Yes, the Los Angeles Dodgers are arguably the best team in the National League. Yes, they have a remarkably deep pitching staff. That means their starting rotation will be invincible, right? Incorrect, their rotation has loose ends.
Unduly expectations have been placed on this aspect of manager Dave Roberts‘ ballclub.
Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw are co-aces. Buehler has quickly become one of the most dominant strikeout pitchers in Major League Baseball, and he will continue to improve. Despite the postseason woes and nagging injury concerns, Kershaw is still an overpowering left-hander who’s a force to be reckoned with.
The two make for an elite rotation duo. Simultaneously, everything behind them is a guessing game.
David Price, who the Dodgers acquired along with Mookie Betts from the Boston Red Sox in the offseason, was going to be the Dodgers number-three starter. Then he opted out of the 2020 season, vacating a rotation spot. His spot and the rest of the rotation will likely be rounded out by some combination of Ross Stripling, Julio Urias, Alex Wood, and Dustin May.
Stripling has been phenomenal as a flex starter/long reliever across his four seasons in the majors; he has been efficient as a starter and effective as a reliever. The right-hander owns a career 3.51 ERA and a 115 ERA+ across 136 appearances, 52 of which are starts. How will he fare as a full-time starter?
True, Stripling will likely make no more than 12 starts in a 60-game season. That said, can one say with certainty that he’ll be as effective and/or pitch at a high level?
Urias, a former top prospect, has been continually blocked from a rotation role mostly due to the organization’s pitching depth in recent memory. He made 37 appearances, eight of which were starts with the Dodgers last season. That’s what happens when your rotation is stacked: young starters go to the bullpen or start in the minors.
Urias logs strikeouts at a high rate and has thrown a mean slider in the big leagues. At the same time, like Stripling, this would be Urias’ first-time starting on a full-time basis.
Wood was once a fixture in the Dodgers rotation. In December 2018 he was sent to the Cincinnati Reds in a multi-player trade and was limited to seven starts in 2019 due to a back injury. When healthy, he has been a reliable pitch-to-contact starter.
Now, Wood has struggled to provide length as a starter; he has typically been a five-to-six inning pitcher. Not starting in a big-league game since August 2019, Wood will likely be utilized in a similar role: pitch through a lineup no more than three times and get the ball to the bullpen.
May is the most intriguing starter of this quartet. The top pitching prospect made 14 appearances with the Dodgers last season, including four starts. May recorded a 3.63 ERA and showcased the ability to be a power arm, hitting the high 90s with his fastball and throwing an impressive cutter. He’s a young arm on the rise.
At the same time, can Roberts bank on Dustin May being this season’s Walker Buehler, who finished third in 2018 NL Rookie of the Year Award voting, in a fan-less sprint?
The Dodgers know what they’re getting from Buehler and Kershaw. They don’t know what they’re getting from anyone else in this rotation. Now more than ever the free agent departure of Hyun-Jin Ryu hits home for this ballclub.
Ryu, who signed a four-year, $80 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays, has been hamstrung by injuries his entire career, and it’s the reason why there’s always a bit of a leery climate surrounding his future. That said, he was a beast in 2019. He posted a 2.32 ERA and 1.01 WHIP across 29 starts.
Ryu is one of the most deceptive pitchers in baseball. He gets splendid movement on his cutter and curveball, catches hitters off-guard with his high 80s/low 90s fastball, and pitches deep into games. He was the Dodgers best starter last season. Price was going to fill the void. Now Roberts turns to pitchers with limited MLB experience.
The NL West isn’t the sport’s best division, but it includes some high-octane offenses that can give young pitchers a handful.
The Colorado Rockies offense is as good as any in the sport; the San Diego Padres have a vibrant lineup improving with age; the Arizona Diamondbacks have a well-versed offensive attack with budding players; the San Francisco Giants have veteran hitters with plate discipline.
Despite the uncertainty, many are still willing to put the Dodgers far and away above the field and crown the NL pennant. Remember what happened last season? They won an NL-best 106 games and proceeded to lose in the first round of the playoffs to the NL Wild Card team, the eventual World Series-champion Washington Nationals, which included losing two games at Dodger Stadium, blowing a 2-1 series lead, and blowing a 3-1 eighth-inning lead in Game 5.
Based on last season alone it’s foolish to hand the Dodgers anything. Yes, that’s taking into account the 2018 American League Most Valuable Player, Mookie Betts, joining forces with the 2019 NL MVP, Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy, Justin Turner, and Joc Pederson.
Will/should the Dodgers be the betting and on-paper favorite to win the NL this season? Sure, but the backend of their rotation epitomizes their vulnerability. Assuming they’ll just figure it out is optimism, not objectivity.