Friedman’s Gamble with the Dodgers Pitching Staff

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When news came out in February that James Shields was pursuing a contract with the Dodgers, the LA fan base went rhapsodic with anticipation. By adding Shields to a rotation featuring Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Hyun-jin Ryu, the Dodgers would then have a lineup that could go toe-to-toe with the Washington Nationals as the best in baseball. Another proven starter would also take more pressure off the suspect bullpen. Shields even played with the Rays when Andrew Friedman was there. It sounded like a done deal!

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Obviously that done deal didn’t happen and Friedman chose a different direction for the Boys in Blue, namely signing Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson as the 4th and 5th starters for less in the long term than what the Padres paid for Shields ($58M against $75M). At the time of the signings, many people (not all) gave Friedman the benefit of the doubt. He had proven his worth at spotting value in players before, maybe the trend would continue in LA.

As we approach the final week of spring training, the injuries are starting to pile up, the war drums are thumping slowly, and the natives are getting restless. The other morning, I heard Jeanne Zelasko on Beast 980 arguing this very point, that  Friedman and Farhan Zaidi have put too many eggs in this low cost-high upside pitching scheme basket. McCarthy and Anderson have struggled during spring training and now injuries to other key components of the lineup are beginning to mount. Brandon League is out for eight weeks  and Ryu will start the season on the DL right next to preferred closer Kenley Jansen.

As of today, with Ryu out and everyone else shifting up, the Dodgers are looking for another 5th starter (some might argue they’re still looking for starters three and four as well). Left hander David Huff could be the lead candidate for that 5th spot, getting the swingman role according to Ken Gurnick. Huff has looked good in Arizona although he did have some trouble with command in his latest start against the Angels, leading to several well hit balls that were fortunate fly outs. Whether or not he gets the nod in place of Ryu remains to be seen. He is also a non-roster invitee which means space will need to be cleared for him to be activated.

“Having injuries during the season is expected,” argued Zelasko. “But you don’t want to start the season injured.”

We still don’t know exactly how long Ryu will be out, but the Dodgers do have some blessed scheduling that might limit the number of times they will need to use a 5th starter in the early going. They have a quick off-day after their season opening series against the Padres and a second off-day only a week later followed by a third just three days after that. These extra days give Don Mattingly and Rick Honeycutt options on how they can setup their rotation prior to Ryu’s return. Whether it’s Huff or Carlos Frias doing spot starts, they may not be needed more than once or twice (fingers crossed and hope no more line drives off Kershaw’s face).

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  • The bullpen will be a patchwork early on as well. With League and Jensen out, room is open for hurlers like David Aardsma, Sergio Santos, and Paco Rodriguez, all of whom are having strong springs. The pen will be a work in progress for at least the first month (or three) of the season, which makes many fans nervous. Friedman’s strategy was to bring in as many low-cost arms as possible and see who survives the battle royale. It’s only spring, but that strategy might end up working out because the competition has generated several promising performances, giving Mattingly options for next week.

    You can’t predict injuries, but you can plan for them. Ryu, League, and Jensen missing the start of the season could be devastating, especially if no one else is able to fill in the gaps. Would have signing another big name free agent like James Shields have helped the Dodgers paper over this predicament? Opinion-creators like Zelasko would make that argument. Is it still too early to pass judgment on Friedman’s bold gambles? Unfortunately, some of Friedman’s decisions won’t bear fruit for months if not years to come, and in a rough-and-tumble NL West where Dodgers fans are in want of results right now that could be a difficult pill to swallow.

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