Yesterday, in “news that is horrendously disappointing yet in no way surprising…” we learned that Chad Billingsley had been placed on the 60-day disabled list due to continued pain in his pitching elbow. While I’d long since given up on him returning as a starter this year, there was at least the hope that he could return as a short reliever to add an intriguing new weapon to the bullpen down the stretch. This doesn’t necessarily mean the injury is more severe than it was a few days ago, just that the determination has been made that he won’t be back this season, and that his 40-man spot is better used elsewhere, like adding Steven Rodriguez to the bullpen. (Yes, I know that Tommy John surgery is the most likely outcome, given that his UCL is ‘partially torn’. I’m trying to be optimistic. I can think of about 1,249,091 other things I’d rather talk about than the prospect of Billingsley losing his age-28 season to the zipper.)
That’s more than a little terrifying for what it means for his future, but for now, let’s focus on the remainder of 2012. Considering how effective Billingsley had been since returning from his initial stint on the DL, this counts as a massive blow to the Dodger playoff hopes. Sure, the continued and seemingly endless struggles of the shiny new offense have been discouraging, but at least the talent is in place there and all you can do right now is hope they work themselves out. Yet when you look at the rotation behind Clayton Kershaw… well, over at SI.com, pal Jay Jaffe looked at each of the starting staffs of NL contenders now that the impending shutdown of Stephen Strasburg has hopefully brought Washington back to the pack a bit. It’s not pretty, as the Dodgers rank in last by his counting, and in case you’re wondering there’s no bias here; Jay’s a lifelong Dodger fan.
The Dodgers’ chances take a huge hit with the loss of Chad Billingsley (3.41), who if he returns from his latest bout of elbow inflammation will likely be limited to a bullpen role. That leaves the number two spot in the hands of the fading Capuano unless Beckett can rediscover his lost form. Note that the team’s chances fall if Aaron Harang (4.24) is swapped in for any of the starters. On the other hand, note that the 4.01 runs per game produced by the offense is based on a lineup that lacked Matt Kemp for two months and that more recently underwent a significant facelift via the additions of Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez, massive upgrades over the unproductive Dee Gordon, Juan Uribe and James Loney. Swap in the team’s second half scoring rate of 4.37 runs per game, and the Dodgers’ estimate rises to .541, even without Billingsley.
Kershaw is still Kershaw – some of those curves he was snapping off Tuesday night were among the tightest I’ve ever seen from him – but unfortunately, in the same way that Billingsley came back from a tough first half as we’d expected, Capuano is in the midst of a second-half slide. Capuano’s a notorious first-half pitcher (3.70 ERA vs 4.96 career) and it’s happening again this year, with a line of “.669 OPS against and 2.91 ERA in 18 starts before the break” turning into “.731 OPS against and 4.91 ERA in ten starts since,” a very worrisome trend.
Beyond Capuano… well, Beckett, Blanton, and Harang may all be the same kind of guy. Beckett was decent in his first start and very good in his second, but is still having a down year overall; Blanton was a disaster in his first four outings before turning it around for his last two; and Harang is what he is, a decent innings-eater who is fine for the long haul but who you absolutely do not want starting in a playoff game. They’re good space fillers, but not really the type of guy you want matched up against Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, or Johnny Cueto, which is exactly what might happen if the Dodgers are forced to use Kershaw in the final game or two against San Francisco or in a one-game wild card playoff immediately after.
I don’t want to get too pessimistic here, because you do still have Kershaw, this offense could catch fire in half a heartbeat and I still believe in the bullpen, especially when Kenley Jansen returns. And importantly above all, there’s still six head-to-head games with the Giants and four against the Cardinals (currently holding down that second wild card spot), and that allows the Dodgers to have some control over their fate rather than just watching San Francisco pull out a magic finish against some other team every night. It’s still eminently possible for the Dodgers to take this division back, or to sneak in as the wild card. They’re just running out of time, and with that first crack at the Giants coming tomorrow, it’s going to have to happen right now. With a starting rotation that features only one sure thing, support needs to come from somewhere else, so Kemp, Gonzalez, Victorino, etc: now would be a good time.