While some fans of the Dodgers will need a bit more time to recover from the nightmare Game 5 of the 2019 NLDS, other fans are already looking toward next season, at least in terms of gauging how the bulk of the player roster could look.
In Friday’s column, we noted the desire of veteran lefty Rich Hill to return to Los Angeles in 2020, which spurred a discussion as to where he could conceivably fit into the team’s 25-man roster. Today, I thought it would be a good idea to throw around a few ideas about the prospective starting rotation.
Before we outline any type of hierarchy, it’s probably best to list the players first. I’m counting seven pitchers who could theoretically fit into the 2020 Opening Day rotation, and none of them include the name Hill. The list is as follows (by age):
- Clayton Kershaw (31)
- Kenta Maeda (31)
- Ross Stripling (29)
- Tony Gonsolin (25)
- Walker Buehler (25)
- Julio Urias (23)
- Dustin May (22)
Of these seven pitchers, it’s probably safe to say that Ross Stripling begins the year in the big league bullpen, and that one of the remaining six—who presumably has options—starts the year at Triple-A Oklahoma City, barring any kind of injuries.
It might also be worth mentioning that players like Dennis Santana, Caleb Ferguson, Josh Sborz and Jordan Sheffield will be lurking on the minor league fringes. All of these players have been floated back and forth between starting and relief duties during their young careers, and it should be interesting to see which course they’re on to begin their 2020 campaigns.
Obviously, my final spot came down to a choice between May and Tony Gonsolin. My gut says it will be a tight competition and a difficult choice to make, as the final selection could probably go either way. Along those lines, next season may be a year when we see options utilized, especially during the middle and latter parts of the season. Either way, both pitchers should see their fare share of major league starts.
It goes without saying that Buehler has taken over the reigns as the team’s ace. I can’t see anybody making an argument otherwise. One thing I personally plan on watching closely next season, though, is his command. Interestingly, through his first 15 regular season starts last season, he issued just 13 walks. In his final 15 starts he allowed 24 walks. Most times, Buehler seems to be pinpoint accurate with his location, but there are the occasions when he misses badly in critical situations. If his command improves as he matures, there’s no doubt he has the raw tools to become one of the best in the bigs.
Undoubtedly, we will be talking about Kershaw plenty this winter. The thing a lot of people are saying is that he still has the makeup to be a decent No. 3 starting pitcher. The problem with that theory, however, is that the Dodgers don’t necessarily have an ideal arm to slide into the No. 2 slot. Regardless, knowing the work ethic of Kershaw, he’ll be developing several things this offseason to improve his game, like taking control of the corners and fringes instead of trying to overpower batters with his heat.
Maeda is another one of those guys who is seemingly more effective throwing in relief, but he’ll likely open the season in the starting rotation. He might stay in the rotation until both May and Gonsolin prove their worthiness, or until somebody like Mitchell White shows he’s ready for the majors. Some feel the Dodgers keep Kenta as a starter because of the way his contract is structured, but the truth is that they could be waiting for a few of the youngsters to emerge before regulating Maeda to the bullpen. Either way, there’s no question his slider is more devastating and his fastball much more powerful in relief.
Like Buehler, Urias definitely has the tools to be among the best pitchers in the game. Also like Buehler, one thing to keep an eye on with Urias is his command. Throwing out of the bullpen last year, Urias walked 27 batters in 79-2/3 innings, which translates to a 3.1 BB/9, just a hair under his career 3.5 BB/9. As a team, the Dodgers walked 2.4 batters per nine last year, so this is something that Mark Prior and his staff might decide to address. Another thing to watch with Urias is a potential innings limit. Buehler threw just over 182 last year, and it should be interesting to see how they handle Urias. If he’s used strictly as a starter, I think a good estimate might be in the 130-140 range, which would still keep him on pace for more than 20 starts.
Speaking of ceilings, May could actually have the highest of all the names listed here. The Dodgers like him most for his spin rate, and the fact that he can crank up his velocity near triple digits doesn’t hurt his cause. Last year, coaches had May switch from a four-seam fastball to a two-seamer, which improved his velocity about three ticks while also helping his groundball ratio. After he threw a curveball and slider that tended to blend together, the Dodgers had him concentrate on the curve a lot more, which has become a valid weapon for the youngster. He added a cutter in 2018 that may ultimately become his chief “out” pitch.
Finally, it should be very intriguing to learn how the Dodgers decide to pursue lefty starter Hyun-Jin Ryu. Being that the team could use an effective No. 2, Ryu could slot into the rotation nicely, despite his injury pedigree lurking in the back of everyone’s minds. Ryu has shown a strong preference to remain in Los Angeles, but there’s no question agent Scott Boras will be shooting for the stars regarding a contract. A generous guess for a prospective deal is three years at about $51 million, but that’s a number that Andrew Friedman could balk on—believe it or not—specifically when looking at the amount of young talent already in the organization.
In the meantime, 29-year-old righty starter Gerrit Cole will probably be demanding a contract exceeding five years and $140 million.