Dodgers Hopeful That International Progress Helps Break Disconcerting Streak

Sunset at Dodger StadiumBack on September 27, 2011, Hiroki Kuroda made his final start for the Dodgers, pitching six scoreless innings on the road against the Diamondbacks. (He didn’t get the win, though; the game was a 1-1 tie before the Dodgers scored five runs in the top of the 10th… and then Blake Hawksworth & Javy Guerra promptly allowed Arizona to score six to take the win, ending it on a Ryan Roberts walkoff grand slam. And we thought this year’s Game #161 was bad.)

That was 163 games ago. It was also the last time the Dodgers sent a starting pitcher to the mound who wasn’t a white American.

As I went into detail about in late December, the shameful record of international spending during the Frank McCourt era has caused a variety of wide-reaching problems for the team over the last few years, as the team had simply stopped trying to compete for high-end talent outside America. Not only were there very few international players on the 40-man roster, but the likely 2012 starting rotation – Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang, & Ted Lilly to begin and Nathan Eovaldi & John Ely in reserve – was entirely North American & Caucasian, a rarity in today’s game.

That’s exactly what happened. Rubby de la Rosa appeared briefly and only in relief as he recovered from injury before being traded, and while Ely never did start for the Dodgers in 2012, newcomers Josh BeckettJoe Blanton, & Stephen Fife all did. Including Eovaldi’s time in the rotation, that means that all nine men who started a game for the club this year were indeed white Americans, making it the first time in more than 30 years (since Fernando Valenzuela‘s debut year of 1980, in which he pitched only in relief) that the Dodgers did not have a single start made by someone who was either non-white or not from North America. Considering the proud international & cultural history of the organization, it’s a pretty disappointing state of affairs.

When will that run end? With de la Rosa gone, the only pitchers on the entire 40-man roster who aren’t American are Kenley Jansen & Ronald Belisario, and they’re not starting any time soon; potential additions from the system like Matt Magill, Zach Lee, or Aaron Miller aren’t going to change that either. Obviously, it’s not that I care at all about the ethnic makeup of the team so much as I care that the widest possible pool be cast to draw talent from. Of the 10 teams to make the playoffs in 2012, only the Giants had fewer than 20 starts from international or non-white pitchers, and even they may have had more had they not been lucky enough to have their top five starters make 160 starts, requiring only two fill-ins all year.

Of the many sins of the McCourt era, the inability to compete internationally may simultaneously be the least regarded and the most damaging. Sure, it’s not as ridiculous as paying a Russian faith healer or absurd as blowing tens of thousands on hair dressers, but it’s far more hurtful as far as trying to put a quality product on the field.

Here we are less than a year later, and suddenly there’s a lot of hope here. When the Guggenheim group took over, Stan Kasten stated emphatically that one of his main goals was to improve the team’s standing internationally, and in a very short time he’s proven more than true to his word. They won the bidding on Korean lefty Hyun-jin Ryu, who arrived in California this week to begin negotiations on a contract. They made a huge splash with Cuban Yasiel Puig. They’ve been hard after Japanese teen Shohei Otani and countryman Kyuji Fujikawa. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve added Gerry Hunsicker, Bob Engle, and several other scouts with years of international experience to the front office.

So while the Dodgers already have six of the same American starters from last year under contract, maybe that streak is broken by Ryu, if he signs. Maybe it’s Kuroda himself, who I’m starting to believe more and more will be returning in 2013, despite my apprehension over losing a first-round pick to get him. Maybe it’ll even be both. (It could, of course, still be neither, too.)  And while you can make an argument – a damn good one, really – that the team’s better off next year with Zack Greinke or James Shields than with Kuroda or Ryu, it seems like small potatoes compared to seeing just far this team has come internationally in such a short time. For that alone, we should all be thrilled with where things are as compared to where they were.

