Dodgers starters building up faster than expected, even after lockout delay
When Major League Baseball’s lockout ended this month, one concern stood out above the rest for Dodgers manager Dave Roberts.
He worried about whether his starting rotation would be stretched out enough by the start of the season, and the potential ripple effects the starters’ lack of buildup might have on the rest of the staff.
As he said on the first day of camp: “I just don’t expect six-inning, 90-pitch buildup, for five guys or six guys to be there.”
Fast-forward a couple of weeks and Roberts’ tone had changed Monday morning.
His rotation is still behind schedule compared with a normal year but not nearly by the margins the seventh-year manager once feared.
Instead, Walker Buehler is on track to be almost fully built up for his opening-day outing April 8. The rest of the rotation doesn’t seem to be far behind. And the fear of a patchwork April on the mound, full of brief starts and de facto bullpen games, is vanishing a little more each day.
Cody Bellinger is struggling in spring training, striking out in 14 of 19 at-bats. The 2019 National League MVP knows he has to find his swing again.
“I’m more confident,” Roberts said. “It just speaks to when you’re talking about starting pitching and potentially getting two or three innings out of a starter, it puts a lot of stress on the [bullpen]. But now where our starters are at today, the buildup, it just gives us more confidence that pitchers aren’t redlined through April.”
Buehler likely will be the most built up of any Dodgers pitcher to start the season. Even during the lockout, he began throwing live at-bats on schedule in February after coming to Arizona to train at a private facility. He pitched 4⅔ innings in his Cactus League debut before tossing another five innings in a B game this week.
“The COVID year [in 2020] kind of helped in terms of staying ready but not too ready,” Buehler said about how he balanced his work while waiting for the lockout to end. “I felt like I didn’t come in ready enough in that one, and I’m definitely more built up now than I was then. So that was kind of a nice little trainer course for this.”
The other starters to begin the season — Julio Urías, Clayton Kershaw, Andrew Heaney and Tony Gonsolin — are on pace to target five-inning outings for their first turn.
“I would have taken the under if I would have projected early on when camp started,” Roberts said, adding: “If they can get to that threshold, that would be fantastic.”
Kershaw’s progression this spring, in particular, has come as a surprise. The left-hander missed the playoffs last year because of an elbow injury, then delayed the start of his offseason throwing program until January.
Yet he hasn’t looked behind schedule in camp, pitching four scoreless innings during his third Cactus League start Monday against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“He’s looked really good every time he’s taken the mound,” pitching coach Mark Prior said. “Obviously, we’re being cautious and trying to be prudent with how we build him up, with the short spring and what he’s coming off of. But so far, all indications are that he looks sound. … He looks like the Clayton we always see in spring training.”
The lockout has created some complications.
Heaney, who signed as a free agent just before the work stoppage began, likely will be built up to the five-inning mark. But after not being able to communicate with the team’s coaches all winter, he is still adjusting to a new breaking ball late into the spring.
“If it weren’t for the lockout, with the shortened spring, you’d have more opportunity to work with the player, to kind of work through some things,” Roberts said of Heaney, who has given up 10 runs in 5⅓ innings this spring.
“We got him early, gave him some kind of runway of what we wanted to do, but you just don’t know until you get him here. That’s the cost of the lockout and the shortened camp.”
This spring, there are signs that Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw, 34, might be scripting a different outcome for the elusive changeup.
David Price has yet to pitch in a Cactus League game, taking longer than others to build up stamina during the shortened spring.
Price, who is slated to appear in his first game Wednesday, was supposed to join new signee Tyler Anderson as a long reliever out of the bullpen, capable of piggybacking on shorter starts if needed. But now, Roberts said the Dodgers are simply trying to get him stretched out to three innings over the next couple of weeks.
“It was a quick startup,” Roberts said. “So with a starting pitcher, with a pitcher that has potential length, he just didn’t get built up. We just don’t have the time.”
Still, Roberts once worried he would be making similar comments about most of his staff heading into the season. Now, it seems as if most of those fears won’t be realized. His pitchers are progressing faster than expected this spring. And his rotation might not be quite so limited early in the season after all.
Matt Beaty’s time with the Dodgers officially ended Monday, as he was traded to the San Diego Padres in exchange for minor league pitcher River Ryan. Beaty had been designated for assignment last week.
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