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Dodgers definitely need starting pitching this offseason

Los Angeles Dodgers workout for the upcoming National League Division Series baseball game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — The Dodgers have several needs this offseason, but let’s first focus on the starting pitching, the most glaring of their weaknesses while getting swept in the National League Division Series.

Thirteen runs allowed and 14 outs recorded was the playoff record for Clayton Kershaw, Bobby Miller, and Lance Lynn this October, and it’s freshest in our mind.

“Obviously our starting pitching didn’t pitch as well as it could have,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday. “But it’s not like that was something we should have expected.”

Running out of starting pitching has been focal to the Dodgers undoing in each of the last three postseasons.

Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler, and Julio Urías were all pitching at an ace level at the end of the 2021 season, but all ran out of gas by the NLCS.

Tony Gonsolin had a great season in 2022, but his forearm strain in late August sidelined him for six weeks. The Dodgers insisted he’d be ready to return by the postseason despite only one shortened tuneup, but instead a diminished Gonsolin recorded only four outs in Game 3, which further taxed the bullpen before a Game 4 collapse the next night.

In terms of planning, there isn’t much a front office can do when a starting pitcher becomes unavailable so late in the season. Like when Kershaw injured his elbow on the final weekend of the regular season in 2021, knocking him out of the postseason. Or this year, when Julio Urías was arrested during Labor Day weekend and was placed on administrative leave under MLB’s joint domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse policy.

In 2023, the Dodgers’ lack of starting pitching depth was apparent all season. Kershaw was the only one of the original rotation left standing come October. They traded for major league home run leader Lance Lynn, who had a 6.47 ERA with the White Sox, and it actually made sense because the Dodgers desperately needed innings.

“A lot of times when teams have unforeseen things pop up, especially like an entire starting rotation replaced, those teams don’t often make the playoffs,” Friedman said. “Those unforeseen things happen and it’s like, ‘Okay, this is a down year. That’s where the strength of our scouting department, our player development department have put us in this position where we have these arms coming.”

The down year for the Dodgers ended up being a 100-win season, but none of that helped them avoid getting swept in the NLDS.

Dodgers starting pitchers had a 4.57 ERA in 2023, which ranked 20th in the majors. They were similarly in the bottom third in the majors in both ERA- and FanGraphs WAR. In the previous six seasons, the Dodgers ranked in the top two in ERA and the top three in ERA- every year. This was by far the worst year for starting pitching in Friedman’s nine years at the helm of the front office.

Dodgers rotation MLB rankings

2015 3.24 (2nd) 87 (3rd) 16.3 (3rd)
2016 3.95 (6th) 99 (9th) 14.6 (4th)
2017 3.39 (1st) 82 (3rd) 15.0 (5th)
2018 3.19 (2nd) 83 (3rd) 16.4 (4th)
2019 3.11 (1st) 73 (1st) 20.5 (2nd)
2020 3.29 (2nd) 75 (3rd) 5.1 (8th)
2021 2.93 (1st) 72 (1st) 20.8 (1st)
2022 2.75 (1st) 70 (1st) 16.3 (5th)
2023 4.57 (20th) 107 (22nd) 9.1 (21st)
Source: FanGraphs

Rotation depth was so depleted that Gonsolin and the team this year knew his UCL was torn for several weeks before his Tommy John surgery, but kept trotting him out there to get his head kicked in — he had a 6.28 ERA in a 10-start stretch before allowing 10 runs in his final outing — because, as he put it, “I felt like I was pitching out of necessity.”

Friedman on Tuesday alluded to Gonsolin getting to 20 starts in 2023, which added an extra $2 million to his base salary for 2024, which is now $5.4 million. “It was more of a mutual setup, where he was rewarded financially for it, knowing he was going to miss the next year,” Friedman said.

The Dodgers’ goal this offseason should be to add enough quality starting pitching so someone like Gonsolin isn’t put in that position, and so they can also have enough healthy starters available come October.

The cupboard is not bare heading into 2024, but they still have work to do.

The Dodgers had rookie pitchers start 52 games in 2023, nearly a third of their schedule, and while there were significant growing pains along the way, there’s reason to be excited going forward.