Pitchers Break, But You Still Need Them: Hiroki Kuroda

Alex Rodriguez isn’t playing third base in this picture from Kowarski, so I assume Kuroda did well that night.

Continuing the look at potential starting pitchers that we started yesterday with Zack Greinke… old friend Hiroki Kuroda is a free agent and is coming off a very good year with the Yankees, one in which he narrowly topped CC Sabathia in ERA, 3.32 to 3.38. Ken Gurnick reports that the Dodgers could express interest in bringing Kuroda back, and while the report is oddly thin – that’s literally it, it’s just “could emerge as a top free-agent target of the club,” not even suggesting that there’s actually been any movement other than just an idea Gurnick has – we know the Dodgers need starting pitching, so it’s not hard to see it making sense.

There’s a lot to like about Kuroda, of course. He’s been one of the more consistent pitchers in baseball over the last several years, with FIP scores between 3.26 – 3.86 in each of his five seasons, and he’s proven himself durable, avoiding the disabled list in each of the last three seasons. When he left the Dodgers for the Yankees last winter, there were concerns about how he’d do in the AL East and in the comical Yankee Stadium, but he topped the AL East champions in starts, innings pitched, & ERA, setting career highs in the first two.

Kuroda’s also a fan favorite, someone who nobody wanted to see leave. (Even when we all wanted him to accept a trade in 2011, it wasn’t because anyone really wanted him gone, it was because the Dodgers were out of the hunt and no one knew if Kuroda would return to LA or go to Japan after the season.) When he did leave, it again wasn’t because he wasn’t wanted, it’s because Ned Colletti had very limited funds and decided to put the money towards two pitchers (Chris Capuano & Aaron Harang) rather than one. We know that he can pitch in big markets and particularly Dodger Stadium, and we know that there’s little to worry about him as far as acclimating to the city or the team. As a fan, I’d love to see Kuroda in blue once more, and according to this report, he’s willing to accept another one-year deal.

And yet… I’m going to take an unpopular position and say that I’m not so sure about this. Kuroda’s a fine pitcher, and the Dodgers deserve endless kudos for signing him when he was a relatively unknown quantity prior to 2008. But while a 3.86 FIP in 2012 is nice, it’s also the highest of his career, and doesn’t exactly shout “difference-maker”. It’s slightly better than Edwin Jackson, slightly worse than Jonathon Niese, and similar to Josh Beckett‘s performance as a Dodger; hell, Capuano was only slightly behind at 3.95, and that includes his second-half swoon.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, because every team needs pitchers like that. But what the Dodgers really need is someone to pair with Clayton Kershaw, and I don’t really see Kuroda as that guy. In a league where the top teams can boast groupings like Matt Cain / Madison Bumgarner or Stephen Strasburg / Gio Gonzalez  or Roy Halladay / Cliff Lee / Cole Hamels, Kuroda as your #2 just doesn’t seem like quite enough.

You could argue that if the Dodgers get Greinke, then Kuroda would make for a fantastic #3, or even #4 if Chad Billingsley is healthy, and that’s a fair case to make. But even then, there’s concerns. While I think he’s still got life in his arm, it’s hard to ignore the fact that he’ll be 38 in February and that the price to obtain him would be sky-high for a pitcher of that age. Think about it: he just came off a one-year, $10m contract with the Yankees, and after the way he pitched for them, he’s likely to command a raise. In fact, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the Yankees offer him a qualifying contract of $13.3m. If he accepts it, he’s off the market. If he doesn’t, then not only could you see him arguing that 1/$14m is what he’s worth, but the Dodgers would have to give up their 2013 first round pick for signing a qualified free agent.

~$14m for a 38-year-old pitcher is scary, though you could somehow argue that dollars don’t matter for the new Dodgers. Yet with the way they’ve traded off the farm system recently, draft picks are worth their weight in gold. Much as I love Kuroda, giving that much money and losing a draft pick for a pitcher of his age just doesn’t seem like the best use of resources.

