Reporting from Atlanta — Don Mattingly said that if he had to decide between the Dodgers’ adding a quality bat or a quality arm over the winter, he would take the bat.
“A solid bat is something we’ve got to have or we’ll right back to where we were,” Mattingly said.
By that, he means before their mid-July acquisition of Juan Rivera, who has helped transform the Dodgers’ offense from abysmal to respectable.
“It tells you what one bat can do to your lineup,” Mattingly said.
But at what cost?
With the Dodgers in bankruptcy and their ownership situation in limbo, adding offense could force them to subtract pitching.
Starting pitching has been about the only part of the organization that hasn’t appeared compromised by its financial troubles.
Anchored by Cy Young Award candidate Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ rotation has the third-lowest earned-run average in the National League behind the Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants.
The Dodgers were designed this way. They went into spring training with six established starters — Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly, Hiroki Kuroda, Jon Garland and Vicente Padilla, who was sent to the bullpen.
When Garland and Padilla went down because of season-ending injuries, they called up top prospect Rubby De La Rosa, who was armed with a 100-mph fastball. When De La Rosa was lost to an elbow operation, they replaced him with another top prospect, Nathan Eovaldi.
“Every time we walk out there, you feel like you have a starter who’s going to keep you in the game and give you a chance to win,” Mattingly said.
Only three of the starters are certain to return next season: Kershaw, Billingsley and Lilly.
Kershaw is under club control for three more seasons. Billingsley is signed through 2014, and Lilly through 2013.
Kuroda is a free agent at the end of the season and could return to Japan to finish out his career. Garland and Padilla are also out of contract. De La Rosa could miss the entire season.
As for Eovaldi, he made his final start of the season on Saturday, part of a plan to move him to the bullpen as a means of preserving his arm.
“He’s made a nice case for himself,” Mattingly said. “He has a lot of intangibles that we like. He’s a tough kid. He’s competitive. He’s been willing to keep working on getting better.”
But Mattingly said he is reluctant to count on Eovaldi being part of the rotation next season, considering that he will be only 22 in February.
That leaves the Dodgers with one spot in the rotation they absolutely have to fill and another they might have to fill.
The dilemma of how to allocate the team’s diminishing economic resources will be familiar to the Dodgers.
They went into camp this year knowing their pitching depth could come at the expense of offensive production in left field. The previous season, they went into camp with what looked like a superior offense but only four established starters.
The plan in 2010 backfired magnificently. Charlie Haeger, a knuckleballer who started that season as their fifth starter, pitched disastrously. Padilla, the opening-day starter, went down.
Mattingly said he is confident the Dodgers won’t relive that nightmare next season, even if they prioritize offense.
“You’re going to be able to find a couple starters,” Mattingly said. “You see it every year. They might not be exactly what you want, but in today’s market, there are always guys out there who have been quality big league guys. Maybe they’re close to being journeymen, but they’re inning eaters, and they keep you in games.”
Like Garland, who was signed for a base salary of $5 million.
But affordable arms are affordable for a reason. In Garland’s case, an MRI exam revealed wear and tear on his shoulder.
Garland made only nine starts this year.