On the first of May, the New York Mets put their ace on the disabled list. They already were two starting pitchers down to start the season. As the team sank toward last place, their general manager said he might need to find arms outside the organization.
The Angels also have an ace on the disabled list. Two of their starting pitchers are sidelined for the season, and another went on the disabled list last week. The Angels patched the latest holes with a career reliever with a 5.00 earned-run average and a 27-year-old with a lively arm, a poor track record and one major league victory to his credit.
The Dodgers have four starting pitchers on the disabled list. Rich Hill, intended to be Clayton Kershaw’s high-priced sidekick atop the rotation, has started two games and ended up on the disabled list after each one.
The Dodgers shrugged, tapping into unparalleled pitching depth made possible by lavish spending, revitalized player development and creative ways of building a staff and manipulating a roster. The result: The injury-riddled Dodgers have the best earned-run average in the National League.
Nothing new here. The Dodgers were one of four clubs to use at least 15 starting pitchers last season. The other three — the Angels, Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds — finished no higher than fourth in their division. The Dodgers won the National League West for the fourth consecutive season.
Free your mind of the notion that a team should have five starters. Think differently.
Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, is sensitive to the knee-jerk response that it’s all about the money. When he ran the Tampa Bay Rays, he assembled talent and depth among starting pitching, albeit on a budget that limited his flexibility.
But ask Kershaw and Brandon McCarthy how the Dodgers do it, and the first thing you hear is money.
“We have the highest payroll in baseball, right?” Kershaw said. “… That allows us to take risks on guys with injury issues that may have a big upside but also have the potential to be hurt, which we’ve seen. We can take risks that other teams might not be able to take.”
To the fans that ask why Dodgers starters always seem to get hurt, the not-so-flip answer: by design.
In the three winters in which Friedman has run the Dodgers, six starting pitchers have signed as free agents for more than $100 million, another six for between $50 million and $100 million. The Dodgers did not sign any of them.
Friedman instead signed McCarthy, Hill, Scott Kazmir, Brett Anderson, Kenta Maeda and Brandon Beachy. (McCarthy, Hill and Kazmir were each guaranteed $48 million.) All but Maeda had injury histories, and Maeda’s physical examination revealed what the player and team agreed to publicly call “irregularities” in his pitching arm.
Nothing predicts a future injury more accurately than a past injury. However, in an era in which just about half the starting pitchers in the major leagues get hurt in any given year, the Dodgers do not worry about injury. They worry about having too much money invested in too few arms.
“Risk mitigation,” McCarthy said. “If you have $40 million in one pitcher and that guy goes down, you’re really up [a smelly place]. Spread it out. It seems to make mathematical and logical sense to me.
“But not everybody can pull that off, and can spend money on veterans where you’re kind of expecting them to break down once or twice.”
The Dodgers spent $94 million on starting pitching last season, more than the Rays spent on their entire roster. The Dodgers spent $35 million to get a total of three victories from McCarthy, Anderson, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Beachy.
It is not just that the Dodgers are wary of the one bad contract that can handcuff a team, the way the Angels’ $125-million payout to Josh Hamilton limited their resources in signing other players and stripped them of a top draft pick needed to replenish a thin minor league system.
It also is that injured players provide the Dodgers the flexibility to keep more pitchers under their control. A player on the 60-day disabled list does not count against roster limits. At one point last June, the Dodgers controlled 29 pitchers, either on the 40-man roster or 60-day disabled list.
The new 10-day disabled list plays to the Dodgers’ strengths too. Manager Dave Roberts said this week that the team does not expect to get 200 innings out of anyone other than Kershaw. The 10-day disabled list provides the opportunity for a veteran to skip a start, take a breather, and in the meantime the Dodgers can call up an extra arm. Reliever Josh Fields already has been optioned to the minor leagues and recalled three times this season.
The Dodgers cannot stockpile an unlimited amount of veterans, because a guaranteed major league rotation spot elsewhere generally is preferable to whatever salary they might offer to an eighth or ninth starter to shuttle between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City. With the constant churn in the Dodgers rotation, that means the minor league system must deliver reinforcements.
The Dodgers got more starts from unheralded rookie Ross Stripling last season than they did from McCarthy, Anderson, Ryu and Beachy combined. Julio Urias, the 20-year-old phenom, joined the rotation last week.
The team also has traded pitching prospects Jose De Leon, Chase DeJong, Jharel Cotton, Grant Holmes, Frankie Montas and Zach Lee over the last year, while keeping elite young arms in Urias, Walker Buehler, Yadier Alvarez and Mitchell White.
“We haven’t just taken all the resources and put them on the free-agent market,” Kershaw said. “We’ve been very judicious about who to trade and who not to trade as far as prospects.”
The combination of disciplined spending, talented prospects and roster management has paid dividends for the Dodgers. Yet Rick Honeycutt, in his 12th year as the Dodgers’ pitching coach, isn’t entirely sold on a rotating cast of starters as the ideal rotation.
“I’m not saying that’s the recipe to have,” he said. “It puts a lot of pressure on a bullpen.”
The Dodgers, with injury-prone arms and young arms mixed liberally into the rotation, needed 591 innings from their bullpen last season — 45 innings more than any other playoff team, 127 more than the Toronto Blue Jays.
There were nine pitchers who threw 210 innings last season. Dave Stewart, Mike Moore and Bob Welch each did that for the 1989 A’s.
“We had three studs,” Honeycutt said. “To me, that would still be the best plan. The problem is that finding those three guys that are going to give you six and seven innings every time out. Those guys are getting fewer and far between.”
Have the Dodgers come up with a plan other teams ought to copy?
“If I had a high payroll, I would definitely look to this team as to how to do it,” Kershaw said. “Not every team has the resources. That’s why we’re fortunate — that’s why I’m fortunate — to be here. We can win consistently, every single year.”
Friedman is painfully aware that winning in Los Angeles is about winning the World Series for the first time since 1988. In a recent Sports Illustrated article, an unnamed team official explained the starting pitching machinations by saying “the year comes down to” getting Kershaw, Hill and Urias healthy and ready for the playoffs, a quote that did not thrill Friedman.
“The season plays out in very mysterious ways,” Friedman said. “To try to corral it like that and look that far ahead is next to impossible.”
The San Francisco Giants opted for proven durability two winters ago, signing Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija for a combined $220 million to accompany Madison Bumgarner in the rotation. Bumgarner, Cueto and Samardzija were three of the six National League pitchers to throw 200 innings last season.
The Giants made the playoffs. The Dodgers made the playoffs. The Chicago Cubs beat them both.
Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin