Coming into 2016 the Los Angeles Dodgers were praised for their depth. Andrew Friedman and company had spent the offseason stockpiling any number of players who could hang out on the bench, in the bullpen, or in the minors, so that when the first wave of Dodgers faltered, an equally competent replacement would be ready to step in. It didn’t take long for the Dodgers to need their depth, most notably in the starting rotation.
Dave Roberts has fully embraced his roster flexibility on the offensive end of the game (although whether he has done that successfully is debatable), but the team’s rotation depth was quickly decimated, leaving Roberts with few options. Injuries are inevitable on a pitching staff but the Dodgers’ front office did their best to plan for the expected. Coming into spring training the rotation looked like a potential strength. Clayton Kershaw was the best pitcher on the planet, Brett Anderson and Scott Kazmir were both coming off of strong 2015 campaigns, Hyun-jin Ryu was expected to be back from injury, and Kenta Maeda had the potential to be the bargain of the offseason.
Then Anderson hurt his back. And Ryu’s recovery from shoulder surgery slowed down. Top injury-replacements like Mike Bolsinger, Carlos Frias, and Brandon Beachy went down with injuries of their own, too. The Dodgers’ greatest strength, their depth, was cut to pieces before the season could even begin. They entered the year with Kershaw, Kazmir, and Maeda in the rotation as expected, with Alex Wood moving from a potential spot in the bullpen back into a starter’s role, and Ross Stripling grabbing the final rotation spot with an excellent spring.
We are now approximately 1/5 of the way through the season and that quintet has held down the fort for Los Angeles with only moderate success. Kershaw has been Kershaw, Maeda has been one of the breakout stars of 2016, and Stripling has been a more than serviceable 5th starter. Unfortunately, things have not been so positive for the other 40% of the rotation. Left-handers Wood and Kazmir have put up less-than-stellar numbers thus far in 2016 (both have ERA’s north of 5.00), and the team can’t afford to wait and see if they’ll turn things around. Meanwhile, Maeda is due for some regression in his run-prevention, and Stripling can only pitch so many innings, given his recent injury history. The Dodgers sit right at .500 and are tied for the lead in the National League West. The team needs to make some changes soon to prevent further depreciation of the team’s status as an NL West powerhouse.
Internally, the first option would normally have been to call upon the guys with major-league experience (Bolsinger, Frias, Beachy), but they’re still dealing with the injuries they sustained during spring training. Instead, the team might look to call up a prospect or two, potentially of the blue-chip variety. Rumor has it that the Dodgers are considering bringing up Julio Urias. Just a couple of days ago, manager Dave Roberts was quoted as saying that Urias was “at the top of the list” for potential call-ups, although at the time he was referring to options in the bullpen. Unfortunately, like Stripling, Urias likely has a cap on how many innings he can throw this season, and with the Dodgers bullpen showing some mighty holes of its own, Urias might currently be best suited coming out of the pen. Urias is also arguably the best pitching prospect in the game, though, and is almost certainly capable of improving upon the 5.00+ ERA’s that Wood and Kazmir have achieved thus far. With Urias showing consistent success in Triple-A Oklahoma City to start the season (24 IP, 1.88 ERA, 10.9 K/9), it’s likely that concern over his innings total is the only thing preventing him from being in the major-league rotation right now.
Alternatively, the Dodgers could turn to Jose De Leon. Like Urias, De Leon would probably be ready to make his major-league debut if not for a confounding variable or two. An injury in spring training has slowed his start to the year (he only made his 2016 debut last week), and his innings are sure to be under close watch. De Leon ranked highly on all of the major prospect lists, and he has the stuff to contribute to a major-league rotation right now, but he experienced arm soreness after his first start of the season and he’s going to have to wait until he’s fully healthy before he has any chance of being called up.
Zach Lee and Jharel Cotton are also hanging out in Oklahoma City, although they don’t have the same level of pedigree as the two previously mentioned prospects. Each has had various amounts of success in the past but have put up uninspiring numbers this year in Triple-A. With the struggles of Wood and Kazmir, it doesn’t hurt to try out other options, but these two have given the team very little reason to call upon them as new rotation members.
Unfortunately, sometimes even the best-laid plans don’t work out. The Dodgers had double-digit options for their starting rotation going into spring training, and now the team has essentially no alternative to their current starting five in-house. Things outside of the organization look just as bleak. The Dodgers were reportedly at Tim Lincecum’s recent showcase, but Lincecum hasn’t been a successful big league starter in years. Other free-agent starters include such undesirables as Kyle Lohse, Eric Stults, and Aaron Harang. Free agency doesn’t provide the team with any better choices.
It’s also too early in the season for most teams to throw up the white flag, meaning that there is little available on the trade market this soon either.
So, it seems as though the Dodgers have held steady with their current starters for good reason. Trades are unavailable, free agency doesn’t present any worthwhile options, injuries have depleted their traditional depth pieces, and innings limits prevent the team’s top prospects from being permanent options this early in 2016. Friedman may have planned for injuries, but sometimes even the most in-depth strategies fail. The Dodgers are going to have to hope that their offense picks up, because the rotation isn’t pulling its weight, and the solutions aren’t readily available.