The 2023 Los Angeles Dodgers have taken a step back in payroll and expectations, but don't be so quick to write off their pitching staff.
Last season, LA's lack of outright star power/game-changing aces who can grab the ball and scream, "I got this!" reared its head during the team's NLDS matchup with the underdog Padres, and come October, it's possible this team still feels undermanned without a fire-breathing lead dog.
That said ... there's still no reason to doubt that the 2023 Dodgers will put an exceptional product together during the regular season, even without Walker Buehler, who will spend the year rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.
Though a high-velo ace could be needed to cap Dave Roberts' postseason staff, there's enough trade capital still in this farm system to go out and get the best available pitcher at the deadline, provided the team doesn't make a move for Bryan Reynolds.
Or, hey -- there's a chance Dustin May emerges from the back of the rotation and embodies the role, thanks to a season of health and a few mechanical tweaks from Mark Prior and his staff, a group responsible for crafting the three best staff-wide pitching seasons since integration over the past three years. 2022, without an effective Buehler, was the belle of the ball.
Dodgers' 2022 pitching staff was among the best ever, per ERA+
The shortened 2020 season came together spectacularly well (and, quite frankly, didn't come with enough schedule runway to go off the rails). 2021's pitching staff received an infusion of Max Scherzer midway through. 2022? No Buehler, no Scherzer, bouts of missing Kershaw, very little May, essentially no Treinen, unimpressive Kimbrel ... and, yet, Prior pieced together the best ERA+ by any team in the game since Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown and the 1906 Cubs.
Ironically, Kimbrel became known as "One Finger" among Dodgers fans in 2022. We'll let you guess which finger.
This season's depth chart looks incomplete, at the outset, and Treinen still won't be available to an ailing bullpen (ditto Tommy Kahnle). Beyond Julio Urías (in his final season before free agency) and Kershaw, May, Tony Gonsolin and Noah Syndergaard will receive the bulk of the innings, with top prospect depth like Ryan Pepiot, Michael Grove and (likely) Bobby Miller helping to create a spark when needed.
It's easy to feel uninspired and mid-malaise, especially considering the team seems to be intentionally taking a budgetary step back. That said, while it will be tough for Prior and Co. to match last year's impossible standard, no staff in the game is more experienced at turning intriguing pitching pieces into dominant arms.