Plenty of Dodgers Making the Cut on Bill James’ Top 100 Pitcher’s Duels

Last year, ESPN and Bill Simmons teamed up to launch “Grantland“, a new venture aimed at focusing more on long-form sportswriting, a throwback to the glory days of magazines and newspapers, as opposed to the shorter blog posts which are more popular today. Predictably, the feedback has been mixed; some of the work I’ve read has been excellent, but good lord, can it be pretentious.

Your feelings on Simmons aside, it’s hard to argue with a staff that includes Chuck Klosterman, Jonah Keri, Rany Jazayerli, and Katie Baker, among many others, and today they’ve added a new luminary: baseball stats legend Bill James. James debuts with a list of the 100 best pitcher’s duels of 2011 – completely subjectively, of course, because how else could you do it – and wouldn’t you know it, 10 of his first 42 entries involved the Dodgers. As it turns out – and this is going to come as a huge surprise, I know – Clayton Kershaw is really, really good, and I don’t know if anything was more fun this past season than watching him constantly beat down Tim Lincecum and the Giants.

3. July 20, 2011, Dodgers at San Francisco, Clayton Kershaw against Tim Lincecum

MSTI, July 20:

Now how about adding eight shutout innings with 12 whiffs against just three hits and a walk? By Game Score, which is admittedly imperfect, that was the third best start of Kershaw’s career. That it was also the third best start of his season should tell you a lot about just how good his 2011 has been so far, particularly now that he’s up to 23 consecutive scoreless innings and an MLB-best 167 strikeouts.

5. September 9, 2011, Dodgers in San Francisco again, Kershaw and Lincecum rematch

Looks like I didn’t say anything, because I was traveling for a wedding that weekend. Stupid weddings, part one.

18. September 20, Giants in L.A., Lincecum against Kershaw, Round 3

Stupid weddings, part two. This was my birthday and I was busy getting engaged. Still not sure that choosing those over watching Kershaw / Lincecum was the right move.

23. June 26, Angels at Dodger Stadium, Jered Weaver against Clayton Kershaw

MSTI, June 26:

This is the 12th time in Kershaw’s career he’s put up double-digit strikeout numbers, though it’s the first time he’s done it in back-to-back starts, since he also struck out 11 Tigers last week. It also put him up to 128 K’s on the season, putting him back ahead of Justin Verlander for the most in baseball. That’s impressive, but that’s not what I liked the best about today; it was the fact that he did it without a single walk. Remember when we said that the only thing holding him back from megaultrastardom was harnessing the walks? Yeah, about that: his K/BB rate from 2008-11: 1.92, 2.03, 2.62, 3.66.

Clayton Kershaw, shiny golden god.

25. August 9, Phillies in Los Angeles, Cliff Lee against Ted Lilly

MSTI, August 9:

On the other side of the ball, for all the jokes we have at Ted Lilly‘s expense, the veteran lefty was actually pretty solid against a good Phillies lineup. Lilly allowed just six hits and a walk over eight innings, which ties for his second-longest outing as a Dodger, and he even drilled Shane Victorino in the back for good measure. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Ted Lilly game if he didn’t allow a homer, and that’s how we get back to Lee, who took Lilly out to right field in the 7th inning. That made the score 2-0, though with the way Lee was pitching against the unimposing Dodger lineup, it might as well have been 200-0.

This was also the game where Dee Gordon injured his shoulder attempting to dive around Ryan Howard at first base, nearly causing all of us to pass out in terror.

31. August 2, Dodgers in San Diego, Mat Latos against Hiroki Kuroda

This win merely put the Dodgers to 50-59, and it’s amazing how tuned out we were from worrying about daily results at the time. The second-half improvement didn’t really get going until the latter half of August, and at the time we’d considered this team completely dead in the water, to the point where I was less concerned about recapping a phenomenal Kuroda start than I was about looking ahead to possible waiver moves and September recalls.

