Fortifying the Dodgers’ Rotation

Clayton Kershaw was the only qualifier on the 2017 edition of the Dodgers.
(Photo: Arturo Pardavila III)

When we last saw the Dodgers’ rotation, Yu Darvish was being lit up like a pinball machine in Game 7 of the World Series due to a pitch-tipping issue that the organization somehow failed to identify. Though the Dodgers made a serious run at retaining the 31-year-old righty, the team was limited by its financial constraints, and Darvish opted to sign a six-year, $126 million deal with the Cubs instead. With exhibition season now underway, the defending NL champions’ rotation still appears as though it could use fortification.

Darvish, a July 31 deadline acquisition from the Rangers, isn’t the only starter gone from the fold. In a mid-December move designed to give them more financial flexibility, the Dodgers dealt the injury-prone Brandon McCarthy (16 starts, 3.98 ERA, 3.28 FIP, 2.4 WAR) and Scott Kazmir (a mere 12 minor-league innings due to hip and arm issues), two other players, and cash to the Braves in exchange for Matt Kemp. The trade has helped them shimmy under the $197 million competitive-balance-tax threshold, but their subsequent failure to offload Kemp and some portion of his remaining $43 million salary for 2018-19 doomed their pursuit of Darvish.

Nobody’s weeping for a wealthy team that’s lost 25 starts while retaining eight of the 10 members from a unit that compiled the majors’ third-best ERA- (82) and FIP- (88). Compared to 2015, when they used an MLB-high 16 starters, and -16, when they tied for second with 15 starters, that counts as stability, and yet in each of the past two years, just one Dodger has reached the 162-inning threshold to qualify for the ERA title. The Andrew Friedman/Farhan Zaidi regime has actively used the team’s depth and financial might to lighten the workloads of all of their starters. Not only did the unit’s 885 innings rank 10th in the NL last year, but only 742 times did a Dodger starter face a batter for the third time in a game, the majors’ lowest total.

All of which is to say that, rotation-wise, the Dodgers have become quite nontraditional while remaining a powerhouse, and the trend appears set to continue. According to the projections in our depth charts, even with Kershaw projected to be the only ERA qualifier again, the unit is forecast for an NL-high 18.5 WAR, with only the Astros (19.2) ahead of them and only the Indians (18.1), Yu-full Cubs (18.0), Nationals (16.8), and Mets within two wins on the other side.

Projections aren’t destiny, however, and it’s possible not only for players to miss the mark but to get injured and expose the team’s weaker spots. And in light of what feels like a high volume of question marks distributed among the nine starters driving this particular set of projections, it feels like that weakness is still quite close to the surface for a club whose payroll is expected to approach (but not exceed) $197 million. Let’s check out the contestants…

The Front Five

Clayton Kershaw (Projections: 192 IP, 6.2 WAR)

I’ll begin here by cribbing from my swan song at Sports Illustrated, a Top 100 Players feature to which I contributed heavily:

“On a per-batter or per-inning basis, Kershaw is the best starter in the game. Over the past three years, his 2.07 ERA, 2.28 FIP, 8.1 K/BB ratio and .535 OPS allowed are the majors’ best by wide margins. However, back injuries have cost the three-time Cy Young winner about half a season over the past two years.”

Last year, Kershaw threw 175 regular-season innings; he hasn’t thrown 192 in a season since 2015. With the goal of keeping him fresh for October, the Dodgers were particularly conservative regarding his workload even before his lower back strain, allowing him to complete just one start and pitch into the eighth inning just five times, his lowest totals since 2009. Even then, his 33 postseason innings were spotty; excluding his four-inning desperation relief stint in Game 7, he pitched to a 4.34 ERA while being lit for 2.5 homers per nine. Long story short, the forecast for 192 innings might be on the high side of expectations, though they’re balanced by comparatively modest projections for a 2.60 ERA and 2.68 FIP.

