Excellent starting pitching has been the leading edge of Dodger championship teams. Hurlers such as Koufax and Drysdale, Sutton and Messersmith, as well as Valenzuela and Hershiser have paced Los Angeles' supremacy from the rubber.
Most have been developed in the team’s storied minor league system, but others such as Osteen, Hooton, and Reuss have joined the team via the trade or free agent market.
The current stable of arms does not have an established ace in the vein of championship teams from the past, some of which would go three or four deep.
Instead, the 2010 Dodger staff—as currently constructed—will go to spring training in search of that bellwether starter which can be relied upon when times become bleak and trouble is knocking at the door.
Clayton “Chinstrap” Kershaw , Chad Billingsley , Hiroki Kuroda, and Vincente Padilla will arrive in Arizona for the Dodger's second spring at their Camelback Ranch facility as the bulk of the starting staff, with a fifth starter to be determined.
In reality, a major league team needs to have eight starting pitchers, given inevitable injuries and/or lack of execution that will develop. One will be parked in the bullpen and designated as a long reliever and two more will be pining way down in Triple-A, waiting for their opportunity to shine.
At the time of this preview being written, the following are considered as having a shot at the Dodgers fifth starting slot: James McDonald, Eric Stults, Charlie Haeger, Scott Elbert, Carlos Monasterios, Josh Lindblom, and John Ely. Other vets trying to shoehorn their way into the race include Jeff Weaver, Russ Ortiz, John Koronka, and Ramon Ortiz.
Chinstrap developed quite nicely into one of the more dominating starters in the league. Another season of continued improvement at his previous pace would move him into elite status and make him a serious contender for the Cy Young Award.
Unlike Tim Lincecum , the current award holder, Kershaw has faced the fires of postseason competition in both of his major league seasons. Lincecum does have one additional Major League season under his belt and is four years older.
2010 will be Chinstrap’s second full season in the majors, but he has displayed an advanced physical and mental capacity for the game. The counterweight is Kershaw’s tender age—he will be 22 come opening day—and the problems it can still bring, as witnessed in the first game of the NLCS when he hit the wall hard in the fifth inning of Game One.
It is reasonable to question why pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and manager Joe Torre left him in the game when it was clearly apparent Kershaw’s tank was empty, thus making a bad situation even worse and contributing to the Dodgers immediately losing the home-field advantage, as LA dropped an 8-6 decision.
Despite the playoff troubles, there are few things to make Dodger fans more excited while considering what may unfold in 2010 than the thought of another year of maturity raising Kershaw’s abilities into ace status.
2009 for Chad Billingsley was a tale of two seasons. In the first half, he went 9-4 with a 3.38 ERA, 1.229 WHIP, and 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings in 125.1 innings over 19 starts. These numbers were good enough for a berth on the NL All-Star squad, where he gave up a run and two hits in his only inning of work.
That All-Star performance proved to be a harbinger of the bad times to come in the second half of the year, as Bills turned in a 3-7 finish. His ERA bloated to an unseemly 5.20 and the WHIP to 1.479. Strikeouts per nine innings dropped to 7.6 in 71 innings, over 13 starts and one relief appearance. It should be noted that he suffered from two different hamstring injuries and very poor offensive support in the second half.
The only postseason appearance Billingsley made was in the horrific NLCS Game Three, an 11-0 loss where Chad came out of the bullpen to concede two hits, two walks, and two earned runs in 3.1 innings.
In January, the Dodgers and Billingsley agreed on a one-year contract for $3.8 million, a deal which allowed both sides to avoid arbitration. That sounds pretty good until compared to the two-year, $10.95 million pact 2003 draft classmate Matt Kemp landed. It would appear the Dodger brass want to see Bills put together a quality full season before truly opening the bank vault for him.
The soft spoken Billingsley might also benefit from a “bulldog”-type mentality such as what Tommy Lasorda grafted onto Orel Hershiser, which helped take him to the next level in performance.
Kuroda’s 13th professional season was laden with bad luck when it came to his health. Named the opening day starter, Kuroda allowed one run over 5.2 innings and bagged a win over Jake Peavy , only to strain his left oblique before his next start—an injury that kept him out until Jun. 1.
Taking a regular rotation spot over two and a half summer months, Kuroda was inconsistent in his first eight starts but pitched much better in the next seven. A line drive to the forehead on Aug. 15 in Arizona knocked him back to the DL, from which he would not return until Sept. 6.
Capping off the physical misery was a late-season shoulder injury which kept Kuroda out of the NLDS series against St. Louis. It was obvious Hiroki was in no condition to pitch against Philly, as the attempt in Game Three was an unmitigated disaster. Six earned runs and six hits in 1.1 innings of work stand as testimony to the misguided nature of the decision to let him start, much less go out for the second inning.
Entering the final season of the three-year pact he signed when coming from Japan, Kuroda will no doubt be looking to show his true capability at the major league level. There has been brief runs of domination sidetracked by lack of support his first year and injuries in the second, but if Kuroda is able to put his talent on display for a full season, the Dodgers will have a very solid starter upon which to rely.
A late season waiver wire pick-up from Texas, Padilla stepped into Los Angeles and provided some quality starts down the stretch run, going 4-0 with a 3.20 ERA in eight appearances. His WHIP was 1.220 and he averaged a couple of ticks under a strikeout per inning as a Dodger.
