A month ago, the Dodgers reported to spring training with a locked starting rotation. Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Rich Hill, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Kenta Maeda were their projected starting pitchers. All five were considered healthy. There would be no competition or suspense. The quintet was as deep as any in baseball.
Then Kershaw’s shoulder began bothering him and Buehler’s slow-play schedule was extended. With less than two weeks remaining until the Dodgers return to California to complete their preparation for the regular season, neither has pitched in a Cactus League game yet and questions about the rotation composition for the beginning of the season linger.
Kershaw and Buehler are progressing. Kershaw played catch from 150 feet and threw from the windup on flat ground Saturday, played catch Sunday and is scheduled to throw a bullpen session Monday. It will be the first time he throws off a mound since his last bullpen session, Feb. 20, nearly three weeks ago.
Buehler, meanwhile, faced hitters for the first time this spring in a live batting practice session Saturday. He is slated to throw another live batting practice session Tuesday or Wednesday before pitching in a game. He and the Dodgers have maintained he is healthy; the club is simply taking its time with the prized 24-year-old right-hander, whose workload hiked from 88⅔ innings in 2017 to 177 between the regular season and playoffs in 2018.
“There’s the tendency to sometimes go too quick but I think in both cases we have enough depth to be conservative, not to be too conservative,” Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. “So that’s a fine line because they’re so good you want them back but at the same time, holding them back. So we just got to continue the progression.”
The Dodgers boast the depth to absorb going without Kershaw and Buehler for a short time. Ross Stripling, an All-Star as a starter last season, would be the first to step into the rotation. Julio Urias could be the next in line. His situation is more complicated.
The Dodgers still view Urias as a starter down the line, but, in a perfect world, Urias would probably begin the season in the bullpen, where he finished last season with an unexpected role in the playoffs. Urias isn’t on a strict innings limit — Honeycutt said there’s a range — but starting the year as a reliever would allow the club to better control his workload less than two years removed from major shoulder surgery.
Urias has made the case for himself with an impressive spring, one he continued with another standout performance against the Colorado Rockies at Salt River Fields on Sunday. The 22-year-old left-hander faced the minimum over three innings. He walked a batter — Nolan Arenado in the first inning — and struck out his final two hitters. His velocity rose as he went along, topping out at 97 mph in the third inning against Raimel Tapia, the last batter he faced. Tapia ended up hitting a groundball off Urias’s leg that caromed to third baseman Justin Turner, who threw out the speedy Tapia in time. Urias later said the leg was fine. He’s given up one run in six innings this spring.
“It’s fun,” Roberts said. “It’s certainly fun and you feel good when he’s out there. And he’s done everything he can possibly do to put him in this position. And for him to go out there and put up zeroes and execute pitches, that’s great for his development and his confidence. Where that takes him remains to be seen.”
Roberts said Urias will remain in the spring rotation for at least another turn and will throw three innings again in his next start. Getting Urias to four or five innings by the end of camp is “feasible,” according to Roberts. Whether the Dodgers will push Urias to that level could depend on Kershaw and Buehler. For now, uncertainty, unanticipated a month ago, abounds.
“Whatever decision we make,” Roberts said, “it’s the decision we feel is best for the players and our club.”