Last Tuesday, a brief scare occurred when starting pitcher Kenta Maeda took a line drive off his shin that left many pundits guessing who would fill the Japanese right-hander’s rotation turn should he miss a start.
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.
When the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 25-man roster became official on Sunday morning, everybody connected to different levels of the farm system began scrambling to assemble the building blocks to each of their respective squads.
With the big league starting rotation finally set, scouting directors, managers and coaches at Oklahoma City are sifting through all the remaining uninjured players, and will indeed announce their own 25-man roster, including a starting pitching rotation, sometime before Opening Day on April 7.
During the final days leading up to the beginning of the 2016 Cactus League season, very few questions remained regarding how exactly the Dodgers’ 25-man roster would be constructed to start the regular season. Today, however, with each passing hour, some of the best Dodger bloggers in the business are finding it difficult to keep up with every single developing story that affects the team’s prospective roster.
Once considered the crown jewel of the Los Angeles Dodgers farm system, former first-round draft pick Zach Lee continues to tumble in the team’s prospect rankings despite relatively consistent numbers.
Chosen by the Dodgers with the 28th overall pick in the 2010 MLB Draft, Lee had previously committed to play quarterback for the LSU Tigers, but ex-Assistant GM Logan White swooped in with a signing bonus offer of $5.25 million, which eventually persuaded Lee to stick with baseball.
After a solid age-19 season with the Great Lakes Loons in 2011, Lee was unanimously ranked #1 among all Dodgers’ prospects in 2012, and many scouts viewed him to have the potential to be at least a #2 starter in the bigs.
He began 2012 with High-A Rancho Cucamonga, and continuing to climb the organizational ladder, progressed quickly to Double-A Chattanooga. In 2013, Lee secured a spot in the Southern League All-Star game and compiled a 10-10 record with a 3.22 ERA in 28 appearances. He struck out 131 batters over 142 innings that season, sporting a 8.3 K/9.
Preliminary rankings for 2016 have him placed in the #13 – #15 range within the Dodgers’ organization.
After beginning his career with a ceiling of a possible #2 starter, many scouts now view him as a potential #4 or #5 at best.
All that being said, does Zach Lee have any value to a team like the Los Angeles Dodgers and their immediate needs?
His command is still sharp, which was made evident by his 1.5 BB/9 last season. His sinker is consistently solid, resulting in a 50% ground ball rate. His slider is still developing, which will eventually compliment his four-seamer, changeup and above-mentioned sinker. He still shows plenty of velocity with the heater, so there is some upside.
It’s tough to speculate how he fits in with the Dodgers. Heading into 2016, the rotation at Triple-A OKC is extremely crowded, and it may be possible that he’s packaged in some type of potential trade scenario. Regardless, he is one of three pitchers in the minors that is considered MLB-ready, and may get a call-up at some point depending on how much starting pitching depth the Dodgers stash via trade or free agency.
With all the the new talent emerging, perhaps the Dodgers’ best bet is to find a deal for Lee with another squad who would appreciate the ceiling of a #4 or #5-type starter, especially before his value slips any further.
After all, at one point he was completely untouchable.
Truth be told, after a brief analysis of available starting pitchers on the farm, nine different hurlers have a legitimate shot at vying for a rotation spot in OKC. Let’s take a look at all nine pitchers, listing their ages come Opening Day, number of option years remaining, and where they may begin their respective 2016 campaigns.
Mike Bolsinger – 28 years, one option remaining
Carlos Frias – 26 years, one option remaining
Joe Wieland – 26 years, one option remaining
Zach Lee – 24 years, two options remaining
Ross Stripling – 26 years, all three options remaining
Jharel Cotton – 24 years, all three options remaining
Frankie Montas – 23 years, all three options remaining
José De León – 23 years, all three options remaining
Julio Urias – 19 years, all three options remaining
Needless to say, that’s a very crowded yet talented list. Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi may decide to simplify things by moving a few to the bullpen, or more likely, use several as trade pieces in a package for a much needed impact starter at the big league level.
Carlos Frias may command a spot on the 25-man roster, perhaps filling the role that Juan Nicasio held last season as long man or spot starter. Frias made 17 appearances including 13 starts for the Dodgers last season, hurling 77.2 innings to a tune of a 4.06 ERA.
Both Mike Bolsinger and Joe Wieland are also considered MLB-ready, and barring any trade or the need to begin the season in the Dodgers rotation, will certainly fill starting roles for OKC.
After a hot start, Bolsinger ended up contributing 109 innings over 21 starts in the bigs, compiling a 6-6 record with a 3.63 ERA and a 8.1 K/9.
Wieland made two unsuccessful starts for the Dodgers in 2015, but put up relatively consistent numbers for OKC. He threw 113 innings over 21 starts and posted a 4.59 ERA.
Former first-round draft pick Zach Lee had a nightmare of a debut for the Dodgers, but put up solid numbers in Triple-A. Lee hurled 113 innings over 19 starts sporting a 2.70 ERA. He also likely fills a starting slot for Oklahoma City.
Having had Tommy John surgery and sitting out all of 2014, Ross Stripling returned and pitched 67 innings over 13 starts for the Tulsa Drillers last season. He was added to the 40-man in November to protect him from Rule 5 status. Stripling isn’t overpowering, but features a nasty arsenal of breaking pitches much like Bolsinger. Stripling has never thrown at the Triple-A level, and may begin the year at Tulsa just to make room for others at OKC.
Although two completely different pitchers, Jharel Cotton and Frankie Montas find themselves in similar situations. Cotton had been a starter, and was given an opportunity to relieve late last season, while Montas has proven himself as a reliever but projects as a hard-throwing starter.
Cotton, who probably has the best changeup in the Dodgers system, projects better as a starter due to the lack of velocity on his fastball (90-91 MPH). His breaking pitches are his best weapons, leading him to a 10.7 K/9 in almost 100 innings of work last year.
Whether an honest evaluation, or an attempt to make him look attractive to other teams as a trade piece, Andrew Friedman continues to hype the talent of Montas. Friedman believes that his fastball-slider combo is among the best in the minors and often touts his triple-digit fastball. If able to maintain his command as a starter, there’s no doubt Montas will climb to the top of the Triple-A rotation quickly.
Perhaps the two most talented starters among the entire group are José De León and Julio Urias. Although both have ascended through the Dodgers’ system rapidly, neither is on the 40-man roster.
In terms of control, fastball velocity, mental maturity and overall talent, De León is fully developed physically and ready to go. If there’s still a crowded house come Opening Day, he may begin the season at Tulsa, but should make the jump to Triple-A quickly and be ready for a fall call-up when rosters expand in September.
Urias, the prized-possession of the farm, most likely needs one additional season on an innings count due to the fact that he’s still developing physically. He may be promoted to the 40-man at some point depending on the movement of other players, but like De León, should get a taste come September.
Based on no players being moved, and no service needed at the MLB level (assuming the Dodgers sign somebody like Kenta Maeda and one other free agent pitcher), we see things shaping up like this:
OKC starting rotation: Bolsinger, Urias, Lee, Montas and Wieland; with Cotton as long man and spot starter
De León and Stripling beginning the year at Double-A Tulsa but rising quickly
Frias beginning the season as long man in the bigs
Of course, all this could change with an injury or any type of trade. Although the logjam could create some minor headaches for the managers and directors on the farm, it’s certainly a good problem to have — especially when the big league squad needs all the help it can get.