As we are all aware, starting rotations at the Triple-A level are very difficult to predict in the middle of the winter. Even though the big league starting five of the Dodgers is theoretically about 80% set, injuries, trades and free agent signings can impact all levels of the farm at any moment. Minor league rosters are often decided in the final hours leading to MLB’s Opening Day, but that doesn’t prevent us from speculating on how things might look at Oklahoma City right now.
Several of the more notable stories of major league spring training could surround the progress of a trio of right-handers—Ross Stripling, Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May. Both front-office boss Andrew Friedman and skipper Dave Roberts have said that Stripling will be strongly considered for a big league starting role, conceivably pushing Gonsolin and May into either the Los Angeles bullpen or a spot in OKC’s starting rotation.
As I opined previously, my best guess is that Stripling is used as a reliever to begin the season after May is named to the major league rotation. Of course, it’s tough to say exactly how things play out during 2020 Cactus League play, but I feel that May has the best overall package of talent. Some pundits have suggested that May begin the season at OKC in an effort to conserve innings, but I personally do not see a difference between minor league and major league innings on the wear and tear of a 22 year old’s arm. If May needs rest during the regular season to ensure there’s gas in the tank for the playoffs, Friedman is certainly masterful at utilizing the injured list.
That being said, I have Gonsolin as my Opening Day starter at OKC. The 25-year-old righty can be equally effective in relief, so between him and lefty Caleb Ferguson, both arms give the Dodgers some strong fringe depth as far as bullpen options go. Either way, Gonsolin may conceivably be the first pitcher recalled during the 2020 campaign. After a suffering a few injuries in 2019—specifically a hamstring strain that kept him out more than a month to begin the season—he logged just 81-1/3 frames between the majors and minors. His career-high in innings was an even 128 between High-A Rancho and Double-A Tulsa back in 2018.
Freshly appointed to the club’s 40-man roster, 25-year-old righty Mitchell White gets the No. 2 starting slot. The 2018 and 2019 seasons saw White fall off the map in terms of the organization’s Top 5 prospects. A broken toe on his left foot, a back ailment and several other minor injuries took their toll on him in 2018, as he he finished the season with a 6-7 record and a 4.53 ERA alongside a 1.41 WHIP over 22 starts—all of which he made at Tulsa. Between Tulsa and Triple-A Oklahoma City in 2019, he went 4-6 with a 5.09 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP over 23 appearances and 92-2/3 innings. He still struck out 105 batters, which could be one of the factors that led the Dodgers to add him to the 40-man.
In the No. 3 slot is 23-year-old right-hander Dennis Santana, who, like White, was once very high atop the system’s prospect list. Featuring a fastball that can hit near triple digits, a splitter, and one of the deadliest sliders on the farm, Santana’s repertoire is quite wicked. His climb was quick to the majors as he made his MLB debut in 2018, but he just hasn’t been the same since a rotator cuff injury put him on the shelf for several months. Last year, he made 27 appearances and produced a whopping 6.94 ERA over 93-1/3 innings at OKC. The team even moved him to the bullpen for the final month of the season in hopes of recapturing his mojo. Either way, Santana’s effectiveness in 2020—specifically his command—should be a key indicator on what the organization has in him.
Left-hander Victor Gonzalez, also newly placed on the organization’s 40-man roster, gets the No. 4 starting spot at OKC. Like Gonsolin and Santana, Gonzalez can be equally as effective in relief, giving the Dodgers even more big league bullpen options. In 2019, Gonzalez traversed three levels of the Los Angeles farm, producing a combined 5-2 record with a 2.31 ERA and 93 punchouts in 89-2/3 innings over 38 appearances, 13 of which were starts. His strongest pitches are his four-seam, slider and change, with his heater often touching speeds of 96 MPH.
In the final spot is 32-year-old righty Justin De Fratus. The native of Oxnard, CA made his MLB debut for the Phillies as a relief pitcher back in 2011, but has not seen any major league action since 2015. Over those five big league seasons with the Phillies, he made 191 appearances—all in relief—producing a 4.08 ERA and a 3.83 FIP alongside 170 strikeouts over an even 194 innings. His best year in the majors came in 2014, when he appeared in 54 games, posting a 2.39 ERA and a 1.082 WHIP with 49 strikeouts over 52-2/3 innings. After spending subsequent time in the Rangers, Nationals, Padres and Mariners farm systems, the Dodgers signed De Fratus to minor league deals at the beginning of the 2018 and 2019 seasons, utilizing him primarily as a starting pitcher.
All that said, the right-handed dominant rotation shapes up like this:
- Tony Gonsolin
- Mitchell White
- Dennis Santana
- Victor Gonzalez (L)
- Justin De Fratus
There’s probably a good chance the Dodgers sign another veteran starter or two to provide major league depth at the fringe, possibly pushing one of the aforementioned arms into an exclusive relief role. Furthermore, Ferguson may begin the season around the Triple-A scene, providing both OKC and the parent squad an extremely versatile swing man. Management has hinted that Ferguson may continue to be groomed strictly as a reliever, but that could depend on the organization’s need in the majors. Consequently, righty Josh Sborz probably fits into the same boat.
Several other starting pitchers who could make impacts at the Triple-A level at some point during the 2020 season are 22-year-old right-hander Josiah Gray, 22-year-old southpaw Leo Crawford and 21-year-old righty Edwin Uceta.
Last September, the Dodgers named Gray the 2019 Branch Rickey Minor League Pitcher of the Year.