As rumors of the various permutations of Mookie Betts trades float around the ether, it’s worth taking a closer look at the Dodgers’ rotation, mainly because of the possibility that David Price is included in what would become an even bigger blockbuster than a “simple” trade of one of the majors’ top five players. Despite losing both Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill in free agency, the Dodgers don’t lack for options to start, many of them good ones. But between inexperience and injury histories, those options also offer a great deal of uncertainty, and it’s not at all clear that the 34-year-old Price, whose performance has declined of late and who comes with his own recent spate of health woes, helps all that much.
Last year, the Dodgers had by far the NL’s best rotation in terms of ERA and FIP, though they finished behind the Nationals — whose starters ranked second in both categories — in WAR, because the Washington workhorses threw significantly more innings:
By itself, the Dodgers’ lower innings total doesn’t matter, but the loss of Ryu, whose 182.2 innings were the most by any Los Angeles starter since 2015, leaves the team with only three pitchers who threw at least 100 innings last year, namely Walker Buehler (30 starts, 182.1 innings), Clayton Kershaw (28 starts, 178.1 innings), and Kenta Maeda (26 starts, 153.2 innings), the last of whom spent all of September in the bullpen and has been mentioned in at least one version of the Betts trade.
Since Andrew Friedman took the reins as president of baseball operations following the 2014 season, the Dodgers, like most of baseball, have basically abandoned the idea of a 200-inning pitcher. While 28 starters threw at least 200 innings in 2015, just 15 did so in ’19 — the same total as in both ’16 and ’17, as it turns out, and two more than in ’18. Kershaw and Zack Greinke both blew past the 200-inning mark in 2015 (232.2 innings for the former, 222.2 for the latter) but then Greinke opted out and signed a $206.5 million deal with the Diamondbacks. Kershaw has battled injuries since that point, and he has qualified for the ERA title (162 innings) just twice in four years while never making more than 28 starts in a season. Along the way, his performance has eroded; last year’s 3.03 ERA and 3.86 FIP were both his highest marks since his 2008 rookie campaign.
All of which is to say that the 200-inning version of Kershaw, Cy Young contender or no, ain’t walking through that door to stabilize the rotation, and it seems unlikely the team would push the 25-year-old Buehler down that road either, particularly given that the idea behind lighter regular season workloads is to have fresher arms in October. Along those lines, the Dodgers haven’t even appeared particularly motivated to push their pitchers towards 162 innings; since that 2015 season, the team has had just five ERA qualifiers, tied for fourth-fewest in the majors. Of course, a cynic would note that fewer innings from starters generally translates to lesser paydays, and while that isn’t a factor for Kershaw, whose $31 million AAV ranks fifth among all pitchers, it bears noting given a team that didn’t appear to try all that hard to keep Ryu and has manipulated Maeda, who’s under a very club-friendly, incentive-based deal, more than the pitcher’s liking.
Anyway, the Dodgers do have a plethora of options for their rotation, but between their recent injury histories and the possibility of innings caps — and sometimes both — the puzzle is somewhat complicated. Here’s their current Depth Charts projection, which is based on Steamer (their ZiPS is still pending):
That rotation is good enough to rank fifth in the majors in our projections. I’ve highlighted the innings totals of Kershaw and Buehler to show that they’re too high for out-of-the-box assumptions. One-hundred-and-eighty innings apiece is probably a more realistic starting point, which either leaves another 41 innings to be redistributed or — going by last year’s rotation total — to be taken off the table along with roughly 30 more innings. Since similarly optimistic assumptions are probably baked into every team’s projection, I’m not going to worry too much about the latter. Let’s meet the contestants for the spots behind the big two, in the order that they appear above.
After losing the better part of two seasons to an anterior capsule tear, Urias spent just about all of last season with the Dodgers, pitching to a 2.49 ERA and 3.43 FIP in 79.2 innings; he made 29 relief appearances and eight starts, four of them in April while Kershaw was sidelined. Though he did serve a 20-game suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy for an incident that involved shoving a woman to the ground at a shopping mall, the Dodgers have not dimmed in their enthusiasm for the 23-year-old lefty. Since at least last August, they’ve been planning for him to be a member of their 2020 rotation. Health permitting, he’ll still be on an innings cap, so a detour to the bullpen is likely at some point.
