Over the last few years, the Dodgers have made it pretty clear that, when it comes to pitching, they’re willing to take some health risks in order to get talent upside. To that end, they’ve signed pitchers like Scott Kazmir, Brett Anderson, Brandon McCarthy, and Brandon Beachy as free agents, all of whom have put up very good performances at times, but all of whom have had significant medical issues throughout their careers. This winter, they attempted to sign Hisashi Iwakuma, but backed off due to concerns with his physical, and then signed an incentive-laden deal with Kenta Maeda, who reportedly had some pretty ugly medicals himself. And this doesn’t even count Hyun-Jin Ryu — who wasn’t recently acquired, but is returning from shoulder surgery — or Alex Wood, a pitcher with a delivery so awkward that his long-term health was one of the main reasons the Braves traded him to Los Angeles to begin with.
The 2016 Dodgers rotation was essentially Clayton Kershaw and then some combination of four high-risk pitchers with health problems. We’re only a couple of weeks into spring training, but the downside of pursuing this strategy is already starting to show through the cracks.
Last week, the Dodgers acknowledged that Ryu was probably not going to be ready to pitch in April, and they’re targeting his return for sometime in May; on Tuesday, they noted that Ryu is dealing with some soreness in his shoulder, though they downplayed it as a setback in his rehab. With six starters for five spots, taking it slow with Ryu made plenty of sense anyway.
Well, today, they got some more bad news; Brett Anderson has a bulging disc in his back, which will require surgery, and he’ll miss the next three to five months, putting him out until June at the earliest, and potentially knocking him out for most of the season. Given his long-term health issues, expecting Anderson to rush through rehab and be back mid-season is probably not a wise bet, so the Dodgers should probably not count on having Anderson throw significant innings in 2016 anymore.
So, at this point, the Dodgers opening Day rotation looks something like this:
#1: Clayton Kershaw
#2: Scott Kazmir
#3: Kenta Maeda
#4: Alex Wood
#5: Mike Bolsinger
Bolsinger actually pitched pretty well for the Dodgers last year, but with an 87 mph fastball, he’s always going to be viewed as a suspect starter on a team trying to win. The projections like him, and there are certainly worse #5 starters out there on contending teams, but the loss of Anderson and the questions surrounding Ryu are going to start to put a strain on the team’s depth, as the options get significantly less rosy if anyone else goes down before the season starts.
Carlos Frias probably can’t get left-handers out. Zach Lee is more of a pitch-to-contact strike-thrower than the highly-touted prospect of a few years back. Brandon Beachy is a complete unknown, and wasn’t very good after returning from his rehab last year. Yaisel Sierra wasn’t any good as a reliever in Cuba, and almost certainly needs some time in the minor leagues to see if the team can turn his stuff into performance.
At this point, the Dodgers can make do with what they have. Bolsinger is good enough to fill in for a while, and with Ryu and McCarthy working their way back, the team could have reinforcements arriving in the second or third month of the season. If the Dodgers staff avoids any more significant injuries, they’ll probably be okay. But if Maeda ends up being damaged goods, or Wood’s off-season mechanical changes don’t get him back closer to the guy he was in Atlanta, then the team might have to start seriously considering whether they’re willing to push the envelope with Julio Urias.
Urias, generally considered the best or second-best pitching prospect in baseball, is just 19 years old and spent most of last year in Double-A, where he threw only 68 innings. Realistically, the Dodgers would like to not rely on him, and maybe give him a taste of the majors in relief work in the second half of the season, where he could get his feet wet without carrying a huge workload. But the talent and the performances both suggest that Urias could hold his own in the big leagues right now, and if the Dodgers are targeting something like 120 innings for Urias this year, another injury might provoke the question of whether they’d be best served getting those earlier in the year instead.
Steamer thinks Urias is something like a league average starter right now; ZIPS is even higher on him, putting him as essentially Kazmir’s equal. If the team loses another starter before Opening Day, and they’re faced with the prospect of giving Frias or Lee starts in addition to counting on Wood and Bolsinger — who were the depth guys a few weeks ago — then it might be time to think about getting Urias’ value in the first half of the year instead of the second half. Especially if the team believes that they’ll be getting one or two of their injured starters back mid-season, then limiting Urias’ workload early in order to save him for a second half role might not be as useful as simply letting him experience the big leagues earlier and shutting him down once the veterans get healthy.
Of course, if you put Urias in the big leagues in April or May, and he pitches well all summer, managing his workload gets significantly more challenging. There’s no real scrutiny attached to skipping his starts in Triple-A, but if he’s actually as good as ZIPS thinks, and is pitching like the team’s #2 or #3 starter, shutting him down after 120 innings in the middle of a pennant race won’t be as easy a sell to fans who care far more about the present than the future. The Dodgers front office has continually played the long game in building the franchise’s core, and I’d imagine they’d rather not get into a Strasburg-esque discussion about when to take a phenom off the mound, so the easier path is to keep him in the minors for as long as possible and make do with other options.
But with Anderson going down, and Ryu’s rehab perhaps not going as smoothly as they had hoped, the team might have to face a situation where their best option is the one they don’t want to use. As long as they can keep the remaining five starters healthy, this is an issue they can avoid, but the next headline about a Dodgers starter heading to the disabled list is probably going to be the one where the Julio Urias question becomes a bigger part of LA’s 2016 story.
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