A wild card exists in every Major League Baseball rotation. The Los Angeles Dodgers, though, have a deck of them.
Starting pitchers Scott Kazmir, Kenta Maeda and Alex Wood all enter the 2016 season with questions about how they may perform.
A history of arm injuries plagued Kazmir earlier in his career. Can he stay healthy enough to maintain top-of-the-rotation stuff in Los Angeles? He has only one 200-inning season in his 11-year major league career.
For Maeda, who played professionally in Japan the last eight seasons, will his stuff translate to the major leagues? Though the Dodgers protected themselves financially by only guaranteeing $25 million in an incentive-laden, eight-year deal, the rotation will still be dependent upon Maeda’s ability to succeed.
Then there’s Wood, who, considering his previous success, could be the rotation’s equalizer. The uber-talented lefty had an inconsistent 2015 season, particularly after being traded from Atlanta to Los Angeles on July 30.
But if Wood, 25, can revert to the success he had in 2014 with the Braves when he posted career bests in ERA (2.78) and strikeouts (170), what Kazmir and Maeda do would just be gravy.
That isn’t to say the Dodgers aren’t expecting a solid season from either Kazmir or Maeda. But Wood’s potential is greater.
Pairing the 2014 version of Wood with ace Clayton Kershaw would give the Dodgers an innings-eating duo that could actually make Kazmir and Maeda more successful.
If the front end of the Dodgers rotation is able to save the bullpen, guys like Maeda and Kazmir could throw harder in the early innings. With a well-rested bullpen on the days they start, they wouldn’t be pressured to go as deep into games.
Managing Kazmir and Maeda’s innings nets benefits, too.
A limitation of Kazmir’s innings would help prevent injury. Doing so for Maeda would allow a gentler transition to American baseball. The hitters are obviously better in MLB, so Maeda may need to work deeper into counts to get outs.
Along with Kershaw, Wood should be the workhorse starter. He is that talented—a top-of-the-rotation player who could help vault the Dodgers to another National League West title.
Yes, his 2015 season looked a lot like a heart monitor. He would touch his potential at times, but nearly as frequently he looked more like a back-end starter.
Through July and August, which includes time with the Braves and Dodgers, Wood made it through seven innings only once. His ERA in 12 starts (11 decisions) with Los Angeles was an abysmal 4.35.
But his stint with the Dodgers last season did more to suggest he could successfully be the Dodgers’ No. 2 pitcher than the totality of his statistics may otherwise indicate.
Wood’s unsightly ERA with Los Angeles was largely affected by two starts. On Sept. 11 at Arizona, he allowed six earned runs in 1.2 innings. At Colorado on Sept. 27, he allowed eight earned runs in 5.1 innings.
Chase Field (home to the Diamondbacks) and Coors Field (home to the Rockies) were the two places Wood pitched the worst in 2015. In two starts at Chase Field, he had a 6.52 ERA, and in three appearances at Coors Field, he had a 12.27 ERA.
Starts at those parks skewed his numbers.
Further proof that his poor performance against the Rockies was, in part, due to pitching at Coors Field: Wood had his best start as a Dodger against Colorado at home. On Sept. 16, he allowed only one hit and needed just 78 pitches to go eight innings.
His ERA at Dodger Stadium was 2.21 in 2015. All five of his starts at the park as a Dodger were quality starts (at least six innings pitched and no more than three earned runs allowed).
So, he has a record of pitching well in the park that will house about half his outings in 2016. And if the team chooses, it can actually manipulate the rotation to get Wood more starts at home.
As the Dodgers built their rotation this offseason, they must have considered Wood’s performance in their ballpark. Otherwise, they may have pushed harder to retain Zack Greinke.
Regardless, it won’t do anything to quash the innumerable questions surrounding this rotation.
Wood, however, could easily be the answer to all of them.
Seth Gruen covers baseball for Bleacher Report among other sports. Follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.