In the coming weeks, we’ll be covering each team’s potential depth charts in an effort to shine a spotlight on the interesting playing time battles that will be waged this spring. Obviously none of these depth charts are set in stone — rather they should function to focus your attention in the right places to find cheap fantasy value.
Here’s all we can say that we know for certain about the Dodger rotation right now, as pitchers & catchers around baseball are reporting to camp: Clayton Kershaw is going to start on Opening Day against the Giants, and Zack Greinke is going to follow him.
You hardly need us to tell you about the greatness of Kershaw, because as long as he’s healthy, he’s going to be one of the elite pitchers in the game. Actually, he’s so good that maybe the “if healthy” qualifier isn’t even necessary here – in five starts last September, when he was battling a painful hip ailment that created concern he might need surgery, Kershaw merely allowed three earned runs in 35 innings while striking out 37. (He’s reportedly throwing without pain so far his spring.) Greinke will always warrant some concern as he joins a new team with a huge contract, but his talent is undeniable; Dan Szymborski’s recent Dodgers ZiPS projections had the pair as the best 1-2 punch of the teams he’d ranked to that point.
Beyond that? Well… it’s complicated, as the Dodgers need to figure out how to fit six remaining starters into three spots – Josh Beckett, Hyun-jin Ryu, Chad Billingsley, Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang, & Ted Lilly.
Of that group, the two most likely to open the season in the rotation are Ryu & Beckett. I say “most likely” to hedge my bets, because barring injury, they’re in – the Dodgers didn’t drop over $60m on Ryu to use him as a reliever, and the team made it clear that they valued Beckett in last summer’s Boston deal, rather than just swallowing him as the cost of getting Adrian Gonzalez.
Still, each carries more than a little uncertainty. Korean import Ryu is almost a complete unknown to most of us and has impressed few with his “physique”, though that hasn’t stopped CC Sabathia from being very effective. What we do know about Ryu at this point is that he’s durable, has a decent fastball that peaks in the low 90s, solid control, and a potentially excellent changeup that he used for years in Korea to make hitters look foolish. ZiPS has him down for 180.1 innings, 8.44 K/9, and a 3.99 ERA; those are numbers the Dodgers would probably gladly take in his first year, and it would make him a third or fourth starter, which sounds about right. Ryu is all but a lock to be in the rotation, but again, he’s such a mystery that until we see how his stuff plays against big league hitters in the spring, he’s going to be a huge question mark.
Beckett has a solid hold on a rotation spot as well, though he’s been banged up a lot over the last few years and isn’t likely to find increased health as he heads into his age-33 season with more than 2200 professional innings on his arm. Much was made over his ERA improvement after the trade, going from 5.23 in 21 starts with Boston to 2.93 in seven starts with the Dodgers, though the advanced metrics don’t really back that up – his FIP merely decreased from 4.26 to 3.82. His lessened velocity made the trip with him, and his swinging strike percentage decreased from 8.8% to a career-low 7.7% in his brief time in the National League. Of course, moving from the AL East to the NL West and getting away from the designated hitter is a boost for any pitcher, and as recently as 2011 Beckett was still a plus performer. ZiPS sees him at a 3.70 ERA / 3.83 FIP with some missed starts due to injury, and I can’t dispute that projection. Fantasy-wise. however, it makes him a late-round pick, especially if his strikeouts continue to decline.
That leaves the team with four veterans vying for the final spot in the rotation, but this battle hinges almost entirely on the condition of Billingsley’s right elbow, which ended his season on August 24 last year. Given that Billingsley was in the midst of both a solid season (3.34 FIP) and a dominant stretch (six earned runs allowed over his final six starts prior to being hurt), it’s not a stretch to say that his loss was one of the primary reasons that the Dodgers fell just short of a playoff spot. He was diagnosed with a partially torn UCL in the elbow, but rather than submit to Tommy John surgery and write off the season, he’s going to attempt to pitch through it. Early returns have been positive, since he was able to hit 94 MPH in a simulated game in November and has thrown “eight bullpen sessions with no issues”, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that it’s merely a matter of time, because the history of pitchers attempting to go the rehab route rather than have surgery is dismal at best. If Billingsley is healthy, the job is his.
That leaves veterans Capuano, Harang, & Lilly, all 34 or older, on the outside looking in. All three are in the final year of their contracts, and Capuano & Harang each contributed surprisingly decent efforts in their Los Angeles debuts; Lilly got off to a hot but completely unsustainable start before missing the final four months with shoulder woes. If everyone remains healthy, at least one is probably going to start the season in the bullpen – likely Lilly, given that his age, salary, & health probably makes him untradeable – while the others could be traded before the season. Depending on where that is, one of these pitchers could suddenly gain some fantasy value — for example, Capuano in Petco Park seems pretty intriguing. If one of the main five does get hurt, then suddenly there’s a real battle between these three to grab that spot.
While it’s almost unthinkable that all eight of these pitchers will break camp on the Dodger roster, the excess does make this a situation more than worth watching. Between the questions of how Greinke & Ryu acclimate to their new team, how Billingsley’s elbow holds up, and who finds themselves elsewhere by April, there’s no shortage of storylines in Dodger camp.