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Dodgers spring training battles: Starting pitchers

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Los Angeles Dodgers v St Louis Cardinals
Scott Kazmir made 26 stats for the Dodgers in 2016.
Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

We are a mere two days away from pitchers and catchers reporting to Dodgers camp at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz., the official start of spring training.

A total of 37 players are expected in camp on Wednesday — 38, once the Sergio Romo signing becomes official, depending on the corresponding roster move — with the first workout on Thursday. We already broke down the catchers and handicapped the bullpen. That brings us today to the starting rotation.

There is naturally some overlap between starters and the bullpen, as seven different Dodgers in 2016 pitched both as a starter and in relief.

The cupboard is full, with 11 starting pitchers on the 40-man roster, 10 of whom started a game for the Dodgers last year. Add in three starters among the non-roster invitees and that means 14 pitchers likely beginning camp on a starter’s program.

How the distribution of starts will play itself out, but whatever the result there are gains to be had. In 2016, Dodgers starting pitchers averaged 5.32 innings per start, 29th in MLB. The 862⅓ innings as a staff was 116 fewer innings than the Dodgers had in 2015, and 55 fewer innings than any non-strike season for the franchise in the last 58 years.

Locks

The hierarchy at the top is fairly clear, with Clayton Kershaw one opening day start away from tying Don Sutton (1972-78) and Don Drysdale for the most in franchise history.

The Dodgers get Rich Hill from the start of the season now, thanks to a new three-year, $48 million contract to return. Hill, whose 2.00 ERA in 2015-16 ranks second only to Kershaw among major league pitchers with at least 20 total starts.

Hill does just have 24 total major league starts in the last two years, including 20 in 2016, so while the Dodgers are no-doubt giddy for getting him more than the six starts he gave them last year, there is still some question about how much to reasonably expect from a 37-year-old with all of 610⅓ career innings.

Kershaw and Hill combined for 27 Dodgers starts in 2016. Getting that number closer to 60 is as large a reason for optimism in the club’s 2017 outlook as anything.

This lock group is three deep, thanks to Kenta Maeda making 32 starts in the first season of his incentive-laden eight-year contract. While Maeda proved healthy in his first season in the U.S., he did fade down the stretch, allowing 16 runs in just 17⅓ innings over his final five starts including the playoffs.

Maeda, like Kershaw, had a chance to pitch in the World Baseball Classic, but after pitching 175⅔ and 149 innings respectively in 2016, both will instead remain with the Dodgers in spring training, getting ready for the major league season.

The phenom

There is an argument to be made that Julio Urias, even at 20, is already one of the three best pitchers on the staff. But still in his formative years, it won’t be as simple as Urias being in the rotation from start to finish. After 127⅔ total innings last year, the Dodgers will limit Urias at some point in 2017, but the only question is when.

One scenario, and perhaps the prevailing thought, has Urias remaining at Camelback Ranch for extended spring training, giving the Dodgers a little more time into the regular season to sort out the rest of the staff.

The other $48 million men

Hill isn’t the only veteran starter to have signed a $48 million contract with the Dodgers. The other two — Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir — each have two years remaining on their respective contracts.

McCarthy made it back from Tommy John surgery last year but then got the yips, unable to find the strike zone. He was able to make the adjustments necessary to return for one September start, which went well, but his final game of the year was a disastrous relief appearance — his first non-start in nine years — that saw him allow six runs without recording an out.

Kazmir was reliable for a long stretch when the Dodgers needed some stability in their rotation, but then was essentially done by August, later diagnosed with thoracic spinal inflammation, unable to properly turn his neck and complete his delivery effectively. He was also fairly mediocre overall, with a 4.56 ERA and 4.48 FIP in his 26 starts.

Both have track records better than their 2016 performance showed, and both will likely get a chance to remain in the rotation unless one of them is traded to clear roster space. With Urias primed to eventually join the staff, the bar is fairly high for them to remain among the starters.

Under the radar

Elbow problems wiped out nearly two-thirds of the season for Alex Wood, just when he was starting to get into a groove. Wood’s 25.9% strikeout rate ranked third among all Dodgers starters in 2016, trailing only Kershaw and Hill.