A reliable No. 4 starter, the going-on-32-year-old Maeda has been somewhat cursed by his versatility and the structure of his contract. Guaranteed just $3 million annually, he’s had trouble maxing out a potential $10.15 million in annual bonuses because he’s ended each of the past three seasons in the bullpen, where he’s been more effective, posting a 3.19 ERA and 3.13 FIP in 42.1 regular season relief innings compared to a 3.92 ERA and 3.76 FIP in 564.2 innings as a starter. He’s been downright dominant in the postseason, posting a 1.64 ERA while allowing just 20 baserunners in 27 innings; his average four-seam fastball under those circumstances has been 1.5 mph faster than his regular season heater as a starter (93.2 mph vs. 91.7). He did make more starts (26), throw more innings (153.2), and post a higher WAR (2.5) last year than in any season since his 2016 stateside rookie campaign, capturing an extra $1.75 million for reaching the 25-start and 150-inning thresholds, but he’s made his dissatisfaction with his swingman role known to management, the response to which boiled down to “pitch better,” particularly against lefties. The possibilities of a restructured contract and a trade have been discussed; he remains a Dodger, but he’s a candidate to be included in a potential Price-related deal.
Wood pitched for the Dodgers from mid-2015 through ’18 — most notably making the All-Star team in ’17 — before being traded to the Reds in the same December 2018 deal that sent Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp to Cincinnati. Unfortunately, he strained his lower back during spring training and suffered multiple setbacks that limited him to seven starts and 35.2 innings at the major league level, during which he served up 11 homers. The Dodgers signed him to a one-year, $4 million-plus-incentives deal in January, at which time colleague Ben Clemens described him as a “human lottery ticket” because of the upside he offers — and the small likelihood that the team can capture it. At his best, Wood has excellent control and a strong groundball rate, but over his past four seasons, he’s produced two campaigns of just over 150 innings and two of less than 65. Nobody knows what the Dodgers are going to get from him.
Ranked No. 7 on THE BOARD by the end of last season, and likely to be in the same vicinity when our Top 100 Prospects list is unveiled next week, the skinny 6-foot-6 righty with the orange moptop — “Gingergaard” — is hard to miss, and harder to hit, thanks to his mid-90s fastball/cutter/curve combo. After making a combined 20 starts between Double-A and Triple-A, May got his feet wet with the Dodgers late last year, making four starts in August before transitioning to the bullpen in anticipation of his postseason role; he finished with a 3.63 ERA, 2.90 FIP, and an eye-opening 19.1 K-BB% in 34.2 innings. May totaled 141.1 innings last year, which gives him a solid platform as far as a workload increase is concerned. That said, the Dodgers are certain to be cautious when it comes to overtaxing a 22-year-old; aside from Kershaw, the last Dodger 22 or younger to throw at least 100 innings in a season was Chad Billingsley in 2007.
A groundballer with excellent control as well as the ability to miss bats, Stripling has shuttled between rotation and bullpen to an even greater degree than Maeda, averaging 13 starts per year since 2016; he made 15 starts in 2019 along with 17 relief appearances while throwing 90.2 innings. He’s flashed brilliance in the larger role, memorably throwing seven no-hit innings in his April 8, 2016 debut and earning a spot on the NL All-Star team in ’18 via a 2.08 first-half ERA (accompanied by a 2.73 FIP), but he was dreadful in the second half amid toe and lower back woes, and because he’s never thrown more than 122 innings in a season, his durability is a question mark. Overall, his splits are similar to those of his Japanese teammate (3.71 ERA and 3.72 FIP in 257 innings as a starter, 3.12 ERA and 3.36 FIP in 130 innings as a reliever). The 30-year-old righty is inexpensive and under club control, making $2.1 million in his first year of arbitration eligibility, so he’s a plausible candidate to be part of the return for Price.