Bobby Miller heads the group of youngsters, showing growth as the season progressed, striking out more batters and pitching deeper into games. His postseason debut was a dud in Game 2 of the NLDS, but if Miller wants to fully lean into the Walker Buehler comp, Buehler allowed a grand slam to Ronald Acuña Jr. in his playoff debut in 2018, and then emerged as bonafide October ace.

Buehler himself will be back after missing the last season and a half, returning from his second Tommy John surgery as well as flexor tendon repair. He attempted to return late in 2023, but in a rare show of prudence, Buehler and the team decided that would be too quick, instead focusing on 2024.

Ryan Pepiot’s growth this season provides hope for some of the other rookie starters, laying a possible development timeline of the learning curve. Pepiot’s best weapon his his changeup, but he couldn’t throw strikes at all when he debuted in 2022. But this year, after missing three-plus months with a strain of his intercostal muscle, Pepiot was a strike-throwing machine.

Pepiot faced 160 batters in 2022, and faced 159 batters in 2023. Last year he walked 27, and this year he walked five.

Ryan Pepiot’s improved control

Year IP BB rate K rate ERA xERA
Year IP BB rate K rate ERA xERA
2022 36⅓ 16.9% 26.3% 3.47 4.31
2023 42 3.1% 23.9% 2.14 3.25

Gavin Stone, another plus-changeup artist, had a rough go this season, with a 9.00 ERA in 31 innings, allowing eight home runs. His major league walk rate was high (8.6 percent) but not obscenely so, but a lack of command led to a low 14.5-percent strikeout rate.

Stone wasn’t doing so well in Triple-A either, but got better as the season wore on with Oklahoma City, including getting the win in the Pacific Coast League championship clincher. The seeds of a Pepiot-esque turnaround in 2024 are there for Stone.

Gavin Stone in Triple-A in 2023

Split IP BB rate K rate HR ERA
Split IP BB rate K rate HR ERA
through June 53⅔ 12.2% 26.0% 9 6.71
July-September 53⅓ 8.6% 31.4% 4 2.53

Emmet Sheehan accelerated that growth, and not just by getting promoted to the majors directly from Double-A Tulsa, but by showing improvement while in the majors, with a 39-percent strikeout rate in September.

That strong finish earned Sheehan a spot on the Dodgers’ NLDS roster, where he made his postseason far earlier than anyone could have expected, relieving Kershaw with one out in the first inning of Game 1.

What the Dodgers have now in the rotation is Buehler in his final year before free agency, then Miller, then a series of pitchers with options in Pepiot, Sheehan, Stone, plus Kyle Hurt.

Kershaw is a huge question mark and will take his time this offseason to decide his future after dealing with a left shoulder injury for three months. Friedman made it clear that the Dodgers will do whatever it takes to bring Kershaw back.

“I think he and Ellen are going to take some time right now and assess,” Friedman said Tuesday. “The ball is squarely in their court.”

Ryan Yarbrough has another year of arbitration, though the Dodgers preferred to use him in more of a swingman role than starter after acquiring him at the trade deadline.

Michael Grove is in the mix, though his success and stuff could lend itself more into a relief role, but he has minor league options like the group of young pitchers above. It’s likely the Dodgers could add 2020 draftees Landon Knack and Nick Frasso to the 40-man roster in November as well, to add to the optionable starter group.

Dustin May is coming off flexor tendon repair plus revision to his earlier Tommy John surgery in July, and isn’t expected back until the middle of 2024 at the earliest. For roster planning purposes, he effectively does not exist.

The Dodgers do boast an impressive stable of young starting pitchers who could make an impact next season. But after their worst starting pitching season in years and a worst-case scenario of a postseason, it’s very clear the team needs even more starting pitching, preferably at the top of the rotation.

“To the extent that we can add starting pitching that can go six to seven innings is available and lines up, and we can access it, that’s great. Definitely from a quality of life standpoint, I prefer that personally for a starting pitcher to do that,” Friedman said. “There’s just fewer and fewer of them every year, so therefore the supply is more limited. It’s just harder to access. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to try, and it doesn’t mean we’re not going to try to have the most well-rounded team that we possibly can, because that is our mindset.”