We know Wood will open camp as a starting pitcher, a path he followed to a spot in the opening day rotation last year, too. But given Wood’s experience in relief — the end of last season, plus 2013-2014 with the Braves — and a crowded staff, it is possible he could see time in the bullpen.

Wood also has minor league options remaining, but if Wood isn’t one of your best 12 available pitchers, that’s a pretty enviable staff.

Swing men

Part of the Dodgers’ willingness to deal Jose De Leon was the emergence of Brock Stewart, who rocketed through the system last season, starting in Class-A Rancho Cucamonga and making it to the majors before the All-Star break. That he has shown tremendous progress despite only 312 total innings on his arm in both college and the pros gives the Dodgers reason to think there is plenty of room for even more improvement.

Like Stewart, Ross Stripling pitched as both a starter and in relief in 2016. Stripling ended up fourth on the team with 100 innings, and earned a spot on the postseason roster in the bullpen. Given the depth of pitchers, it seems the most likely destination to begin the year for both Stewart and Stripling is in the Triple-A Oklahoma City rotation, but both figure to pitch meaningful innings in the majors in 2017.

Forgotten man

We have mentioned nine capable major league starters so far before getting to Hyun-jin Ryu, who is trying to put two lost seasons behind him. After shoulder surgery wiped out all of 2015 and the first half of 2016, Ryu made one major league start before elbow trouble wiped out the rest of last season.

After arthroscopic elbow surgery in September, Ryu is expected to be ready for spring training, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Dodgers take things slowly with the left-hander, making sure he is 100% before returning. The good news is Ryu is already throwing bullpen sessions at Camelback Ranch:

In a perfect world, Ryu would definitely be one of the Dodgers’ best five starters, but given the last two seasons, it’s hard to expect much from Ryu until it actually happens.

Minor league depth

The Dodgers got Chase De Jong from Toronto in 2015 for international bonus pool slots, which could turn out to be one of the best uses of $1 million in recent years. After winning Texas League Pitcher of the Year honors then ending his 2016 in Triple-A, De Jong is now on the 40-man roster, putting him just a phone call to Oklahoma City away from making his major league debut.

Trevor Oaks also figures to be in the OKC rotation, another durable option — he led Dodgers minor leaguers with 151 innings in 2016 — should the Dodgers need a starter. He is in his first major league camp as a non-roster invitee.

Josh Sborz, like Oaks, is also a non-roster invitee in his first major league camp. He won the Cal League Pitcher of the Year last year based on his 19 starts with Class-A Rancho Cucamonga, then ended his season with a month in Double-A. Sborz pitched only in the bullpen with Tulsa — 10 relief appearances totaling 16⅔ innings — but it doesn’t necessarily mean that is his role going forward.

Counting his final college season with Virginia and his minor league debut after getting drafted, Sborz pitched a total of 95 innings in 2015. So that month in the bullpen was more of a way to limit his usage in 2016, which ended up as a total of 125 innings. While the Tulsa rotation figures to be his likely starting point in 2017, the path to the majors for Sborz could depend more on whether the Dodgers need starting or relief at the time.

Ryu isn’t the only former Hanwha Eagle in Dodgers camp. Fabio Castillo, signed to a minor league deal this winter, ended his 2016 in Korea, posting a 6.53 ERA in 73 innings, with 53 strikeouts and 32 walks. Castillo, who turns 28 on Saturday, also pitched in the Padres’ system last year, posting a 4.52 in 14 games, including 13 starts, between Double-A San Antonio and Triple-A El Paso, with 66 strikeouts and 33 walks in 77⅔ innings.

Conclusion

The last few years have taught us that you can never have too much starting pitching. For the most part, the bulk of the Dodgers depth is functional depth that can be in the minors if not starting in the majors, and some could be used in relief if needed. Still, the Dodgers could eventually face a roster crunch with the rotation, but these things have a tendency of working themselves out, especially with six weeks of spring training lying ahead.