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Dodgers pitching plans and roster decisions ahead of the NLDS

Los Angeles Dodgers workout for the upcoming National League Division Series baseball game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
Pitcher Lance Lynn #35 of the Los Angeles Dodgers during a simulated game for the upcoming National League Division Series baseball game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on Wednesday, October 4, 2023.
Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — The Dodgers’ downfall in the last two postseasons was hastened by simply running out of healthy starting pitchers come October. This year, the Dodgers might only need three starters during the entire Division Series because of the schedule. But their approach in October will be much more of a group effort than in years past, by design.

“No matter how it shakes out, we’re going to have a really talented pitching staff. There’s going to be some tough decisions, and probably some really talented pitchers that won’t make this roster,” team president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said on Wednesday night. “We may have to approach it in a more unconventional way, but the arm talent and the depth that we have, we feel really good about.”

Clayton Kershaw, the last pitcher standing from the Dodgers planned rotation to open the year, will start Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Saturday night, and even he missed six weeks with left shoulder inflammation that was far worse than anyone was willing to admit.

Bobby Miller, the rookie who debuted in late May and became the glue that held the rotation together, will start Game 2 on Monday.

Beyond that, the Dodgers won’t reveal their pitching plans. But considering that Game 3 isn’t until next Wednesday, which seems like an eternity from now, it’s hard to blame them for not pulling out the telescope to see that far away.

“With the off days, we’re going to kind of piece it together. I don’t feel good about committing to [Game 3] right now. It’s open-ended,” manager Dave Roberts said Thursday. “We’re going to use all of our assets, our arms to win the first two games, and see how we come out as Game 3 approaches.”

The Dodgers rotation was in such dire straits midseason that trading for a pitcher with a 6.47 ERA who led the majors in home runs allowed actually made some sense. That pitcher, Lance Lynn, was acquired to eat innings, and he did just that, posting a 4.36 ERA in 64 innings, the latter second on the team since August 1, two outs shy of Miller.

In the postseason, the Dodgers don’t necessarily need Lynn to eat innings. They just need him to limit the damage and go as hard as he can for as long as he can when he pitches. Lynn was slated to pitch four innings in a scrimmage Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, which would line him up for Game 3 on five days rest.

“He’ll be ready for whatever is asked of him,” Roberts said Thursday. “He’s throwing [Tuesday], going four innings, so that puts him out for Game 1 and Game 2. If you look at his role, I think Game 3 is certainly in play.”

With NLDS rosters due on Saturday morning, the Dodgers are leaning toward carrying 13 pitchers and 13 position players, though Roberts on Thursday left open the possibility of carrying only 12 pitchers.

“That last spot it something you’ve got to talk through,” Roberts said. “Do you want three left-handers, or the value of having an extra right-handed bat or left-handed bat on the position player side.”

Roberts obviously didn’t get into roster specifics, but I’m assuming the three left-handers are Caleb Ferguson, Alex Vesia, and Ryan Yarbrough. Victor González was also active on the last two days of the regular season, and is at least nominally in the mix.

Arizona’s best hitter, Corbin Carroll, is left-handed, but that’s about it from the left side. Ketel Marte, the D-backs second-best hitter, is a switch-hitter, but has been better against left-handed pitching.

The roster question is two-fold.

If the Dodgers carry 13 pitchers, including three southpaw relievers, that likely makes the decision between short reliever Michael Grove or bulk pitcher Emmet Sheehan for the final spot. Or they could carry two lefties with both Grove and Sheehan making the squad.

If they carry only 12 pitchers, that means one lefty plus one of Grove or Sheehan not making the roster, but Kolten Wong would be active. He signed a minor league deal in August, was called up on September 1, provides excellent defense in the middle infield and hit well in limited duty (.300/.353/.500) but started only four games in the final month, batting all of 34 times.

In a longer series, 13 pitchers would be a no-brainer. But in the short NLDS, plus potentially three off days in a five-game series, it’s easier to get by with 12 pitchers, if they so choose.

“The Division Series sets up, with days off and things, that allow for different scenarios we’ve been afforded in the past,” Friedman said. “Those off days are an advantage. We’ll use it, and figure out the best way to use that to our advantage.”

Among the advantages is being able to use the top two starting pitchers potentially four times in the five-game series. But teams can also use their highest-leverage relievers in all five games of the series, if they so choose, which would include only one instance of pitching on back-to-back days.

“I like [the extra off day, between Games 1 and 2]. I think it’s a benefit to us. If you talk to Torey [Lovullo, D-backs manager] or any other National League manager, they probably feel the same way,” Roberts said. “It’s giving guys rest, it’s using all of your ‘pen guys with an extra day of rest, and getting to use your one and two starters twice in the series, potentially, so I think it’s good.”

If the Dodgers utilizing the strategy of using their Game 1 starter in Game 4, it would be the first time for Kershaw pitching on four days rest since returning from the injured list in August.

“It’s one of those things that, with all of our pitchers, after an outing, we’ll assess and evaluate where guys are. But we have a lot of confidence in Kersh, with the experience and just how good of a competitor he is,” Friedman said. “We haven’t [pitched Kershaw on four days rest] in a little while, but he feels like he’s in a good position to do it, so we’re excited by that.”

If the Dodgers are comfortable with Kershaw pitching on four days rest, and if Lynn is starting Game 3, that would move Ryan Pepiot to a bulk role. Because of the off days, Pepiot could be available in bulk relief in Game 1 and still be ready to either start or relieve in Game 4.

That could lessen the need for another bulk pitcher in Sheehan, even for as well as he pitched in September. Or maybe the Dodgers decide they don’t need three dedicated lefty to take on the Diamondbacks lineup. We’ll find out on Saturday when rosters are due.