Rich Hill (141 innings, 2.6 WAR)

Since re-emerging with the Red Sox in late 2015, Hill’s become a five-and-fly guy; last year, he either didn’t reappear in the sixth inning or didn’t retire a batter in that frame in 15 of 25 regular season starts. Thanks to his vulnerability to blisters, he’s thrown just 246 innings over the past two seasons — very good innings, mind you, with a 67 ERA- and 74 FIP-, both of which place him in the top 10 at a 200-inning cutoff — and last threw 141 regular-season innings in (squints) 2007. Like Kershaw, what looks like an optimistic total of innings is mitigated by a more modest run-prevention forecast (3.55 ERA, 3.77 FIP), with the additional caveat that Hill is on the verge of turning 38 years old.

Kenta Maeda (129 IP, 2.4 WAR)

Maeda was more or less league average last year despite (because?) pitching five or fewer innings in 22 of 29 starts last year. What’s more, he was a revelation when the Dodgers used him out of the bullpen in the postseason, shortening his repertoire, gaining a bit of velocity, and holding the 39 hitters he faced to a .135/.179/.216 line while allowing just one run. The Dodgers have said they plan to use him as a starter this year, but given the free-agency loss of Brandon Morrow and the team’s apparent reliance on righties such as Pedro Baez, Josh Fields, Tom Koehler, and Ross Stripling to do the heavy lifting in front of Kenley Jansen — at least barring further additions to the roster this spring — it’s fair to wonder whether they’re better served with Maeda in a setup role.

Alex Wood (131 IP, 2.5 WAR)

After pitching his way onto the NL All-Star team last year via a Kershaw-esque first half (1.67 ERA, 2.04 FIP), Wood was unremarkable in the second half (3.98 ERA, 4.76 FIP) as his velocity trended downward due to fatigue. By October, both his sinker and changeup were 3 mph slower than they’d been in April, according to the data at Brooks Baseball. Given his lack of durability — he hasn’t qualified for an ERA title since 2015 and has already suffered a minor tweak of his right ankle this spring — his workload projection appears light but not out of line, a step back from last year’s 152.1 innings. The shame of it is that the Dodgers probably can’t push their second-most effective starter on a per-inning basis too much harder.

Hyun-Jin Ryu (132 IP, 1.7 WAR)

Limited to just one major-league start in 2015-16 due to labrum and elbow debridement surgeries, Ryu made a decent return to major-league action last year, though he did set career worsts for ERA (3.77), FIP (4.74), ground-ball rate (45.1%), K-BB% (13.1%), and so on. Still, it’s hard to complain about that from a fourth- or fifth-starter option making $7 million.

That’s 725 projected innings for the front five, a total that perhaps not coincidentally is almost an exact match for the 724 actual innings those same five pitchers threw last year (including a bit in relief). Comparatively speaking, that’s a low total: of last year’s 10 playoff teams, only the Twins (693 innings), Astros (696.1) and Rockies (710.2) — the two Wild Card game losers and the World Series winners — got fewer from their front five. Hill, Maeda, and Ryu, are forecast to finish within six innings of last year’s totals, with Kershaw (up 17 innings) and Wood (down 21.1) deviating the most but combining to fill a similar footprint.

The Fill-Ins

Brock Stewart (94 IP, 0.9 WAR)

A sixth-round pick in 2014 out of Illinois State, Stewart has been lit for a 5.97 ERA in nine career starts totaling 37.2 innings, a small sample size spread over two seasons and further distorted by a few particularly bad frames in his first two big-league starts. He’s pitched much better out of the bullpen (2.19 ERA in 24.2 innings), and based on the nice things that prospect hounds were saying about him just a year ago — Baseball America, for instance, had him as the Dodgers’ eighth-best prospect in a system that it ranked second overall — it’s too early to give up on him.

Walker Buehler (56 IP, 1.1 WAR)

Anyone, anyone? A first-round 2015 pick who underwent Tommy John surgery before throwing his first professional pitch, Buehler rocketed from High-A to the Dodgers bullpen last year, his age-22 season, and enters this year ranked anywhere from 12th (Keith Law) to 27th (FanGraphs) on the major prospect lists. Still, with just 14 starts above A ball and command that’s fringy at the moment, he needs at least another half-season on the farm before he can be asked to stick around for good.

