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While the 2016 season is only 28-games-old and still extremely young, the Los Angeles Dodgers are beginning to establish a bit of a defined identity on paper as several areas of weakness and need are already becoming visible.
A few other departments could actually be considered worse off than the starting rotation, yet in order for the Dodgers to demonstrate their ability to contend throughout the year, one or two starting pitchers may need to be added sooner rather than later.
Alex Wood seems to be competent enough when pitching at Dodger Stadium, but could almost be deemed as inadequate when starting on the road. Scott Kazmir has shown glimpses of his former All-Star self, yet his 5.68 ERA and 1.358 WHIP through six starts in 2016 aren’t encouraging in the least. And although he began the year in very impressive fashion, one wonders how long Ross Stripling can throw effectively before eventually running out of steam.
It’s way too soon to make any type of firm evaluation or assessment, however, the current general feelings among the fan base reveal anyone not named Clayton Kershaw or Kenta Maeda may be in jeopardy of losing a spot in favor of a more credible upgrade.
Fans seem to be growing impatient with lefty Hyun-jin Ryu, as a projected time frame for returning to the club continues to drift backwards. Brandon McCarthy still appears to be on schedule, but may not be ready to throw at the big league level until mid to late July. Brett Anderson, who is in the early stages of recovery from back surgery, could be ready to pitch sometime in August, yet there’s still the chance he may not be able to contribute at all. Even if Mike Bolsinger recovers completely from an oblique strain, one ponders if he would be an upgrade over anyone in the current rotation.
All that being said, the plentiful crew in Dodgers’ front office may need to look outside the box and consider a very rare springtime trade opportunity, or possibly even utilizing another talented prospect from their own farm who may be past the point of being ready for the bigs.
Without a heavy amount of research and endless hours of studying contracts and statistics, four pitchers who could help the current state of the Dodgers’ starting rotation come to mind straightaway. While elite starters like Sonny Gray or Chris Sale will certainly require much more than Los Angeles would want to surrender in a deal, a few conceivable options may actually exist.
#4 — Danny Salazar (Cleveland Indians)
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While the loss of Danny Salazar would be considered a big blow to the Indians starting rotation, they are blessed with plenty of talent to shoulder the load in his absence. A large number of teams have inquired about the 26-year-old righty over the past few years, and although the Cleveland front office seems reluctant to finalize a deal, they may be persuaded to trade Salazar for the right price, especially considering their need for a young, controllable outfielder with some pop — something the Dodgers could indeed attractively package.
Salazar possesses the enviable 96 MPH heater, and more importantly, a splitter, which continues to develop and emerge as his main out pitch in crunch time. Even better is his controlability — he’s not arbitration eligible until after 2017 and cannot file for free agency until 2021.
Salazar’s career 10.0 K/9 is very impressive, as his 2.78 BB/9 shows respectable command. Through five starts in 2016, his 2.40 ERA, 2.84 FIP and 0.967 WHIP indicate that he’s off to a solid start.
#3 — Julio Teheran (Atlanta Braves)
The Braves are in the midst of a massive rebuild and haven’t shied away from trading longtime, productive fixtures for top-notch prospects over the past year or so. According to Spotrac, righty Julio Teheran is locked up through 2020 at an average of $5.86 million a year, and although his contract may play favorably into Atlanta’s hand, it’s still believed in many circles that the 25-year-old could be had for the right price.
Despite somewhat of a disaster in 2015, his peripherals from past seasons suggest that he could slot productively into the #3 role or better of even a highly rated big league rotation.
His fastball velocity typically sits at 94-95 mph and frequently nears triple digits. His curveball continues to improve and features a tight, 11-5 break. After he established his fastball in 2014, hitters were almost helpless against his low-80s changeup, which is easily his best pitch.
The belief by the Braves that Teheran may have the stuff of a true ace could be the lone reason why they haven’t traded the 2014 All-Star, yet for the right package, it’s hard to concede that they wouldn’t let him go.
#2 — José De León (Oklahoma City Dodgers)
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It’s quite possible that the Dodgers’ front office can save all the pain and agony of dealing with the trade market by giving an opportunity to a highly ranked prospect that’s right under their fingertips.
While with Double-A Tulsa in 2015, Jose De Leon fanned 105 batters over 76.2 innings to close out the season. He posted a 12.3 K/9 and a WHIP of 1.124. His dedication to further improve his fitness and conditioning allowed him to refine his mechanics, while increasing the spin on his slider and noticeably elevating the velocity of his fastball.
De León’s four seamer, which has nasty, late movement and sits in the 93-95 MPH range, is by far his best weapon. His slider rates a little above-average but continues to improve. His changeup is by far his best off-speed pitch — he’s not afraid to use it when behind in the count and often uses it as his strikeout pitch.
Despite being held back in extended spring training in an effort to save innings for later in the season, De León made his Triple-A debut on May 3rd against Nashville. He pitched five scoreless frames, allowing only two hits and a walk, while striking out nine batters.
#1 — Julio Urías (Oklahoma City Dodgers)
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Julio Urias could be the most logical choice of the entire group, being that he’s primed, ready to go, and vicious as ever. Also, because he’s presumably on an innings count for 2016, he could easily slip into the Dodgers’ starting rotation at the present moment, bridging the gap until Ryu, McCarthy, Bolsinger or even Anderson are healthy enough and able to contribute.
Urias, according to MLB.com, has accelerated through the minor league levels faster than any other prospect despite being just 19 years old. Last season before being promoted to Oklahoma City, he threw 68.1 innings at Double-A Tulsa and finished with a 2.77 ERA while striking out 74 batters against only 15 walks.
“He’s a down-to-earth, humble kid,” said Double-A pitching coach Matt Herges. “It’s so rare for a kid of his stature, too. I mean, the weight of the world is on him. At least the weight of his country. Really, it’s inspiring to me. He’s confident, but he’s not too confident. He knows he hasn’t earned this yet.”
What’s more, the young southpaw flirted with perfection in six very strong innings against New Orleans on Wednesday, striking out six batters and allowing no runs, hits or walks. The only blip that occurred was when the opposing first baseman reached on a fielding error by the OKC shortstop in the top of the fifth inning.
As the season progresses, the Dodgers will be expected to be very active in the trade market in some shape or form, and starting pitching could be one key area of focus. However, by simply giving chances to one or two prospects on the farm who appear to be ready, the front office could solve several potential rotation dilemmas for the future quite easily.
For the sake of the fans, hopefully president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and his copious army of managers ultimately leave no stones unturned, and reveal a brilliant strategy of leadership and control that propels the Dodgers deep into the playoffs come October.