Dodgers swimming in deep waters in search of starting pitcher

Stephen Dunn

The Dodgers will likely add a free agent starting pitcher this offseason, despite having six starters under contract for 2013.

The main target for the Dodgers this offseason is starting pitching. This has been known since the season ended, but now with free agency fully underway the scope is beginning to narrow. Given the names targeted by the Dodgers, their quest for a starting pitcher will be rather costly.

The Dodgers already have six starters under contract in 2013, with Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Josh Beckett, Chris Capuano, Ted Lilly, and Aaron Harang set to earn $66.25 million. But with Lilly coming off surgery, Billingsley attempting to return without a procedure, and Kershaw as the only true standout among the rest, it's understandable that the Dodgers want to upgrade their rotation.

With everything we've seen from the new ownership group, they aren't afraid to spend money. Since taking over in May, the Dodgers have added over $400 million in salary commitments with the signings of Andre Ethier and Yasiel Puig, and the trades for Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett (and Nick Punto!). For 2013, the Dodgers already have $192.3 million committed to 19 players.

General manager Ned Colletti on Thursday said the Dodgers would not be restrained in their pursuit to add players this winter. He said the payroll budget for 2013 is "open to debate, depending on who we think is available," (per Dylan Hernandez of the LA Times) and Colletti added, "I haven't been discouraged or told not to consider any player." (per Ken Gurnick of MLB.com).

Hernandez and Gurnick both identified Zack Greinke, Anibal Sanchez, and old friend Hiroki Kuroda as targets for the Dodgers, with Gurnick adding Ryan Dempster, whom the Dodgers tried to acquire from the Chicago Cubs at the July 31 trade deadline.

All are costly additions, though Dempster seems like more of a fallback in relation to the other three in terms of cost and effectiveness.

There are two major questions the Dodgers must answer in their search for a starter:

  • Is the pitcher a top of the rotation starter for the foreseeable future?
  • Can the Dodgers afford it?

Though the competitive balance tax (of 17.5% of anything over $178 million) is something the Dodgers will surely pay next year, the second question is an alternative way of wondering whether or not the signing will prevent the Dodgers from keeping Clayton Kershaw, who will be a free agent after 2014. There is a seemingly unlimited ceiling for what Kershaw might earn in free agency, but as a guide let's assume he will be near the average annual value earned by C.C. Sabathia ($24.4 million), Cole Hamels ($24 million), and Cliff Lee ($24 million) in their latest market-setting contracts.

In addition to a payroll that will exceed $200 million next season, the Dodgers have roughly $138 million committed to nine players (not including Kershaw''s final year of arbitration) in 2014, $95.5 million to six players in 2015, and $84.8 million to five players in 2016.

Given that Kershaw is essentially irreplaceable and already entrenched in Los Angeles, it is unlikely that the Dodgers will let Kershaw leave in free agency. But at the very least it's something to consider as a possible consequence of adding a big ticket free agent this winter.

The two long-term plays this winter are Greinke and Sanchez.

Greinke, 29, reportedly wants $150 million over six years, which is a shocking number but likely reasonably close to what he might earn. After all, that new television money in baseball has to go somewhere, right?

Peripherally Greinke has been a superstar, ranking fifth (3.22), first (2.56), 21st (3.60), sixth (3.09), and 21st (3.71) in the major leagues in xFIP in the last five seasons, and has averaged between 4.6 (Baseball-Reference) and 5.7 (FanGraphs) wins above replacement per season during that span.

But even with more traditional stats Greinke compares favorably to Matt Cain, who signed a five-year, $112.5 million extension ($22.5 million average annual value) in April.

  • Greinke: 160 starts, 1035⅔ innings, 70-43, 3.39 ERA, 123 ERA+, 1.195 WHIP, 1,007 strikeouts, 261 walks, 87 homers
  • Cain: 165 starts, 1099⅔ innings, 63-49, 3.09 ERA, 126 ERA+, 1.149 WHIP, 906 strikeouts, 339 walks, 93 homers

Cain at the time of signing the contract (and now) dwarfed Greinke in postseason success (Cain pitched 21⅓ scoreless innings in 2010; Greinke had a 6.48 ERA in 2011) and is a year younger, but Cain also signed his deal without hitting the open market.

Sanchez has a reasonable case as the second best starter on the free agent market, and the right-hander wants to be paid accordingly. Sanchez wants $90 million over six years, per Jon Morosi of Fox Sports.

Sanchez, who turns 29 in February, has been fairly consistent in the last three years, with a 3.70 ERA, 109 ERA+, 526 strikeouts and 182 walks in 587 innings during that time. Over the last three seasons his ERA has been in the 3.55-3.86 range, his FIP has been between 3.32-3.53, and his innings pitched have been nearly identical, with 195, 196⅓, and 195⅔ frames over the last three seasons. FanGraphs (4.0) has Sanchez as a full win above replacement per season over Baseball-Reference (3.0) during that span.

While both Greinke and Sanchez would require a large outlay in both dollars and years, neither one would cost a draft pick. Because both pitchers were traded midseason in 2012, neither were eligible to receive a qualifying offer of one-year, $13.3 million from the Angels and Tigers, respectively.

Kuroda is cheaper option in terms of money, as the soon-to-be-38-year-old can be had for a one- or two-year deal. Hernandez reported that "several teams" have shown interest in Kuroda, but the one caveat is that the right-hander will cost a draft pick. Because the Yankees made a qualifying offer to Kuroda, the Dodgers would have to forfeit their first round pick, No. 19 overall.

Kuroda has until 2 p.m. PT Friday to accept or decline the deal, and the Yankees expect him to decline the offer, per Bill Plunkett of the Orane County Register. Kuroda, for what it's worth, told Hernandez that he still has not decided whether or not to accept the offer.

He was 16-11 with a 3.32 ERA, a 126 ERA+ with a career-high 219⅔ innings in New York in 2012, and his numbers were pretty much in line with his career marks in ERA (3.32 in 2012, 3.42 career), FIP (3.86 2012, 3.62 career), xFIP (3.67 2012, 3.63 career).

While a short deal is attractive to the Dodgers' long-term payroll flexibility while also adding a top-of-the-rotation starter (Kuroda has averaged between 3.4 and 3.8 wins above replacement over the last three years), the thought of losing the draft pick adds an unsavory wrinkle.

That leaves Ryan Dempster as the fall back, the older option who won't command as much money as Greinke or Sanchez and also won't cost a draft pick. Dempster, who turns 36 in May, has averaged a 3.94 ERA, 106 ERA+, 198 innings, and 181 strikeouts over the last four years. During that span he has averaged between 2.4 (Baseball-Reference) and 3.2 (FanGraphs) wins above replacement.

When it comes down to it, if the Dodgers are hellbent on adding a starting pitcher they should only add a difference-maker. Dempster is a fall back, while Sanchez (money) and Kuroda (draft pick, age) seem overly expensive and not without significant risk. That leaves Greinke, the pitcher with the best track record and highest ceiling among available options.

Greinke or bust.

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