Wilmer Font (47 IP, 0.8 WAR)

A Venezuelan righty who passed through the Rangers, Reds, and Blue Jays organizations — not to mention the independent Canadian-American Association — before being signed by the Dodgers in December 2016, Font isn’t exactly a prospect. He turns 28 in May and, to date, has all of seven big-league innings under his belt, with 3.2 of them coming with the Dodgers last year. Thanks to an intriguing mid-90s fastball/curve/splitter combo, he whiffed an eye-opening 11.9 per nine in Triple A last year, which led Jeff Sullivan to investigate recently. There’s clearly some promise, but Font is an international man of mystery.

Julio Urias (38 IP, 0.6 WAR)

A torn ulnar collateral ligament sucks, but at least Tommy John surgery has a relatively high success rate. An anterior capsule tear, though, such as the one a 20-year-old Urias suffered in June 2017 despite the Dodgers’ best efforts to bring their young prodigy along slowly… man, that really sucks. Dallas Braden, Rich Harden, Mark Prior, Johan Santana, and Chien-Ming Wang are among those whose careers were derailed by such an injury. That’s not to say that Urias will suffer the same fate, as his injury reportedly lacked the accompanying wear and tear of the rotator cuff and labrum, but let’s just say that expectations for a 2018 contribution should be tempered.

*****

So, behind a five-man rotation in which each member visited the 10-day disabled list at least once in 2017 and in which four out of five dentists hurlers spent at least one six-week stint on the DL in the last two years, the Dodgers have a high-upside group with a cumulative total of nine major-league starts thus far. Maybe the team has Ross Stripling (16 career starts) or Tom Koehler (133 career starts) — both of whom are currently in play for bullpen spots — in mind as additional fallbacks if things go pear-shaped, but to these eyes, Friedman and Zaidi definitely need to add additional depth.

The Dodgers could dip into the free-agent market. The unsigned Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn both threw more innings than Kershaw last year, above-average ones in terms of run prevention even if they didn’t miss a ton of bats. Fitting either one, who figures to receive a salary in the $12-16 million range, onto the payroll would probably depend on disposing of Kemp and some of his salary, which could take time. Cheaper free agents are also out there, of course. Swingman Scott Feldman seems to have been born for this kind of job, and maybe R.A. Dickey aspires to channel Tom Candiotti. A trade is an option, as well. Maybe Friedman will finally put together a package to pry Chris Archer loose from the suddenly rebuilding Rays. More likely is a deal for a lower-impact veteran shaken loose by a the sudden emergence of a youngster somewhere.

Right now, the Dodgers look like the team to beat, at least in the NL West if not the entire league, thanks to their combination of frontline talent and depth. Via our projected standings, they’re forecast for an NL-best 94 wins, tied with the Cubs. Come late July, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Friedman and Zaidi engineer another blockbuster if the conditions merit it. But between now and then, the team is one significant and hardly unforeseeable owie away from uncharted waters, and for all of the upside of their alternatives — who, let’s not forget, are vulnerable to injuries, too — the brass still has work to do.

We hoped you liked reading Fortifying the Dodgers’ Rotation by Jay Jaffe!

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Stevil
Member
Stevil

Worth noting, the Dodgers manipulated the 10-day DL favorably (and arguably wisely) last season. It wouldn’t surprise me to see more of the same this season. Maybe that will buy them time once again.

WoundedSprinter
Member
Member
WoundedSprinter

The problem is, that’s how they got 724 innings out of their front five last year. And presumably that’s how they’ll get 725 innings out of their front five this year. There’s not much left in the tank, as far as the 10-day DL goes.

One less blister, one less back spasm, and they’re fine. But one forearm strain or indeed a boo-boo of any kind … I think Jay is right on the button here.

mikejunt
Member
Member
mikejunt

Dodgers used very few spot starts last year after using a lot in 2016. Most of that depth wasn’t really exercised. If font makes 8 starts that’s not the end of the world.