Who is Dodgers’ Next Best Starting Pitching Option?

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(Photo Credit: mlb.com)

While starting pitcher Kenta Maeda was lying on the ground grimacing in pain after being hit by a line drive in Tuesday night’s game against the Diamondbacks, the initial thought that registered in the minds of many Dodgers‘ fans was the concern for the Japanese right-hander’s general well being.

However, after letting the situation digest and seeing that he needed assistance to leave the field, those same fans wondered who would be the next best starting pitcher to fill a rotation slot should Maeda need an extended period of time to heal.

It’s probably entirely too early to determine the severity of the contusion, yet expressed opinions from general manager Farhan Zaidi to Maeda himself to manager Dave Roberts varied from different degrees of certainty.

Regardless, if Maeda does indeed need to miss a rotation turn, the Dodgers have several options in the system they could turn to as alternatives, even with Mike Bolsinger and Julio Urias already firmly entrenched within the 25-man roster.

First, it’s probably best to narrow down the field by noting the pitchers who are on the Oklahoma City disabled list. Ross Stripling and swingman Ian Thomas are both on the 40-man roster but are still listed as injured, as is veteran righty Sam Lecure, who doesn’t have a roster spot. Brandon Beachy is not on the radar in any capacity.

Jose De Leon, who isn’t yet on the 40-man, seems to be throwing with authority after returning from shoulder soreness, but probably is about a week or two away from being stretched out properly to go six or seven innings comfortably. The same could be said for flamethrower Frankie Montas, who was stretched out to a max of four innings last Thursday against Nashville.

In all likelihood, it’s unfair and completely too early to throw any of the Double-A Tulsa big four — Brock Stewart, Trevor Oaks, Chase De Jong or Scott Barlow — into the fire without having faced a steady diet of formidable Triple-A level hitters. Stewart, who was promoted to Oklahoma City last weekend and made his Pacific Coast League debut on Monday, still needs to prove to management that his offspeed arsenal is good enough to be effective at the big league level.

With Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-jin Ryu still in the early part of rehab, and barring any kind of trade or a free agent signing off the street, the Dodgers are left with four viable options for a spot start — right-handers Nick Tepesch, Carlos Frias, Zach Lee and Jharel Cotton.

Before being acquired by the Dodgers earlier this month, Tepesch had a 4.11 ERA in 11 starts for Triple-A Round Rock, with 31 strikeouts and 11 walks in over 65 innings of work. He averaged 6-1/3 innings per start in his last eight outings, including four times pitching seven frames.

The 27-year-old pitched in 42 games, including 39 starts for the Rangers in 2013-2014, putting up a 4.56 ERA with 132 strikeouts and 71 walks in 219 innings. He was drafted by the Rangers in the 14th round of the 2010 draft.

Frias has made three starts for OKC after returning from an oblique injury sufered early in the season, with his last two appearances coming in piggy-back long relief for the recovering Dé Leon. In 31 innings of work post-injury, he has a 4.60 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP with 25 strikeout against nine walks.

The knock on Frias is that the separation of speeds between his hard stuff and his breaking pitches is so small, that it allows opposing batters to make better reads. Last year, for example, both his fastball and sinker averaged in the 97-98 mph range, while his changeup averaged 91.8 mph. Until Frias can develop and command a more effective arsenal of breaking pitches, he may be better suited for the bullpen.

The improvement ramp has pretty much flattened out for Lee. In 12 starts this season, the 24-year-old has thrown 66 innings to a tune of a 5.13 ERA and a 1.55 WHIP with a .321 opposition batting average.

In his latest outing against Nashville last Friday, Lee went 4-2/3 innings, surrendering 10 hits and six earned runs, two of which came via the long ball.

Perhaps the best option is the 24-year-old Cotton, who slots into the exact same rotation day as Maeda. Last night against Omaha, Cotton threw seven strong innings, giving up only three hits and one earned run while striking out seven and walking two.

Known best for perhaps the most outstanding changeup in the Dodgers’ entire system, Cotton was rotated around as a reliever earlier in the season, but has now landed back as a formidable member of the OKC starting rotation. He now has 70 strikouts in only 57-2/3 innings pitched so far in 2016, plus he’s already a member of the 40-man roster.

In the end, the best scenario would encompass Maeda not missing any time at all, while having the ability to throw effectively without any discomfort. If the Dodgers absolutely need to find a viable substitute, the main hope is that he’ll be able to eat some quality innings, whoever the option may be.

 

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