Wednesday, March 10, 2010

So Your'e Worried about the Dodgers' Pitching? Don't Be.

Here is the knock on the Dodgers that I hear from every baseball talking head/every one of my Dodger-hating friends: the Dodgers don't have a fifth starter or an ace.

I'm not concerned at all about the fifth starter.  I'm only slightly concerned about the ace.  Here's why:

THE FIFTH STARTER

Nobody has a fifth starter.  And by nobody, I mean the Cardinals and Phillies, who are clearly the other two best teams in the NL.

The Phillies: The Phillies rotation as it stands right now is Halladay, Hamels, Blanton, and Happ.  GM Ruben Amaro has said that the fifth starter's spot is 47-year-old Jamie Moyer's (2009 line 12-10, 4.94 ERA, 162 IP, 25 GS) to lose. The backup plans, with last year's stats in parentheses are Antonio Bastardo (2-3, 6.56 ERA, 23.2 IP, 5 GS), Jose Contreras (87 years old, 6-13, 4.92 ERA, 131.2 IP, 23 GS), Kyle Kendrick (3-1, 3.42 ERA, 26.1 IP, 2 GS, and in 2008 he was 11-9, 5.49 ERA, 155.2 IP, 30 GS), and Drew Carpenter (1 career major league start).  Not an especially compelling group.

The Cardinals: The Cardinals, who by the way have already scratched Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday for a spring training game (with lower back soreness and ribcage soreness, respectively, both of which are places that can really nag pro ballplayers), are lined up with Carpenter, Wainright, Kyle Lohse, and Brad Penny.  Jon Weisman broke down the fifth starter candidates like this:

- 2009 reliever Kyle McClellan (no career major-league starts)
- Veteran Rich Hill (who has 77 1/3 innings and a 6.87 ERA the past two seasons)
- 22-year-old rookie Lance Lynn (2.92 ERA in AA in 2009)
- 23-year-old Jaime Garcia (37 2/3 minor-league innings last year, following surgery).

With Dave Duncan as a pitching coach anything is possible, but still, this is also not an impressive bunch.

The Dodgers: The Dodgers, by contrast, have stalked up on candidates for the role- an approach that they have taken almost every year for the last decade or so.  Make sure there are four starters (this year it's Kershaw, Billingsley, Kuroda, and Padilla), then invite about ten has-beens and rookies to camp and see what happens.  And frankly, it has worked.  The young candidates include knuckleballer Charlie Haeger, Eric Stults, Josh Lindblom, James MacDonald, and Carlos Monasterios.  The has-beens include Jeff Weaver (though he's basically locked in as the swingman), Russ Ortiz, Ramon Ortiz, and Josh Towers.

Not that any of those guys are going to scare you, but most of them have had at least a cup of coffee in the bigs, and some of them have had genuine success- even if it was 4 or 5 years ago.  It's not that this group is necessarily better than the Phils' or the Cards' groups, but frankly, they probably are, and they're at least not worse.  In short, this just isn't a cause for concern.

THE ACE:


It is impossible to argue that the Dodgers have a proven ace.  But it is possible to argue that they have at least one budding one, maybe two.  Clayton Kershaw last year quietly had the same ERA as Roy Halladay (2.79) and hitters hit for a significantly lower average against him (.200 vs. .256).  Is Kershaw better than Halladay? Of course not.  Halladay through 60 more innings than Kershaw, won more games, and did it all in the AL East.  I'm not arguing that.  But Kershaw will be 22 when the season starts and has already turned in a season with an ERA under 3.00.  The guy is as impressive as they come, especially at that age.

On top of that, Chad Billingsley looked for the first month and a half last year like a Cy Young candidate.  His second half struggles are well-known, but let's not forget that he is also only 25 with a career ERA of 3.55.  Even last year his ERA ended at 4.03.  In 2008 he was 16-10 with a 3.14 ERA, and the Dodgers attribute his second-half slide last year to a hamstring injury.  Is he the next Chris Carpenter?  Maybe not.  But one bad half is no reason to panic.

Compare the Phils' and Cards' first four starters again, with 2009 stats in parentheses.

Dodgers: Kershaw (8-8, 2.79 ERA, 171 IP), Billingsley (12-11, 4.03 ERA, 196.1 IP), Padilla (w/ TEX: 8-6, 4.92 ERA, 108 IP; w/ LAD: 4-0, 3.20 ERA, 39.1 IP), Kuroda (8-7, 3.76 ERA, 117.1 IP).
Phillies: Halladay (17-10, 2.79 ERA, 239 IP), Hamels (10-11, 4.32 ERA, 193.2 IP), Blanton (12-8, 4.05 ERA, 195.1 IP), Happ (12-4, 2.93 ERA, 166 IP).
Cardinals: Carpenter (17-4, 2.24 ERA, 192.2 IP), Wainwright (19-8, 2.63 ERA, 233 IP), Lohse (6-10, 4.74 ERA, 117.2 IP), Penny (11-9, 4.88 ERA, 173.1 IP).

Put it all together and you get this: the Cards clearly have the best 1-2 of the group if not in all of baseball.  But their rotation falls off a ton after that.  Carpenter hadn't had a healthy season for two years leading up to last year, Lohse is 31 and has had only one year with an ERA under 4.00 (2008- 3.78), and Brad Penny is fat, no one likes him, and he was awful for most of last year.

The Phils' rotation is curious: Halladay will be amazing and Blanton should be solid, but who knows what Hamels has this year, Happ has only one season under his belt, and Moyer is 47.  They should be a good group of course, but there are questions.

And of course, the Dodgers have questions too, but my point really is to show that the rotation is far from awful and potentially very good.  On top of that the Dodgers had the best bullpen in the NL last year and figure to be right in there again.

So fret not, Dodgers fan.  The rotation should be fine.  Will it be stellar?  That's a hard call.  But it shouldn't be bad- or certainly not as bad as the baseball doomsday prophets make it out to be.

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