Although starting pitching isn’t the main part of the problem for the 2018 Dodgers, it is one of those areas which could have a significant impact on the success of the club for the remainder of the season. Lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, who was one of the squad’s strongest starters before his groin problem, is out until at least July. Clayton Kershaw still has no timetable set for a potential return. And when considering the injury history of veteran Rich Hill, many fans have been scanning the box scores of Triple-A Oklahoma City every morning just to see what kind of talent’s available on the farm—just in case.
If you weren’t already aware, Walker Buehler has cemented himself into the big league starting rotation and he isn’t going anywhere any time soon, at least until the management crew decides on a firm innings limit and when it will take effect. In contrast, nobody seems to be sure about the future of Brock Stewart, who at one moment appears to be a viable big league starting pitching option, despite not having started a game during a handful of early season call-ups. Both of these players were intended to be used as fringe depth during the spring months; however, the unwelcome epidemic of injuries has forced the club’s hand to utilize both of them early.
There’s plenty of talent on the farm in regards to starting pitching, but many of the future stars are at the Double-A level are below, as it may be a few more years before some of these players emerge as bonafide MLB talent. As far as the starters at Triple-A go, 34-year-old journeyman Guillermo Moscoso has moved into the rotation at OKC after beginning the year as a swing man. 30-year-old Justin De Fratus is another veteran option. The righty began the season at Tulsa and after being promoted to OKC in mid-April, making his first 2018 Triple-A start against Round Rock a month ago. 27-year-old southpaw Tyler Pill and 26-year-old righty Alec Asher are the other memebers of the OKC rotation. None of these pitchers are on the organization’s 40-man roster.
But perhaps one of the current gems of the farm is 27-year-old lefty Manny Banuelos. Signed over the winter mainly for the purposes of organizational bullpen depth, he has already slotted into the OKC starting rotation and has risen to the top. Nevertheless, just at the moment he was beginning to force the hand of management to consider promoting him to the bigs, he had a rocky outing against Memphis on Wednesday night, surrendering five earned runs on eight hits over five innings. Still, the early 2018 returns on Banuelos have been outstanding. Prior to Wednesday’s contest, he sported a 4-0 record and a 1.80 ERA through six starts. His 38 punchouts over 35 innings of work prove that he’s missing bats, suggesting potential success at the next level.
Regarding his history, the native of Mexico was once one of the top dogs in the Yankees farm system, having been signed out of Mexico more than ten years ago. In his first three years on the New York farm, his ERA never rose above 2.80. He pitched in the Futures Game in 2009, and he started the Arizona Fall League All-Star game in 2010.
Banuelos then had Tommy John surgery after the 2012 season. He eventually returned and didn’t pitch well with the Yankees, who traded him to the Atlanta Braves the following winter. Banuelos felt some elbow discomfort at the start of that season and just tried to pitch through it. Ultimately, he required surgery to remove bone spurs. in 2016, he came back too early and continued to struggle, and he was placed on waivers. The Angels then claimed him that summer. He spent most of last year with the Salt Lake Bees, the Angels Triple-A affiliate, before electing free agency last November.
Once having the ability to sit in the upper-90s, the four-seam was always his best weapon during his pre-surgery years. However, he now depends more on his breaking pitch arsenal for his “out” pitches while his heater has settled back into the 92-94 MPH range.
Tony Sanchez, the catcher for Salt Lake in 2016 who played against Banuelos in Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A, perhaps describes Banuelos’ repertoire best:
“Pre-surgery, he lived up to the hype,” Sanchez said late last spring. “He was a lefty with 92 to 95 on his fastball. He had a curveball with some good depth that he could throw for strikes, but his change-up was his out pitch. It was wicked. It was like a Bugs Bunny change-up—you just pulled the string. It had like a 10, 12 mile per hour difference from his fastball. I faced him. It had to be at least eight to 10 times. I don’t remember getting a hit off of him. He was nasty. He still is nasty.”
Directly, Banuelos just may be the next man up in between the time it takes Kershaw or Ryu to return to the bump. And although it remains to be seen whether or not he can return to the form from his early years, he’s probably the very best option the Dodgers have at the present moment, should the Dodgers have the need to dip into the farm system yet again.
And from the looks of things right now, they almost certainly will.