32. March 31 (season opener), San Francisco in Los Angeles, Lincecum against Kershaw

MSTI, March 31:

Earlier today, I noted that I had picked Clayton Kershaw to finish 1st in the NL Cy Young Award voting over at Baseball Prospectus. I’m now concerned that I didn’t pick him quite high enough, because Kershaw was absolutely sublime in tonight’s season opener, to the point where San Francisco starter Tim Lincecum allowed just one unearned run over seven innings himself, yet there was still no question about who was the most dominant starter on the mound tonight.

Kershaw scattered just four hits over seven scoreless innings, but even that doesn’t tell the true tale. One of those hits should have been an error on a botched toss from James Loney to Kershaw, and one was a bloop that fell just out of Loney’s reach. But while Kershaw was outstanding all around, it’s not just the few hits he allowed that impressed me most, and it’s not the nine strikeouts he put up. It’s not even how bad he made a handful of Giants look, particularly when he offered his curve. It’s the fact that he walked just one and made it through seven innings with fewer than 100 pitches. In years past, it might have taken him 120 pitches to get that far; in starts that aren’t his first of the season, you’d expect to see him continue into the 8th and 9th.

Need more proof of Kershaw’s progression? This was the 11th time in his career that he pitched at least seven innings without allowing more than one walk. Though he’s been in the bigs since mid-2008, seven of the previous ten came after June 27, 2010 – i.e., in the last half a season. We’ve long known that Kershaw had all the talent in the world, but there’s now a clear pattern of him harnessing the wildness and becoming one of the most dominant pitchers in the bigs. Mark my words, this is the year he gets the respect from the general public he deserves. Oh, and he turned 23 two weeks ago.

35. June 8, Dodgers in Philadelphia, Hiroki Kuroda against Cole Hamels

Kuroda was very good, as I mentioned

Hiroki Kuroda sailed through the first four innings on a hot night in Philadelphia, escaped some trouble in the 5th, and then was touched for a Ryan Howard solo homer in the 6th. That was the run that put the Dodgers down 1-0 entering the top of the 7th…

…but this game ended up being far more memorable for being one of the low points of a dreadful first half by the offense, as once again, no Dodger other than Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp could contribute even the slightest bit of help:

Down one run, Andre Ethier & Matt Kemp set up the 5-6-7 hitters with two men in scoring position and no outs. To avoid scoring a run in that situation, you basically have to be actively trying to fail. To the surprise of absolutely no one, Juan Uribe, Marcus Thames, and Rod Barajas failed to get the job done. But that’s not news; Ethier and Kemp have been sabotaged by their underperforming teammates all season long. What really got me was the furor on Twitter as this was happening. In rough chronological order…

Tony Jackson (ESPNLA):

horrible AB by Uribe right there. Just horrible.

EephusBlue:

Boy am I glad we kept Thames

Dylan Hernandez (LA Times):

Thames, who batted 3rd Monday, comes up with men on the corners. “It doesn’t matter where you bat him,” someone said, “the game finds him.

Jayson Stark (ESPN):

The Rod Barajas Fan Club will be delighted to know that once that pop-up came down, he was 2 for 37 this year with men in scoring position.

Jackson:

@jaysonst and that .054 average is 54 points better than Thames, who is now 0 for 11 w/RISP

Jackson:

I have never seen a team come up with more creative ways to not score after getting a runner to third with less than two outs.

Kevin Modesti (LA Daily News):

@dodgerscribe It’s another example of we’ve talked about. Ethier & Kemp get on … Uribe, Thames & Barajas coming up — what do you expect?

ChadMoriyama:

That was one of those Dodgers offense moments you sorta knew was coming, but you still feel disgusted anyway watching it happen.

36. July 9, Dodgers in San Diego, Rubby De La Rosa against Aaron Harang

This led to one of my favorite post titles of the season,”Dodgers Win in Most Dodger Way Possible“. This was still a few weeks before the second half surge really got going, and the team was so bad at this point that it was all you could do to laugh at them.

