Anecdotally speaking, Clayton Kershaw makes any rotation look good. Empirically speaking, that also appears to be the case. Consider: according to the depth-chart projections at this site, the Dodgers currently possess the best rotation in major-league baseball. The San Diego Padres, meanwhile, have the worst. If one were to move Kershaw from LA to San Diego, the Dodgers would rank only 15th in the majors; the Padres would improve to sixth-best overall.
With Kershaw, the Dodgers have gotten a massive head start when it comes to outpacing the rest of MLB rotations. Despite contending with frequent injury problems over the last five season, the Dodgers have spent their way to one of the top-five rotations in baseball thanks to Clayton Kershaw plus a near-endless supply of arms. This season is unlikely to be any different.
Back in 2014, the Dodgers had a mostly healthy rotation, with Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dan Haren, and Josh Beckett all recording at least 20 starts. The first four members of that group took the mound in 117 of the team’s games that season. Beckett added another 20, while seven other pitchers split the remaining 25 starts. That offseason, however, Beckett retired. The Dodgers paid Dan Haren to pitch for Miami, trading both him and Dee Gordon to the Marlins in a deal that ultimately netted them Howie Kendrick. To replace those two spots, the team signed Brandon McCarthy to a four-year deal and took a $10 million flyer on Brett Anderson. McCarthy and Ryu got hurt, Anderson pitched quite well, and the team ended up using 16 starters — or, essentially 13 different pitchers to fill out the final two rotation spots.
The chart below illustrates how many starters each major-league team used in 2015.
Led by Kershaw and Greinke, the 17.7 WAR produced by the Dodgers rotation represented the third-highest mark in the majors — this, despite the club having been compelled to use more starters than any other team in the league. Including the $40 million the team spent to acquire Alex Wood — including the signing bonus of Hector Olivera and the money added by Mike Morse and Bronson Arroyo — as well as the 15 cents for every dollar that went to the luxury tax, the Dodgers spent roughly $150 million to record those 17.7 wins, a pretty inefficient $8.8 million per WAR.
The Dodgers took the same route last year, as well. With McCarthy and Ryu still on the books, but Greinke gone, the team went out and signed Scott Kazmir and Kenta Maeda, while also retaining Anderson via the qualifying offer. That plan worked about as well as the year before, with Maeda pitching well, McCarthy, Ryu, and Anderson mostly injured and Scott Kazmir pitching neither particularly well or often. The Dodgers again finished near the top of MLB in number of starters.
Again, most of the teams close to the Dodgers were bad. Again, the team was pretty inefficient when it comes to the money aspect. And again, the Dodger starters were quite good, a 16.4 WAR landing them fourth in baseball. The team ended up trading for Bud Norris and Rich Hill in order to get through the season. Including the roughly 13 cents per dollar that went toward the luxury tax, as well as the $20 million posting fee for Maeda, the Dodgers spent around $132 million for that pitching staff. That comes to $8 million per WAR, meaning that, again, the Dodgers essentially paid free-agent prices for their entire staff.
Those efficiency calculations get even wilder when you exclude Clayton Kershaw. He’s been responsible for 15.1 of the 34.1 WAR the Dodgers rotation has produced over the last two seasons, and even though the team is paying him in excess of $30 million per year, that only comes out to around $5 million per WAR. To surround Kershaw with a decent enough staff to rate as one of the top rotations in baseball, the Dodgers have spent more than $200 million for the remaining 19 wins, or around $11 million per WAR over the last two years.
Over the last two seasons, Clayton Kershaw leads the Dodgers in starts, but Brett Anderson — the same Brett Anderson who just signed with Chicago for $3.5 million guaranteed — is second on the Dodgers in starts. Zack Greinke, who didn’t make a start for the Dodgers last season, is tied for third with his replacement, Kenta Maeda. Mike Bolsinger, now with the Blue Jays, is fifth, followed by Scott Kazmir and Alex Wood, neither of whom has topped the 140-inning mark. And now the club has conceded some of its depth, trading away right-handed prospect Jose De Leon.
If you’re wondering if the team is going to attempt the same strategy again, the answer yes. Per Bill Shaikin:
The Dodgers project Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda and Urias as their top four starters, with Scott Kazmir, Alex Wood, Brandon McCarthy, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Ross Stripling, Carlos Frias and [Brock] Stewart also available.
Right now, that group is projected for more than 21 WAR, tops in baseball, but you might note that there’s considerable risk present here. Hill is 37 years old and his 110.1 innings from last season represent the most he’s recorded in a decade. Maeda signed an unusual incentive-based contract due to injury concerns of his own despite a promising first season. Urias is just 20 years old, even if he does raise the team’s ceiling by a good amount. The rest haven’t proven they can stay healthy or effective for any length of time, but it hardly matters if Kershaw is Kershaw.
If Kershaw hits his 7.7 WAR in 218 innings, the rest of the team only needs to meet half of their relatively modest projections for the Dodgers, once again, to have a top-five rotation. This rotation is going to be slightly cheaper and slightly more cost efficient, closer to $110 million in salaries including Maeda’s incentives and some luxury tax money. With Kershaw at the front, though, the team can slap together average pieces and be in good shape. Even with Kershaw’s abbreviated season, he still topped the majors in WAR. If the Dodgers suffer the same types of troubles they have had the past few seasons — and their risk-filled rotation suggests they will — they can still go outside the organization if need be. As long as Kershaw is around, this rotation will be fantastic. If he’s not around, the team will need some injury luck on the pitching staff or the team’s position players to play as expected. The Dodgers are going to be fine, probably a lot better than fine. If you had to choose between Kershaw or money, you’d probably choose Kershaw. The Dodgers already have both.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.