Now entering his 12th major league season, Padilla was available mainly due to his owning what is perceived around the league to be a less-than-stellar attitude. Padilla is a battler out of time, happy to buzz batters in a manner that would have been more appreciated in the ‘60s compared to now.
The Dodgers decided to bring him in last season on the advice of two people, coach Larry Bowa and pitcher Randy Wolf . Bowa managed Padilla in Philly and Wolf was a teammate there. Both hold Padilla in high regard on and off the field. GM Ned Colletti and Torre decided it was worth the risk to bring Padilla over and were rewarded for their gamble.
Getting a taste of the postseason for the first time in his career, Padilla started three games. His first outing against the Cards saw Padilla throw seven innings of shutout ball and record the victory in the series clincher. He turned in another superb effort the next time out in Game Two of the NLCS, surrendering a single tally over 7.1 innings in the only game Los Angeles would win in the series.
A free agent after the season, Padilla suffered a minor gunshot wound to his right leg when a shooting range instructor tried to clear Padilla’s jammed pistol. The Dodgers remained interested in signing him and finally cut a one-year deal for just over $5 million in January. Padilla can earn another $1 million in incentives.
Padilla has expressed his appreciation with the Dodgers for sticking with him, and it would be very nice indeed for the True Blue fans if he is able to channel a little bit of Drysdaleian-type magic on the mound in 2010.
Fight for the Fifth
Of all the candidates for the fifth slot, Los Angeles would be best served if either McDonald or Stults would be able to secure the position.
McDonald is a hard throwing righty who backed into the starting rotation at the end of last spring, but quickly gave up the position. An ERA north of 8.00 will usually do that for an unproven youngster. After a spell in Albuquerque, McDonald pitched fairly well out of the bullpen the balance of the season. He recently finished pitching in the Dominican Winter League and has spoken about the learning process, where he is compared to last year, and feeling he is now better suited to handling the starting role.
The lefty Stults would provide some balance to the rotation, given Chinstrap is the only southpaw in the first four slots. Last year, an injury to this throwing thumb knocked Stults out of the rotation. One start in August was all he would be able to muster for the balance of the season. Given he is out of options and the team has deflected interest from Japan, it would seem they would like to keep Stults in Los Angeles for 2010.
It would seem unlikely for the knuckleballing Charlie Haeger to get the nod based on his treatment last season. An August call-up, his first two starts in Dodger blue were very effective. Charlie got hit hard in Cincinnati the third time out and was pulled after only 2.1 innings. The balance of the season saw Haeger appear three times in relief, for a total of 2.1 innings. After previously seeing time with the White Sox and Padres, don’t be surprised if Haeger hits the road again and ends up with another franchise in 2010.
Scott Elbert has only worked as a reliever in his short time in the show, but has extensive starting experience in the minors. While he will be given an opportunity, it seems more likely Torre would prefer to have Elbert work out of the pen for the upcoming season, given he has the ability to work both multiple innings in a game or multiple games in a week. This is a valuable asset to have, especially in a hard-throwing lefty.
Carlos Monasterios is a Rule V acquisition from the Phillies through the Mets. Last season—his fourth in professional ball—he appeared in two games at the AA level, the highest to date in his career. Considering the underwhelming numbers he has put up so far, it seems unlikely Carlos will make the Dodgers' roster, not the mention crack the rotation, but stranger things have happened in baseball.
After making a surprising push for the rotation last spring, Josh Lindblom split time between AA and AAA, starting 14 times in his 34 appearances. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was solid as was his WHIP, but it seems more likely Lindblom will serve as a reliever if he makes the roster in 2010.
Acquired as part of the Juan Pierre deal from the Chicago White Sox, John Ely enjoyed a stellar 2009 in AA ball, going 14-2 in 27 starts with a 2.82 ERA over 156.1 innings. He turned in a WHIP of 1.215 and averaged 2.5 strikeouts per walk surrendered. Given the Dodgers and White Sox now share their training facilities, it seems likely various sets of Dodger eyes observed Ely and liked what they saw. Whether he will be ready for 2010 is open for debate. Those attending spring ball should keep a look out for Ely.
Jeff Weaver was recently re-signed by the club, both hoping for more of the success from 2009 as a spot starter and long reliever. It would be extremely unlikely Weaver would take a regular turn in the Dodger rotation, but he offers plenty of experience for younger players to absorb.
Both Russ and Ramon Ortiz are looking to revive their careers. While not related, both have experienced success with California teams—Ramon with the Angels and Russ with the Giants. At this point, they most likely would be AAA starters at best, ready to step up in emergency situations.
Meanwhile, John Koronka’s high-water mark over four major league seasons was 7-7 with a 5.69 ERA and 1.536 WHIP in 2006 with Texas. Sorry, but I can’t recommend for anyone to try and hold their breath waiting on him to emerge.
As currently constructed, the 2010 Dodger rotation has a fairly reasonable chance for great things. There are plenty of pitfalls that have to be avoided, as quality depth does not appear to be at hand.
If anything, the Los Angeles faithful can look for more young talent to emerge and try to take their place in Dodger lore. However, they should not waste their time pining for top-shelf help to ride in and save the day via trade or free agency.
The starting lineup and bullpen must continue to perform at a high level for the Dodgers to make the postseason in 2010, and at least one of the top three starters has to really break out if they want to reach the World Series. Two would be preferred.
Up next: the bullpen
Photo credit: JC Ayvazi