Being no-hit for 8 2/3 innings, nearly wasting six one-hit innings from rookie standout Rubby De La Rosa, and then winning on two miraculous hits from Juan Uribe and Dioner Navarro, two of the worst hitters on the team?

Yeah, that sounds about right.

42. June 19, Houston in L.A., Bud Norris against Hiroki Kuroda

MSTI, June 19:

For 7 1/3 scoreless innings on Sunday, the Dodgers looked likely to set us up for disappointment. Hiroki Kuroda had sailed through the first seven, allowing just five baserunners before Matt Guerrier threw a clean eighth. After a tough turn around the starting rotation, it was a much-needed boost from the veteran. But yet again, there was absolutely no support from the offense, as Bud Norris and Sergio Escalona held the Dodgers to harmless singles by James Loney and Dioner Navarro, and walks by Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. There’s a reason Kuroda has a losing record both for the season and his career, and it’s because of games like this. How many times have we seen a solid starting pitching performance wasted due to an offense that is barely of a Triple-A caliber? Tony Gwynn flied out to center to start the eighth, and with the bottom up the order due up, it seemed just a matter of time before patchwork bullpen (though buoyed by the returns of Kenley Jansen yesterday and Hong-Chih Kuo today) would allow the Astros to score and complete the sweep.

Kuroda didn’t get the win in the boxscore today – Guerrier did – but I think we all know who deserves that W next to his name.

Just barely avoiding a sweep against the lowly Astros. How did we survive the first half of the season again?

Perhaps more pertinent to the current situation, I wonder how this list might look if it were redone after 2012, now that Kuroda is gone and De La Rosa is injured. To be fair, Chad Billingsley does appear twice in the second half of the list, Harang was very good in the De La Rosa game, and Chris Capuano had the single best-pitched game of 2011 as judged by Game Score. (To be even more fair, this is a completely subjective list that’s very easy to tear apart and by definition requires both pitchers to be excellent at the same time, something which the mediocre Dodger offense probably had a big hand in.)

Good Luck in the Bronx, Hiroki

As you’ve probably seen just about everywhere on the planet by now, the Yankees have had a helluva night, signing former Dodger Hiroki Kuroda – as I sort of predicted days ago by pointing out that his translator had already joined the Yankees – and shockingly trading Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi to Seattle for Michael Pineda and a prospect. (As a sidenote, it’s amazing to see what a young catcher who can hit gets in trade, isn’t it? Blargh.)

I imagine that a lot of Dodger fans are pretty upset that Kuroda left for an East Coast team after refusing a trade in July, particularly when the $10m deal he’s reportedly accepted is less than the $12m he made with the Dodgers last year. If you’d have told me this was going to be the outcome in July when he wouldn’t accept the trade, I’d probably have been all fire and brimstone about it. Now, I’m not so sure about that, because I feel like we don’t know exactly why Kuroda’s return didn’t work out; despite appearances, I’m not convinced it’s as simple as “Kuroda didn’t want to leave in July, but he had no problem doing so now.”

Think about it; over the last two offseasons, Ned Colletti has shown a clear preference to do as much of his free-agent shopping as soon as he possibly can. (As prices start to drop, by the way, this is only going to make some of the deals we’ve seen look worse, a situation I’ll look at more closely in a few weeks.) Conversely, we don’t know how long it took Kuroda to decide whether he wanted to stay in America or return to Japan. Reports only surfaced over the last few days that Kuroda wanted to play in MLB in 2012 for sure, and by that time, the Dodger rotation was long since filled – despite reports that Colletti was reportedly in contact with Kuroda’s agent as recently as last week. It could very well have been merely an issue of timing, not an issue of “loyalty”, and I’m guessing we’ll never know.

So best of luck in New York, Hiroki. It’ll be fascinating to see you on the big stage.

