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Spring training 2013: Dodgers starting rotation both a strength and a puzzle

The Dodgers have eight starting pitchers fighting for five spots. We have six and a half weeks to sort this out.

Stephen Dunn

The theme of the day on Tuesday at Camelback Ranch, where Dodgers pitchers and catchers reported for duty, officially, for the first time, was a mathematical one. Specifically, which of the eight starting pitchers under contract will be a part of the five-man rotation for the season.

Manager Don Mattingly was asked who his fifth starter was, but the skipper hasn't even gotten that far, at least in his readiness to reveal his preferred rotation order.

"Who is our fifth starter? Who's our fourth?" Mattingly asked. "We have eight guys who will be working as starters in camp. We'll see how it goes."

Two of the eight pitchers are recovering from injuries. Chad Billingsley avoided surgery to correct his partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, hoping instead that platelet-rich plasma will do the trick. Ted Lilly is coming off left shoulder surgery, and hasn't pitched since May.

Billingsley threw on Tuesday, for what he said was his "ninth or 10th time" since beginning his throwing program in January.

"I'm throwing my bullpens, and throwing all my pitches," Billingsley said. "As far as bouncing back to the next one, I'm having no problems."

Mattingly, however, remains cautious.

"I don't think in Bills' mind there is a question mark, but in everybody else's mind there is a question mark," Mattingly said.

Lilly said his recovery from surgery has pushed him back in his throwing program, but not abnormally so. He said his shoulder feels fine, and it has gotten better of late.

"For the first few months after (surgery), I was hoping it would come along a little faster. I was having a hard time," Lilly said. "But in the last month, month and a half it's been good. I've had no issues."

One thing we know is that the rotation will be headed by Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, though Mattingly hasn't yet technically named his opening day starter. Kershaw, who has started the last two opening days for the Dodgers, is expected to get the nod on Apr. 1 against the Giants.

"We haven't really talked about it too much," Mattingly said. "I haven't said anything to him so I probably shouldn't say it to anyone else."

The last Dodgers pitcher to start three consecutive opening days was Derek Lowe, who did so from 2005-2007.

Kershaw has yet to allow a run on opening day, as he threw seven scoreless innings in a win over the Giants in 2011, and threw three more scoreless frames against the Padres in 2012 in a start shortened by the flu.

After Kershaw and Greinke, it is safe to pencil in Josh Beckett into one of the remaining starting slots. Mattingly said there were certain guys he didn't feel could work out of the bullpen, and Beckett was the only one he mentioned by name.

That leaves five guys for two spots.

Lilly, like all the starters we spoke to on Tuesday (only Aaron Harang and Greinke were missed, having left after they reported to camp and completed their physical exams), said he would prefer to start. But Lilly said he would be open to pitching in relief.

"I would do that. I want to be a part of what's going on here first and foremost," Lilly said. "I feel like I'm capable of being a successful starter, but I have to be ready for whatever. The objective is still the same, get the hitter out."

Lilly went a step further, saying he would rather pitch in the bullpen with the Dodgers than start somewhere else. Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times asked Chris Capuano the same question.

"That's a great question," Capuano said, somewhat stunned by the challenging query. "I want to be a part of this organization and what's going on here. Most importantly, I want to win and want to be a part of something special. I would certainly have to think about it.

"Physically I feel like I can put up 200 plus quality innings. It would be tough for me to move into a bullpen role," Capuano said. "However, I did do that coming back from injury in 2010 in Milwaukee. I realized after a couple of months in the bullpen how to do it. I think I'm able to do it, but it would have to be the right circumstance."

Billingsley thought it was too early to even think about pitching in relief.

"I know what I have to do to get myself ready for the season," Billingsley said. "I'm not thinking out that right now."

Hyun-jin Ryu, who signed a six-year, $36 million contract in December, was met by over 20 Korean reporters Tuesday, covering his every move. During his introductory press conference, Ryu was also asked if he would be okay with pitching in relief. But Ryu just smirked and said, through translator Martin Kim, "I don't plan on that."

Whatever the makeup of the final five, starting pitching appears to be a strength for the Dodgers.

"We've done a good job of putting some depth pieces together, but now it just comes down to working hard during spring training and the starters going out and doing their jobs," Beckett said. "The bullpen is really strong, but if the starters don't go out and do their jobs the bullpen gets taxed in the first half, and doesn't look as strong in the second half."

Mattingly did say that because of off days on Apr. 5 and Apr. 8, the Dodgers would likely open the season with a four-man starting rotation. The club doesn't need a fifth starter until Apr. 13, but Mattingly said after that initial maneuvering his rotation would likely stay in order after that, even with off days.

"Once you do that then it's hard to go backwards and start skipping guys. Once you get to that point, you pretty much give the guys their time," Mattingly said. "We've had a lot of sucess giving guys that extra day. It seems like guys respond to it."

For sake of completeness, Hernandez did ask Kershaw if he would be okay with pitching out of the bullpen, which drew laughter from the assorted media and a smile from the left-hander. Kershaw simply said, "I like starting."

"Even if you're the closer?" Hernandez asked.

"I like starting," Kershaw said, smiling.