As the Dodgers suffered through their incredibly painful first half of 2011, besieged mostly by injuries and the ongoing saga of “will Frank McCourt make payroll this week?”, one of the fun diversions for Dodger fans was watching the progress of flamethrowing young righty Rubby de la Rosa. At 22, the organization’s 2010 Minor League Pitcher of the Year had added an improving slider to his overpowering fastball in eight starts for Double-A Chattanooga, striking out 52 in just 40 innings.
De la Rosa was recalled in late May, and after three relief appearances made his first start on June 7 when Jon Garland was placed on the disabled list. As one might expect from such a raw pitcher – he had just 53 minor-league appearances to that point – there were some ups-and-downs in those early starts, mostly related to control issues, but de la Rosa quickly showed the talent was for real. In his fifth start, he took the loss despite allowing just one Minnesota run over seven innings. In his sixth, he walked just one Met over seven three-run innings after having taken a no-hitter into the fifth. In his seventh, he allowed only one San Diego hit over six full innings. Armed with that fastball that averaged 95.2 MPH, each time out he looked more and more like someone who could anchor the Dodger rotation with Clayton Kershaw & Chad Billingsley for years to come.
That is, of course, until his tenth start, in a little-noticed afternoon game against Arizona that was played during the trading deadline frenzy on July 31. De la Rosa came out after four innings, complaining of a sore arm. Days later, it was confirmed that he had blown out his elbow and would need Tommy John surgery. For suffering Dodger fans who were still a few weeks away from seeing the club’s red-hot finish to the season, seeing their new toy get hurt so quickly was just the icing on the cake. “Rubby got hurt? Well, of course he did.”
More than a year later, the situation in Los Angeles is very different. McCourt is gone, and so is the black cloud that hung over him; Magic Johnson and friends are in. The rotation is now full, with newcomers Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang & Joe Blanton joining Kershaw & Billingsley on the starting staff. (And despite Blanton’s impending free agency, the presence of rehabbing Ted Lilly means that the Dodgers still have five starters under contract for next year, plus nearly-ready prospects like Allen Webster & Zach Lee, plus the big splash like Zack Greinke or Dan Haren that seems nearly inevitable this winter.)
De la Rosa may have been injured, but he’s not been forgotten. It took just less than a year (by two days) for his first minor league rehab appearance, and only four overall (spanning 12 innings) for the Dodgers to bring him back to the bigs, which they did by somewhat surprisingly optioning Javy Guerra. He struck out 12 in those 12 innings while allowing just five hits, along with encouraging reports that indicated his velocity was back up in the mid-90s, and so it’s not hard to see why the Dodgers would want to get him back as soon as possible.
So what does the future hold for de la Rosa as he continues to recover? For the rest of the season, he’s likely limited to bullpen work, though I suppose there’s a scenario, however unlikely, where Blanton continues to be so terrible that the club just can’t keep sending him out there. (De la Rosa did get up to 60 pitches in his final rehab outing.) For fantasy purposes, a reliever with no chance of collecting saves is inherently limited in value, though in NL-only leagues or anyone in desperate need of strikeouts, he’s a good and freely-available choice.
Long-term, de la Rosa is likely still looked at as a starter. If he can stay healthy and limit the walks just a little – and let’s not forget, he’s not even 24 until next March, and still has fewer than 300 professional innings under his belt – he can be a star. Despite the crowded Dodger rotation, the Lillys & Harangs of the world aren’t enough to keep talent like that out. Keeper league signal, activate!