Dodgers’ rotation has plenty of talent. But will a lack of depth haunt them in 2022?
Dave Roberts said he believes the Dodgers could have one of the best rotations in baseball.
“I’d put us somewhere in the top 10,” he said on “The Dan Patrick Show” last month.
It’s also the group that worries the seventh-year manager the most.
“I think probably starting pitching depth,” Roberts told reporters on the last day of spring training in Arizona, when asked what part of the team concerns him when he unwinds every night. “I think that’s probably the thing that occupies my mind.”
For all the talent the Dodgers have amassed in their collection of starting pitchers, they are lacking the proven depth they’ve grown accustomed to in recent years. The ceiling is as high as ever for the group, but the floor also seems precariously low.
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And at the dawn of a new season, it is shaping up to be perhaps the most consequential area of the roster. While a star-studded lineup is the most impressive part of the 2022 Dodgers, the success of their starting rotation might be the most important.
“I think it’s about our starting pitching,” Roberts said while making his title guarantee to Patrick. “Just keeping our guys healthy.”
There’s little doubt about the talent of the team’s leading trio.
Walker Buehler will top the rotation as the opening day starter for the first time in his career. It’s an honor the right-hander earned after an impressive 2021 campaign, when he posted a 2.47 ERA, 212 strikeouts and a 16-4 record to finish fourth in Cy Young Award voting.
Named the opening day starter for the first time in his career, Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler always makes quite an impression on those around him.
He did it all without missing a start, compiling 207⅔ innings over 33 outings (then four more starts in the playoffs, including two on short rest).
“His goal is to go out and do what he did last year from a repeat standpoint, go wire to wire, make every start,” pitching coach Mark Prior said. “Really be a force and impact this team in a really positive way.”
Julio Urías is plotting his own reprisal of a strong 2021. In his first full season as a full-time starter, the left-hander posted a 2.96 ERA with 195 strikeouts. He was Major League Baseball’s only 20-game winner. He finished seventh in Cy Young voting.
“He’s got the pedigree behind him,” Prior said. “Now it’s about repeating what he did last year.”
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Then there’s Clayton Kershaw, who after re-signing with the team on a one-year deal this winter has been one of this spring’s biggest surprises.
Despite delaying his offseason throwing program while recovering from an elbow injury that kept him out of the playoffs last year, Kershaw got back on schedule during camp and will be available for the start of the season. He hopes to rebound from the 3.55 ERA he posted last year, the highest since his rookie season in 2008.
“It’s been definitely a pleasant surprise,” Prior said. “It’s probably fair to say that some of us probably expected him to be [ready to pitch] later in April, May type-situation.” Prior said.
Kershaw, however, also embodies the worries surrounding this year’s staff.
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Not since 2015 has he made it through a season without a trip to the injured list. And though he said he believes his elbow has fully healed, the injury was a significant one that required a platelet-rich plasma injection and almost led to Tommy John surgery.
Buehler and Urías, coming off career-high workloads from a season ago, will be trying to stay healthy as well.
“You’re always one pitch away from losing a guy,” Prior said. “And then when you’re losing, maybe one of your top three or four guys, or any of your guys that you’re expecting to count on to provide a pretty big chunk of innings for you, that’s a huge concern. But I’m going to [be glass] half-full right now. We’re in a good spot.”
The Dodgers have been in better spots in years past, though, when they had experienced depth with such pitchers as Rich Hill, Alex Wood and Kenta Maeda.
“There’s always this low level anxious feeling or anxiety. But things have worked out to our benefit [in the past].”
— Dodgers pitching coach Mark Prior
This year could be different, with a potentially drastic drop-off if one (or more) of the team’s top arms goes down.
Tony Gonsolin and Andrew Heaney will begin the season as the other two members of the rotation, high-upside pitchers who have been highly inconsistent in their careers.
Gonsolin was impressive in his occasional big league cameos in 2019 and 2020, but regressed over 15 outings (13 starts) last season. His 3.23 ERA was decent, but his walk rate doubled, his ability to work deep into starts diminished, and his fielding independent pitching (a stat similar to ERA that isolates pitchers’ performances from defense and batted ball luck) rose to 4.54.
Heaney is similarly difficult to project. The Dodgers signed the former Angels starter aiming to unlock his long-envisioned potential, hopeful a new slider will work effectively with his fastball-changeup arsenal.
The left-hander hasposted a sub-4.00 ERA only once in eight MLB seasons. He is also coming off a career-worst season in 2021, when he had a 5.83 ERA over 30 outings with the Angels and New York Yankees.
The Dodgers — whose highest-paid pitcher, Trevor Bauer, remains on administrative leave awaiting a possible suspension from MLB — have few other proven starting pitching alternatives.
Veteran Tyler Anderson signed during spring camp and is expected to begin the season in a bulk-inning role out of the bullpen. Veteran David Price, in the last year of his contract, has built up slowly this spring.
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Top pitching prospects Ryan Pepiot, Bobby Miller, Andre Jackson and Landon Knack could all find their way to the big leagues at some point, but they need more minor league experience .
Dustin May is expected back from Tommy John surgery after the All-Star break, though his exact timeline remains unclear.
The Dodgers’ belief is that, at least early in the season, they will have enough options in the bullpen to cover any deficiencies from the back of the rotation.
If their top starters remain healthy, or if they bolster the group with a midseason trade, they should boast the kind of top-end talent to make a push in the playoffs.
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If their talent-rich lineup lives up to expectations, the Dodgers could also withstand a slight drop in overall production from a staff that led the majors in team ERA last year.
Yet, on a team that has shored up almost every other part of the roster, the pitching rotation remains an area filled with question marks.
At season’s end, it could prove to be a strength, the catalyst for another World Series quest.
But there’s a chance it becomes the Dodgers’ biggest weakness instead, stirring up the type of season-opening uncertainty they’ve rarely felt in their starting pitching before.
“There’s always this low-level anxious feeling or anxiety,” Prior said. “But things have worked out to our benefit [in the past]. You’ve got to grind it out every day. And a lot of that’s on the players, and they go out and do their job.”
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