By Marc Normandin
Pitching was a strong suit for the Dodgers in their NL West-winning 2013, and the plan seems to be to lean on the rotation again next season. The club added Dan Haren to a group that already featured National League Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-jin Ryu and a returning Josh Beckett, and they have the capable Stephen Fife backing up the bunch should an injury occur. They might not be done just yet, however -- and given some of the names involved already, that's understandable.
Let's start with what's already in place, though, as it's more than what most teams feature. Kershaw needs little introduction, considering he not only came away with the latest in Senior Circuit Cy hardware, but also won in 2011 and finished second in 2012. He's led the NL in ERA in three consecutive seasons, hasn't had an ERA loftier than 2.91 since his rookie campaign in 2008 as a 20-year-old, and has averaged 225 innings and 33 starts per year over the last four. They don't make them much better than Kershaw, and he's on the very short list of pitchers that every team might want to lead their staff. The Dodgers cannot do any better in the top spot, and if he remains as healthy as he's been to this point in his career, that will continue to hold true.
Following Kershaw is Greinke, who could lead many Kershaw-less rotations himself. Since returning to the rotation full-time in 2008, Greinke has averaged 31 starts and 202 innings per year with a 125 ERA+, the ninth-best among all starters with at least 1,000 innings in that stretch -- if you were curious, Kershaw leads all starters. Greinke is generally healthy, as you likely surmised from his average inning total, and so long as Carlos Quentin doesn't incite any riots in 2014, he should remain that way.
The questions start after Greinke. Ryu was a rookie in 2013, and he was certainly a capable one, posting a 119 ERA+ while throwing 192 innings over 30 starts. He struck out over three times as many batters as he walked, and showed no serious transition issues coming over from South Korea to Major League Baseball. With all that being said, it was just one year, and with an off-season worth of data and scouting to look at, things could go more poorly for him the second time around. It's not that he's a serious risk, or that he's going to be in trouble. But heading into 2014 with Ryu as the likely third starter is a different story than in 2013, when he was a risk, but a back-end one with some wiggle room.
Ryu seems like a sure thing when compared to Beckett and Haren, though. Beckett's 2014 ended due to thoracic outlet syndrome, which resulted in July surgery. It's somewhat rare, but pitchers will sometimes suffer from it due to compression within the thoracic outlet that causes problems to the structure of the shoulder, compression caused by their throwing motion. Shaun Marcum's 2013 also ended due to thoracic outlet syndrome, Phil Hughes dealt with it back in 2011, and going further back, Kenny Rogers and Jeremy Bonderman returned from TOS successfully. Not every player who suffers from thoracic outlet syndrome works their way back to the majors with the effectiveness they had before, however, so Beckett is a serious question, especially considering he owns two full, effective seasons in the last five: Despite a 121 ERA+ and 149 ERA+ in 2009 and 2011, respectively, Beckett's total ERA+ since 2009 is just 103, and he's averaged just 24 starts and 149 innings in that stretch.
Haren's history of health and inconsistency doesn't stretch back nearly as far as Beckett's, but he's no absolute, either. He dealt with hip and back issues in 2012 that limited him to 176 frames - compared to his 226 per year over the previous seven, that's lacking -- and when he was on the mound, he didn't do well, posting a 4.33 ERA despite pitching his home games in one of the more friendly pitcher parks out there in Angel Stadium. A one-year, make-good deal with the Washington Nationals ended in roughly the same place, with Haren's ERA shooting up to 4.67, his innings dropping to 169 despite making 30 starts and 31 total appearances, and his homer rate once again in a precariously high position.
That brought him to the west coast, where it's no secret he wants to be, in another attempt to revitalize his career and find that significant payday his earlier performances had seemingly destined him for. The good news for both Haren and the Dodgers is that he was much better in 2013's second half, with a drop over more than two runs in his ERA from 5.61 to 3.52. His homer rate slipped to a much more tolerable, and previously Haren-esque, 1.1 per nine in that second half, while he struck out five times as many batters as he walked en route to a 636 opponent OPS. If the Dodgers have that Haren, who looked an awful lot like the Haren of old, at least in his results, then the first four slots in their rotation are going to be absolutely filthy, and likely unfair to everyone they meet.
Beckett remains a potential problem, however, healthy or no, so it's no wonder the Dodgers are seeking possible alternatives. After all, Beckett has just the one year left on his deal, and in this pitching-starved market where below-average hurler Ricky Nolasco can get almost $50 million guaranteed, and the bland Jason Vargas can pull in a four-year deal, Los Angeles could foot some of the bill and send him packing in return for more than a bucket of balls. They would absolutely do so if they could acquire one of the two most significant prizes on the market this off-season.
First, there's Masahiro Tanaka, the (potential) Japanese export that should find his way to MLB from the Nippon Professional Baseball League, once the two sides figure out how to renew the posting system. Tanaka is different than any pitcher of his caliber available as either a free agent -- of which there are none this year -- or in a trade, as all he costs is money. As we've seen over the course of the new ownership's reign, money is no obstacle when it comes to the players the Dodgers want, so if money is all it takes, they are likely as in as anyone else.
In the more expensive realm -- at least, more expensive in terms of not just using money to acquire players - there's Rays' ace David Price. The 2012 AL Cy Young winner is on the trade block, assuming the Rays can find the significant prospect package they are hoping for in return. There were whispers that Tampa Bay liked what the Dodgers had in their system, so if Los Angeles is willing to make a move for yet another ace, one with two years left on his contract who could likely be signed for a massive extension, then a deal could be made before the winter is over.
Adding either Tanaka or Price would make an already ridiculous rotation that much more formidable, but the Dodgers don't have to acquire either. Beckett might be a living, breathing question mark, Haren has his own potential problems, and Ryu is unproven beyond his first year, but these are normal questions to begin the year with, even for championship-caliber rotations. If Haren pitches anything like he did over the last few months of 2013, the Dodgers won't necessarily need Ryu to repeat his feat, or for Beckett to come back at full strength. Plus, their financial resources will still be available in-season, as will their prospects, meaning they can make a trade for pitching help during the year if they absolutely find themselves in need of more backup than Fife can provide.
The Dodgers once again have a loaded rotation, and while it lacks the sheer volume of 2013's Opening Day staff, there is a whole lot of upside mixed in with some of the game's more consistent hurlers. Negatives could occur, but it's nothing the organization can't handle in-season -- should they find themselves impatient, though, they could always solve a "problem" like Beckett with a trade or a posting bid over the next couple of winter months.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, and also contributes to Baseball Nation. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for Baseball Prospectus, ESPN and others. You can follow him on Twitter @Marc_Normandin.