It's become almost a ritual the past few years: In the winter, the Dodgers' rotation looks like it has too many starters for the five allotted spots, and then as spring goes on attrition whittles its way through the ranks until, once again, there are questions to be asked and answered.
Last year the injury bug waited until the season began to take its toll, shutting Chad Billingsley down with elbow problems that would lead to Tommy John surgery and sidelining Zack Greinke with a broken collarbone, then his replacement in the rotation Chris Capuano with a sprained calf muscle days later. That preponderance of bad luck, combined with the team having dealt safety valve Aaron Harang to the Colorado Rockies late in camp, led to rookie Matt Magill pitching 27.2 painful innings of 6.51 ERA ball. Josh Beckett would hang on through the early stretch of injuries, pitching poorly enough that perhaps it might have been best for the Dodgers if he'd more quickly acknowledged that he was hurt and required his own surgery, which would sideline him for the rest of the season.
It all worked out in the end: Greinke got healthy down the stretch, the Dodgers acquired Ricky Nolasco from the Miami Marlins and 26-year-old Stephen Fife stepped up and delivered 10 starts of decent back-of-the-rotation pitching. The Dodgers went on to take first place in the National League West and ride their hot second half into the NLCS.
They'll be much less of a surprise success story this year, and the injuries are starting earlier: Greinke got four pitches into his first outing of the spring last Thursday before having to leave with a tweaked right calf. While he's been able to play catch since then, there's no timetable for his return yet, except that he's off the table for the two game set the Dodgers will be playing against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Australia on March 22nd (technically, thanks to the time difference, both games will be played on the same day on mainland American time). The Dodgers will have to choose two of Clayton Kershaw, Dan Haren, and Hyun-jin Ryu for those honors, but more interesting than how that decision shakes out is how Greinke's injury will carry over into the regular season. After all, a strained calf might not seem like much of an injury, but it's the same one that kept Greinke's then-teammate Capuano on the shelf for three weeks last year (Capuano then went and strained his shoulder, which was a whole other deal).
Greinke hopes that skipping the Australia trip will have him healthy enough to join the Dodgers' rotation, as its expected second starter, when the team returns for the season's true first week in April. But that still leaves the Dodgers with some holes to fill, assuming that the other guaranteed starters (for the moment) are Kershaw, Ryu, and Haren.
Thirty-one year old Maholm spent most of last season at the back of one of the most effective rotations in the National League in Atlanta, and seems to have a very good shot at spending at least the beginning of 2014 in a similar situation in Los Angeles. The Dodgers got Maholm for a one-year, $1.5 million guaranteed contract -- an absurdly low price considering that he's been roughly a league average starter the past three years across three separate NL teams (Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Atlanta). But Maholm's contract also has a number of escalators built into it based off an odd point-based system (two points for each game started; 1.5 points for each relief appearance longer than two innings; one point for each relief appearance otherwise) that maxes out at 60 points, where it pays him…$5 million. Still a pretty good deal for the Dodgers, especially given how well Maholm would need to be pitching to be worth 30 starts, given the other options available. But Maholm's on the wrong side of 30 with a fastball that's clocked in the upper 80s and falling, and a curve that doesn't snap like it used to; it seems unlikely that the Dodgers will be making that full payout.
Beckett made $15.75 million last year mainly to languish on the disabled list, and if he continues to pitch like he did when he was ostensibly "healthy" in 2013, it might not be such a bad thing for the Dodgers if he does the same thing in 2014. When healthy and capable, Beckett has shown he's one of the better pitchers in baseball, but at the end of last season he underwent surgery to alleviate Thoracic Outlet Syndrome -- a surgery that involved removing one of his ribs. Thoracic Outlet Syndrome ended St. Louis Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter's career and effectively destroyed what was left of former Toronto Blue Jay and Milwaukee Brewer Shaun Marcum's; Texas Rangers pitcher Matt Harrison is struggling to come back from it as well, though he also has complications relating to herniated discs in his back and will miss the start of the regular season. Beckett, on the other hand, threw a couple innings against the Padres over the weekend and looked pretty good, though it's hard to tell anything substantive from a few innings against hitters in the first week of spring training games.
It's kind of shocking to realize that Chad Billingsley is already an eight-year MLB veteran -- he debuted for the Dodgers in 2006 at the age of 21, a bit younger than most starting pitchers reach the big leagues -- and before Tommy John surgery ended his season in early 2013, the biggest talk surrounding him in Dodgerland was whether or not the team should try to trade him, given his somewhat lackluster performances since two great years in 2007 and 2008. He has relatively team-friendly contract that keeps him under control through the end of 2015 at around $12.5 million a year AAV, assuming a club option was exercised.
Then the injury happened and the calculus changed. Billingsley is no longer an attractive trade piece in 2014, as he's just started throwing his breaking pitches again off the mound and may not be fully ready for the start of the regular season, and the club will want a full season to judge whether or not it's worth picking up his $14 million option for 2015. Billingsley is the youngest of the established pitchers competing for an open spot in the Dodgers rotation (possibly two open spots, pending an update on Greinke's progress as April approaches), and probably has the most upside at this point in his career.
This is the dark horse candidate. Rosin was the Dodgers' Rule 5 draft choice this year, coming over from a Phillies organization that isn't precisely flush with young starting pitching but can make do given that its veterans are Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and A.J. Burnett. Rosin threw two scoreless innings in his debut last Wednesday, striking out five of the six batters he faced, and then threw three more scoreless innings Monday afternoon, striking out three batters this time. It's unlikely he'll be able to sustain that kind of pace or anything remotely close to it -- if he had that kind of potential, one would think even Ruben Amaro, Jr.'s front office would have remembered to put him on the Phillies 40-man roster. But Rosin could be a great complementary piece and would probably be a much-preferred alternative to another go-round with Matt Magill. The problem with Rosin is that as a Rule 5 pick, he has to either make the team out of camp or the Dodgers have to offer him back to the Phillies -- and if he keeps having a camp like this, the Phillies would be foolish not to take him back.
Of course, with the injury fortunes of pitchers being what they are, many of those players could end up getting starts for the Dodgers in the early weeks of the season -- or none of them could. For everyone in baseball, and lately for the Dodgers especially, that's just how these things go.