We are a week into spring training, with actual games on the docket starting later this week. Here is a five-part look at where the Dodgers stand, beginning with a starting pitching group that isn’t quite as deep as in recent years but could provide a stepping stone for some younger pitchers.
The starting five is set, or at least as set as things can be five weeks before the regular season. Plans can change, as we saw in 2013 when the Dodgers had a whopping eight starting pitchers with guaranteed contracts to start the season, and still had to use Stephen Fife and Matt Magill in the first four weeks of the year.
Clayton Kershaw will start things off with his franchise-record eighth opening day start, then will be followed in some order by Rich Hill, Alex Wood, Kenta Maeda and Hyun-jin Ryu. Maeda is the only right-hander in that group, but even with four southpaws this set of five held right-handed batters to .211/.265/.320 in 2017.
“We have a number of left-handed starters that are arguably better against righties and lefties,” Andrew Friedman said last week. “Handedness matters less than effectiveness against both sides. We have really good pitchers who happen to pitch with their left arm.”
The plan this spring is to back off the throttle a little bit with just about every pitcher, after an extended postseason run and plans for another this season. But with starting pitchers there is only so much you can pull back while still also building up arm strength to get ready for the regular season.
The five planned starters were very good last year, posting a 3.25 ERA with a 26.4% strikeout rate and 3.93 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
“Last year if you look at our pitching staff as a whole, the walks versus strikeouts and the OPS against, all that stuff was elite,” manager Dave Roberts said. “You have those five guys coming back that really have that continuity with the catchers, and with Rick [Honeycutt, pitching coach]. It’s huge for us.”
Those five also made 126 starts, none more than 27, leaving a need for others to step in.
“Last year we went through 26 different pitchers,” Roberts said. “We’re going to go through some guys, and you can’t predict injuries.”
That’s where Ross Stripling and Brock Stewart step in. Both have started and pitched in relief at times the last two seasons. Both will be stretched out as starting pitchers during the spring just in case they are needed, and though they could be switched to relief it might make more sense to have one or both starting in Triple-A Oklahoma City if they aren’t on the major league roster.
“We’ve always said that you can’t have enough starting pitching,” Roberts said. “We have the confidence in Ross Stripling and Brock Stewart and we’re going to build them up as starters as well as some other guys who are less proven.”
Walker Buehler is theoretically an option but after throwing only 98 innings between the majors and minors in 2017, his first season back from Tommy John surgery, the club will be mindful of his workload this season. Add in that he’s starting from behind in spring training because of upper back discomfort suffered in January, per Ken Gurnick of MLB.com, and Buehler likely won’t be with the big club in the early part of the season.
“A lot of it is contingent on his health and how he’s pitching,” Roberts said. “Things can change but right now I don’t project him on the major league opening day roster.”
“We’re slow-playing Walker,” Roberts added on Monday.
Julio Urias is recovering from left anterior capsule surgery in his shoulder and probably won’t be ready until after the All-Star break.
The organization’s desire to get under the competitive balance tax threshold of $197 million in 2018 cost them Brandon McCarthy in the Culberson trade with the Braves, and Trevor Oaks was dealt to the Royals in the three-team trade that brought ground ball magnet Scott Alexander to the Dodgers bullpen. That ate into the rotation depth, though having Stewart and Stripling as major league-ready arms who can also be optioned to the minors if needed helps mitigate that somewhat.
“That’s two, which is a good number,” Friedman said of Stripling and Stewart.
In addition to Buehler, the Dodgers have some other options on the 40-man roster. The organization is high on Dennis Santana, who struck out 129 in 118⅓ innings in 2017, but has just seven starts above Class-A under his belt.
Henry Owens experimented with a sidearm delivery last year in the minors but walked 115 in 126 innings. He’s back to an over-the-top arm slot this season and has been working with pitching coach Rick Honeycutt on incorporating the lower half of his body into his delivery. “He’s probably one of the most excited guys in camp,” Roberts said.
“Whether it’s every fifth day, every night or every other night, I don’t really care as long as I can help this team win,” Owens said.
Tom Koehler has 133 career starts but was signed for relief work. He might be available to make a spot start or two if needed but will mostly be in the bullpen.
Wilmer Font led the Pacific Coast League in ERA (3.42), WHIP (1.109) and strikeouts (178) and was named the league’s pitcher of the year, earning a September call-up. He is an option to start as well but is also out of options, so the 28-year-old could be used in relief if there isn’t room in the rotation if only to avoid exposing him to waivers.
“I can pitch in the bullpen, like a long reliever. I have experience in every spot,” Font said. “I would love to start.”
The Dodgers have traded for at least one starting pitcher in each of the last three seasons — Alex Wood (15 starts) in 2015, Rich Hill (6) and Bud Norris (9) in 2016, and Yu Darvish (9) in 2017. It seems likely they will be make some sort of trade for a starting pitcher at some point in 2018, even with CBT concerns.
The most expensive addition of that group was Darvish, for whom the Dodgers were responsible for roughly $3.7 million last year. With some assumptions in filling out the roster, the Dodgers are roughly at just shy of $182 million in competitive balance tax payroll, before accounting for any earned performance bonuses, with a threshold this year of $197 million.
Hill and Wood are under contract (or team control) through 2019, and Maeda is signed through 2023 (on one of the most team-friendly deals in baseball). Kershaw is signed through 2020 but can opt out after this season, and Ryu will be a free agent after 2018.
While Urias and to some extent Buehler might be limited in their impact this season, the door is open for them to at least get a toehold on future contributions.
“You look on the position player side and the young players we’ve broken in over the last three or four years, we need to start doing that with our starting pitchers,” Friedman said. “And get to a point where one or two spots are taken down by our good young pitching and letting them have a runway to develop.
“I do think this year will provide some of that, for our guys to have an opportunity to have a softer landing. After this season we’ll have a better idea of who we can pencil in and count on as we start spring training next year.”