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting behind Jose Fernandez, Yasiel Puig and Shelby Miller, was also very good, as you can imagine. The 26-year-old lefty won eight of his 13 decisions while posting a 3.04 ERA in his 16 starts during that stretch.
What might be a surprise, though, is how much production the Dodgers got out of the last two spots in the rotation and who the pitchers were that gave it to them. And if you weren't paying close enough attention, you may be surprised to know that three-time All-Star Josh Beckett did not make one start during the team's run.
Ricky Nolasco, Chris Capuano and Edinson Volquez carried the load at the back of the rotation, while Beckett and Chad Billingsley watched from the sidelines with injuries that ended their respective seasons well before the Dodgers had gotten their act together.
After being acquired from the Miami Marlins in early July, Nolasco proceeded to go on what was likely his best streak of pitching ever. In his first 12 starts as a Dodger, he went 8-1 with a 2.07 ERA before struggling badly in his last three starts.
Capuano may have been the weak link, posting a 4.29 ERA in 12 starts from June 23 through August 31 and winning only two games. But he kept his club in the game and gave it a chance to win in a majority of his starts, resulting in nine team victories.
And while the division had already been wrapped by the time he was inserted into the rotation, Volquez gave the Dodgers four solid starts in September after he had been signed off the scrap heap following his release from the San Diego Padres.
So with Capuano, Nolasco and Volquez all signing free-agent deals elsewhere this offseason, the Dodgers will turn to Dan Haren, who signed a one-year, $10 million deal to fill one hole, and, if healthy, Beckett, who would step into the final spot.
The 33-year-old Beckett was acquired in the blockbuster deal with the Boston Red Sox in August 2012, although he was more of a throw-in to a trade that included hitting star Adrian Gonzalez.
To acquire the big prize in Gonzalez, the Dodgers had to take on the disappointing Carl Crawford and his massive contract, and Beckett, who was still owed well over $30 million and struggling to the tune of a 5.23 ERA in 21 starts.
Still, his strong finish after the trade (2.93 ERA, 43 IP, 43 H, 14 BB, 38 K in seven starts) gave the Dodgers hope that they'd get a strong return on his $15.75 million salary for 2013.
That wasn't the case, however, as he was knocked around, allowing two homers in four of his first five starts and posting an overall 5.19 ERA by the time he was placed on the disabled list with a strained groin after this eighth start of the season.
A much bigger issue had also surfaced, however, as Beckett was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, which had been causing numbness in his pitching hand. He underwent surgery in July to remove his top rib to relieve pressure on a compressed nerve, leaving his status for 2014 in doubt.
While the Dodgers' reported pursuit of Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka this offseason indicated they weren't too interested in relying on Beckett to come back healthy and productive—as the addition of Tanaka would've likely pushed Beckett out of the starting rotation mix altogether—they opted to sign Paul Maholm as a relatively inexpensive backup plan, keeping the door open for the former Marlins and Red Sox ace to win a rotation spot.
The addition of Haren should help, especially if the Dodgers get the second-half-of-2013 version of him (3.52 ERA), as opposed to the one who struggled mightily to start his Washington Nationals career (6.15 ERA in first 15 starts of 2013). But it's Beckett who could prove to be the X-factor in whether this Dodgers team will live up to expectations and dominate throughout the 2014 season.
If his first start of the spring was any indication—he allowed just one ground-ball single over two shutout innings while striking out three and showing strong command of his fastball and breaking pitches—he's well on his way to playing a key role in the Dodgers' season.
Beckett believes that his injury led to some bad habits, including a drop in his arm slot over the past couple seasons. After studying video from his successful 2007 through 2009 campaigns with the Red Sox, he picked up on the difference and is returning to his over-the-top delivery in 2014.
"You certainly create some bad habits," Beckett told reporters. "I think I slowly started to creep down further and further, not knowing what the injury was."
Those aforementioned 2007-2009 seasons, in case you're wondering, resulted in a 49-23 record, 3.71 ERA, 2.0 BB/9 and 8.7 K/9 over 89 starts in a very tough AL East. The Sox made the playoffs in each of those years, and Beckett's impact was great.
On his way to winning the ALCS MVP in 2007, Beckett went 4-0 while allowing just four earned runs in 30 innings pitched with two walks and 35 strikeouts over four playoff starts as the Sox won the World Series for the second time in four seasons.
He wasn't nearly as effective in the 2008 and 2009 playoffs, although his reputation from winning the World Series MVP in 2003 while with the Florida Marlins and his brilliant performance in 2007 had already been earned.
Beckett is entering his age-34 season, so it's difficult to expect a similar performance from his age-27 through age-29 seasons.
But a return to health and better command combined with his big-game experience and what still appears to be a good enough fastball—it averaged 92 mph in his eight starts last season, according to FanGraphs, which was 0.6 mph higher than in 2012 and only 1.1 mph less than in 2011, when he had one of his best seasons—could result in the Dodgers having one of the best No. 5 starters in baseball, which could separate them from the pack much sooner than in 2013.