The Dodgers' rotation has been pretty good thus far. They have the lowest ERA and FIP in the NL, even with Hiroki Kuroda making only one start so far this season. Still, their numbers are based on unsustainable 5.3% HR/FB ratio, the lowest in the major leagues (the average is around 10%). Once more balls start going over the fence, the ERA won't look quite as sparkly. The starters also have allowed a collective .269 BABIP, the second lowest in the majors. Once we start to see some regression in these numbers, a starting pitcher may seem like a much more urgent need. There's been some murmurs that the pitching could be upgraded and Colletti has said that he expects to look for more arms first. So how will our rotation shake out? Here are the numbers for our starters so far:
After the jump we'll take a look at the Dodgers' rotation options.
Chad Billingsley: Obviously, he's the ace of the rotation. There's no reason to think he won't continue to pitch well unless there is an injury of some sort. He's a candidate for the Verducci Effect but it certainly hasn't mattered yet. Eventually Billingsley will start giving up some more home runs (only 0.16 HR/9 and a 3.93 x-FIP) but he should continue to be the best option the Dodgers have.
Randy Wolf: Wolf has exceeded all expectations with a 2.77 ERA, although his 3.80 FIP shows that he hasn't actually been quite that good. He also has only alllowed a 2.43 BABIP once that regresses to the mean Wolf should be more like the average pitcher that he really is. Wolf has had numerous injury problems in the past so it's possible that one of the minor leaguers will be filling in for him in the future.
Clayton Kershaw: Kershaw's start has been disappointing for many Dodger fans, with some commenters suggesting he should be demoted to the minors after his last game. But a look at Kershaw's 4.20 FIP shows that he has been decent thus far. His 9.24 K/9 ratio is the highest of any of the starters but he has been victimized by a 64.7 LOB%, a figure that he will improve on in the future. Here's a recent article at Fangraphs documenting Kershaw's bad luck.
Eric Stults: Stults has looked pretty good so far but actually has below average walk and strikeout ratio's (3.86 BB/9 and 5.51 K/9). His success has been based on a completely unsustainable 2.1% HR/FB rate an pitching against some extremely weak lineups (5 of his 6 starts have been against the Giants and D-Backs, the two worst hitting teams in the majors). Stults' 5.50 x-FIP is actually worse than any starter on the Dodgers except for McDonald. He's an okay option as a #5 starter, but expecting anything more out of him would be wishful thinking.
Hiroki Kuroda: Kuroda has been hurt since Opening Day and still might not be back for awhile. His return would be huge in stabilizing the rotation once some of the other starters start performing closer to expectations. He went on the DL last year too though so I wouldn't count on him as a lock to stay healthy the rest of the season. Kuroda's numbers in his Dodger career would easily make him our #2 starter.
Eric Milton: Milton has been called up and will start for the Dodgers on Saturday against the Marlins. He hasn't pitched since having elbow ligament replacement surgery in 2007 and hasn't had an ERA below five since 2004. He does have a 2.83 ERA with a 4.50 K/BB ratio in AAA this year. Unless he has redicovered his pre-2003 form, It would probably be bad if he is expected to be in the rotation for any length of time.
Jeff Weaver: Weaver is probably the best of the veteran retreads, but it seems he has already lost his chance. Despite Weaver's 4.55 x-FIP with the Dodgers I guess he hasn't eaten enough innings to satisfy Torre.
James McDonald: McDonald was the original 5th starter but his control problems quickly cost him his job. McDonald was sent down to AAA yesterday and will try to figure things out. McDonald had a 0.43 K/BB ratio and a 7.88 FIP so his struggles weren't due to bad luck.
Josh Lindblom: Lindblom was only drafted last year but already looks like he could be a fixture in the rotation in the future. There was a possibility that he could start with the team after spring training but when that didn't work out he was assigned to AA Chattanooga. His 4.76 ERA in 28.2 innings belies his great peripherals. He's got 25 strkeouts and only 3 walks thus far. Lindlbom has the best chance of anyone in the minors of being an above average starter in 2009.
Shawn Estes/Claudio Vargas: Estes has a 3.61 ERA with a 2.75 K/BB ratio in AAA this year. He's also 36, has had injury problems the last three years, and hasn't been any good in the majors since 2002. Vargas is okay as rotation depth and has been a decent #5 starter in the past but has been out the whole season because of problems with his elbow. He is currently on 60-day DL.
Jason Schmidt: Schmidt has been out nearly two years and shouldn't be counted on to contribute at all this year. That said, he is rehabbing and progessing and it's possible that he could join the rotation at some point. Torre said of Schmidt, "He's continuing to build momentum... I think he's still a ways away".
Alternatives: So, what else can we do? Other than trying Ramon Troncoso out as a starter, there's not many other options with the club. Is this rotation good enough? I think we can win the West with it, but we certainly don't have much depth. If one of the top four starters is hurt, we could even end up starting Stults or Milton in the playoffs. There are still some veteran free agent starters, including Pedro Martinez, Paul Byrd, and Odalis Perez. Ben Sheets could potentially be an impact option sometime around the All-Star break. As for trades there are lots of starting pitchers that could be traded around the trading deadline. Headliners could be Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Jake Peavy, and Erik Bedard. These guys will all take top talent to land though.
There's still lots of time to figure out solutions but improving the rotation could be Ned Colletti's biggest challenge this season.