On September 8, 2017, Nelson was nearing the end of a breakout season (3.49 ERA, 3.08 FIP, 4.8 WAR) when he blew up his right shoulder on a slide back into first base. He tore his rotator cuff, labrum, and anterior capsule — the deluxe combo platter of shoulder misery — and didn’t pitch at all in 2018. He finally returned to the majors in June of last year, but he was quickly sidelined by elbow effusion, didn’t return to the Brewers again until September, and totaled just 22 innings in seven relief appearances and three starts. The Brewers nontendered him, and the Dodgers signed the now-30-year-old righty for a guarantee of $1.25 million, with incentives, and a mutual option for 2021 whose value escalates depending on how much he pitches this year; all told, it maximizes at two years and $13 million. As Rian Watt suggested, he may make more sense in the bullpen, with a shorter repertoire and the hope that he can fulfill a Brandon Morrow-like role, though his stuff isn’t quite as strong as Morrow’s.
A converted outfielder bearing a striking resemblance to Frank Zappa rated among the Dodgers’ most surprising contributors in 2019. Gonsolin, a ninth-round 2016 pick out of St. Mary’s College, debuted with a spot-start on June 26 and spent much of August and all of September with the big club, totaling 40 innings of 2.93 ERA/3.86 FIP work via six starts and five relief appearances. He’s been able to dial up his fastball as high as 100 mph in the minors but averaged 93.6 mph with the Dodgers. Also in his four-pitch mix is a steep 12-6 curveball and a splitter that functions as a changeup (our prospect team called it a “split action changeup” while adding that it was one of the best changeups in the minors). Whether out of the rotation or the bullpen, his stuff will play, though with just 81 total innings last year, significant time in relief seems likely.
In all, it’s an intriguing mix of candidates, most of whom have notable upsides but also restrictions on their maximum contributions. With the exception of Maeda, none of them seems like a strong bet to throw, say, 162 innings without generating concerns. Price, who’s still owed $96 million over the next three seasons, would brings concerns of his own, as the former Cy Young winner is coming off his second significantly injury-shortened season out of four with the Red Sox, and has averaged just 119 innings and 2.1 WAR over the past three seasons.
In 2019, Price pitched to a 4.28 ERA (his highest since 2009) and a 3.62 FIP in 22 starts covering just 107.1 innings — fewer than five per turn. He generally pitched very well through the first half (3.24 ERA, 2.85 FIP) but made just six starts totaling 24 innings in the second half, with a 7.88 ERA and a 6.30 FIP. In May, he missed 17 days due to a bout of tendinitis in his left elbow, but a triangular fibrocartilage complex cyst in his left wrist hampered him throughout the season. He finally underwent surgery to remove it in late September and is presumably good to go for spring training.
Dialing down Kershaw and Buehler’s innings totals and swapping out Maeda for Price (whose innings I’m also dialing down, from the 164 in the Depth charts to the aforementioned three-year average) yields this:
That’s about a one-win drop, all attributable to scaling the frontline pair’s innings. If Price is indeed capable of 164 innings, with, say, 20 apiece lopped off of the totals of Woods and Stripling, that’s only a net gain of about 0.1 WAR. If he reaches 164 innings while pitching to last year’s FIP, it’s about a full win difference.
Of course, variance, and the potential for the Dodgers to play the hot (and healthy) hands among this group, trumps everything here. Aside from very small sample sizes, neither Wood nor Urias, for example, have ever posted FIPs nearly as high as their projections, and if they were to pitch significantly worse than that, their footprints might be considerably reduced, the innings absorbed by Stripling or Gonsolin or whomever.
Thus, it’s fair to say that while Price offers more name recognition, he doesn’t appreciably improve the Dodgers’ rotation given his own limitations and his considerable cost. Some of the money would presumably be absorbed by the Red Sox while unlocking a much greater upgrade in right field (Betts’ 6.6 WAR as compared to the Alex Verdugo-led 3.1 WAR of the incumbents) that boosts the team’s chances of winning the World Series in 2020, before Betts hits free agency. In that regard, such a deal might be worth it, but for as much as it might feel as though the Dodgers need Price, it’s not at all clear that they do.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.