In the meantime, here’s some various combinations of 2012 Dodgers that will add up to $10m:

Juan Uribe ($8m) + Matt Treanor ($0.85m) + Adam Kennedy ($0.8m) + Mike MacDougal ($0.65m) = $10.3m

Juan Rivera ($4m) + Aaron Harang ($3m) + Mark Ellis ($2.5m) + Tony Gwynn ($0.85m) = $10.35m

Matt Guerrier ($4.75m) + Chris Capuano ($3m) + Jerry Hairston ($2.25m) = $10m

That doesn’t take into account, of course, that many of those are the lower-priced first year of a two-year deal which will increase in 2013.

Blake Hawksworth Set For Shoulder Elbow Surgery

Dylan Hernandez reports:

Dodger right-hander Blake Hawksworth will undergo arthroscopic surgery tomorrow on his right elbow to clean up scar tissue and a spur.

No word yet on whether this is something that had been bothering Hawksworth for a while that he’d been unable to get past or if it’s something new, though I’m inclined to speculate that it’s the latter because of the timing and because Hawksworth’s only injury during 2011 was the hip problem that landed him on the disabled list. While we can’t know for sure, don’t forget that after a relatively solid first half, he was so poor at the end of the year that we often wondered if he was hurt:

Returning in June, he was once again solid, allowing a .542 OPS and a 19/5 K/BB in 19 1/3 innings. Nothing stellar, of course, but certainly useful; this earned him a B in the midseason reviews, where I referred to him as “perfectly acceptable.” But from there, it was all downhill for Hawksworth, as he allowed 16 runs (12 earned) in his final 16 2/3 innings of the season, making many wonder if he was injured again – and culminating in his failure to cover first base (or, you know, get outs) in the September 28 soulcrusher in Arizona.

Still, we don’t know that this is in any way related. It’s also not the first time that Hawksworth has run into shoulder issues, since he had labrum surgery while in the minors and missed almost two entire seasons, getting into just nine games between 2004-05. This sounds much less serious, so even if he’s out for 6-8 weeks that would only sideline him until mid-March, though we’ll have to learn more about what the timeframe is after the procedure.  (Update: yes, I misread “elbow” as “shoulder”. Shows what I get for posting after midnight when I’ve barely slept. My mistake.) If Hawksworth does begin the year on the disabled list that makes it more likely that Josh Lindblom makes the club, though since Lindblom does have options remaining there’s always an excellent chance he gets nudged out by a non-roster invite, perhaps a second lefty to join Scott Elbert.

******

The other news of the night comes from Bill Shaikin, who reports that FOX and the Dodgers have come to an agreement that finally exhausts the legal battles between the two. FOX agrees to drop any objection to the sale agreement between the Dodgers and MLB – there was to be a court hearing on that this week, and while it was extremely unlikely FOX would have prevailed, if they had, we’d be blasted all the way back to square one in this mess – and in return, the Dodgers agree to stop trying to market their television rights before the end of their deal with FOX, which never made much sense anyway.

Not to jinx it, but this could be the end of legal hostilities all around, since both MLB and FOX have settled their battles with the Dodgers. That should clear the way towards the sale, which Shaikin also clarified the timeline of; while we already knew bids were due on January 23 and the sale must be completed by April 30, we now also know that the winning bidder will be announced no later than April 1. 81 days!

******

One other note: Kenji Nimura, the trilingual translator who joined the Dodgers in 2008 when Hiroki Kuroda signed with the club, will soon be leaving to take a similar position with the Yankees. This news came out in, of all places, a photo caption in Jon SooHoo’s gallery from this week’s prospect development camp. Sure, it’s possible that this is just a coincidence, since the Dodgers don’t look like they’ll have any Asian players on the roster next year, but considering that Nimura has lived in Los Angeles since 1983 and has referred to working for the Dodgers as a dream job, it’s hard not to read this as one giant hint that Kuroda is soon to be a Yankee.