Is Dodgers' Revamped Rotation Good Enough to Compete for 2016 Title?January 7, 2016
The Los Angeles Dodgers were never going to replace Zack Greinke. That may as well have been a decree from the baseball gods.
He's one of the best right-handers in the game, after all, and MLB's reigning ERA king. Even with a free-agent market as deep as this one, once Greinke rode off into the Arizona sunset, that was that.
Still, Los Angeles and President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman had to act. And they did, adding a pair of arms in southpaw Scott Kazmir and Japanese import Kenta Maeda, whose deal is expected to be made official in the coming days, per Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times (more on that in a moment).
The question now is, has Friedman done enough to patch that Greinke-sized hole and revamp the rotation for a title run in 2016?
Make no mistake: It's title or bust at Chavez Ravine. The Dodgers, baseball's biggest spenders, haven't hoisted a Commissioner's Trophy in more than a quarter-century. Yes, they've won three straight division titles and advanced as far as the National League Championship Series in 2013. They've knocked on the door.
Meanwhile, their hated rivals to the north, the San Francisco Giants, have won three rings in six seasons. And San Francisco is entering an even year (wink, wink) with a bevy of homegrown offensive talent and some shiny new additions to its starting five. Those pesky, Greinke-robbing D-Backs are coiled in the weeds, too.
And other NL contenders, including the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets, are locked and loaded.
So back to Kazmir and Maeda. They join a rotation fronted by Clayton Kershaw, the 2014 NL MVP and still probably the best pitcher in baseball. That's a rock-solid foundation.
With Maeda and Kazmir in the fold, the Dodgers now have pitching depth. Left-handers Hyun-Jin Ryu and Brett Anderson figure to claim the other two rotation slots, with Alex Wood slotting into long relief or possibly being dangled in trade. Righty Mike Bolsinger, who posted a 3.62 ERA in 21 starts last season, is likewise in the mix.
Quantity, however, doesn't trump quality. Again, the Dodgers are trying to recover from the loss of Greinke and his ludicrously stingy 1.66 ERA and 9.3 WAR, per Baseball-Reference.com.
Can Maeda and Kazmir do it?
First, let's take the optimistic tack. Kazmir, an All-Star in 2014, continued his compelling comeback story last season with the Oakland A's and Houston Astros, posting a 3.10 ERA in 183 innings. Not bad for a guy who was floundering in the independent leagues in 2012.
"Back in the day, it was just get it and throw it," Kazmir, who will turn 32 later this month, told Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times. "I don't know how I did it. I just did it. Now, being able to know my body a lot more and being a lot more knowledgeable about the game, it's a huge advantage."
Maeda, too, arrives loaded with experience. In eight seasons with the Hiroshima Carp of Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball, the 27-year-old right-hander posted a 2.39 ERA with 1,233 strikeouts in 1,509.2 innings. After watching what Japanese studs like Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka did to MLB hitters when they were healthy, there's every reason to believe those stats can translate stateside.
OK, now for a dose of pessimism. That "when healthy" caveat referred to the arm troubles that have haunted Tanaka and Darvish, forcing the latter to have Tommy John surgery last spring.
Now, we're already seeing red flags with Maeda. While Maeda's eight-year deal is moving forward, there have been delays "over health concerns," according to Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com. Remember, L.A. already scrapped a pact this winter with Hisashi Iwakuma over a failed physical.
Maeda, it seems, will don Dodger blue, though his contract is for a low baseline of $25 million and loaded with performance incentives, per the New York Post's Joel Sherman. Mostly, questions about his durability won't go away until he quashes them on the mound.
Kazmir, too, comes with questions. Compelling as his renaissance has been, he faltered down the stretch last season and watched his ERA balloon by a full run between July 30 and Sept. 30. That could have been an anomaly or it could have been fatigue. Or, if you're feeling especially gloomy, it could have been an ominous harbinger.
The good news for Kazmir is that he's moving to a pitchers' yard and to a division that features two other offense-suppressing stadiums in San Diego's Petco Park and San Francisco's AT&T Park.
That should also benefit Maeda, a slender figure with a low-90s fastball who relies largely on command. If you're thinking that sounds a bit like Greinke's scouting report, well, the Dodgers are no doubt thinking (and hoping) along the same lines.
Fox Sports' C.J. Nitkowski threw a bit of a wet blanket on that comparison with his analysis of Maeda.
"Dodgers fans should temper their expectations," Nitkowski wrote, "they are not getting the next Darvish or Tanaka. However, Maeda should be a very serviceable starter who gives new manager Dave Roberts the right-handed arm he badly needed in his rotation."
"Serviceable" isn't a word that gets pulses pounding or World Series dreams churning. But with Kershaw on hand and Kazmir slotting in as a passable No. 2, the Dodgers don't need Maeda to light the league on fire.
Still, it feels like there's a missing ingredient here, something that would push L.A.'s starting five to the next echelon. That ingredient might be Ryu.
The 28-year South Korean was excellent in his first two seasons with the Dodgers, posting a 3.17 ERA in 344 innings between 2013 and 2014. But he sat out the entire 2015 campaign after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder.
On Dec. 18, Ryu said he expected to be ready by Opening Day, per MLB.com's Ken Gurnick.
"Other than throwing off a mound and going all out, I pretty much can do everything I want to do," Ryu said, per Gurnick. "I'm on a great program and everything is going great. No discomfort, absolutely nothing."
If there are no setbacks and Ryu returns to his 2013-14 form, suddenly L.A.'s starting five becomes more formidable. Whereas in the past there was a steep drop-off after the two-headed monster of Kershaw and Greinke, this group has the potential to be consistently deep and dangerous.
The Dodgers didn't re-up Greinke. They didn't (and almost certainly won't) trade for Jose Fernandez or Carlos Carrasco. Nor did they nab David Price, despite his connections to Friedman from their days in Tampa Bay.
But if Maeda stays healthy, Ryu gets healthy, Kazmir puts his late-season slide in the rear view and Anderson and/or Wood do credible fifth-starter things, this could be an area of strength for L.A.
Enough to win a long-awaited title and make Dodgers fans say "Zack who?" That's up to the baseball gods.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.