Yet, Not a Belly-Itcher

Now that the infield situation has been sorted out (three free-agent signings! How’s that for inactivity?) and Mannygate is probably going to stretch out for a few more weeks, it’s time to turn our attention to the biggest remaining question for the Dodgers:

Is Steve Garvey as evil as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin?

Oh, wait – that’s the biggest question over at The Hardball Times, and well worth a read. No, the real question facing the Dodgers in 2009 is what to do to fill out the starting rotation following the departures of Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, and Greg Maddux. Before getting into what we need, let’s figure out what we have. Believe it or not, the Dodger starters over the last three seasons have been remarkably consistent in terms of innings thrown – 922.2, 917, and finally 927.2 in 2008. Let’s make it easy and say that we’ll need to fill 920 starting innings in 2009.

t1-billingsley.jpgReturning from 2008′s rotation, we have the big three of Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, and Clayton Kershaw, who combined for 491.2 innings. It’s clear that all three have question marks, between Billingsley’s broken leg, Kuroda’s shoulder questions, and Kershaw’s extreme youth. However, all indications are that Billingsley will be fine for spring training (the cast is already off), Kuroda’s shoulder issues are nothing new (didn’t stop him from pitching great down the stretch last year) and Kershaw’s innings were decently monitored. I won’t ignore the fact that any of the three of them could have issues in 2009, but since it’s not like any of them are coming off major Tommy John surgery, we’ll take the optimistic view for the time and pencil them in. I’ll give Billingsley and Kuroda the same 200 and 180 or so IP they put up in 2008. Kershaw pitched only 107.2 MLB innings, but if you include his minor league innings, that gets him to 169. Considering that at another year older, he’ll likely get stretched out a little more, but that MLB innings are undoubtedly more strenuous than the minor league variety, I’ll give him 170 MLB innings. 

920 innings needed
Chad Billingsley 200
Hiroki Kuroda 180
Clayton Kershaw 170

550 taken up, 370 to go. Now, we’ve got no shortage of guys to soak up the 5th starter spot (James McDonald, Eric Stults, the Corpse of Jason Schmidt, etc.) but it’s clear that at least one more legitimate starter is going to have to be imported to help replace the guaranteed 200 IP that Derek Lowe was good for every year. You simply cannot trade for any decent pitching right now, so let’s take a quick spin around free agency. I don’t know which one of these guys end up in Dodger blue, but I’d say it’s almost certain one of them does – preferably on a one-year deal, but for most of these guys that’s unlikely.

(No, there’s no Jake Peavy involved. This is for free agents, and I don’t see a Peavy deal as very likely, not when Kevin Towers has already said he’ll jack up the price for a division rival. No Andy Pettitte either, because the him-to-LA rumors are basically dead, and I already discussed that travesty here.)

randyjohnson.jpgRandy Johnson (45)
(184 IP, 117 ERA+)
Pro: Despite being older than dirt and uglier than Dikembe Mutumbo, the moderately-sized Unit is still an effective pitcher. He’s made 30+ starts in 4 of the last 5 seasons, and has exactly one sub-100 ERA+ since 1990, which is just unbelievable. Besides, that one season came when he was with the Yankees, and not only is the NL West hardly the AL East, it serves as a great example for how faulty ERA can be, as the 1.239 WHIP he put up that year was identical to his 2008 season, yet in ’08 that WHIP got him an ERA over a run lower.
ConNever thought you’d say goodbye to Greg Maddux and come up with someone older, did you? Despite his relatively durable track record, it’s hard to depend on someone who’s going to be 45. Plus, if small children stare at him, they might turn to stone. 
Johnson’s had interest from a half-dozen teams, but seems to prefer staying on the West Coast and playing for a contender. He’s unlikely to return to Arizona after offering to take a pay cut to $8m, while the D-Backs offered only about $3m. The Giants seem to be the team hottest after him, though at his age he’s unlikely to command more than one guaranteed year. 
So… In a rotation full of question marks, adding an old guy might not seem like the best answer when you’re looking for dependability. That said, some of the other guys on this list who are 15 years younger have much more disconcerting injury or wildness issues. If he really wants to play for a contender, going to San Francisco isn’t the place to go, so if he’s willing to take one year at $8m, perhaps with a team or vesting option for the second, I think that’d be a great deal for the Dodgers. Besides, he’s 7-0 with a 2.04 ERA in 79.1 career innings in Dodger Stadium. Yes, please. 

Randy Wolf (32)
(190.1 IP, 93 ERA+)
Pro: Well, he’s a local boy, and didn’t you just love the never ending suckfest of newspaper articles in 2007 about “local boy coming home to make good”? Yeah, me neither.
Con: Wolf is what he is, and that’s an average pitcher who’s pretty injury prone. Putting up an 81 ERA+ in San Diego, of all places, last year doesn’t exactly inspire confidence – though it should be mentioned he was somehow very good after going to Houston. He’s basically the definition of “average” – after 10 years in the bigs he’s got a 101 ERA+, and while there’s some value in league-average innings, a history of arm injuries doesn’t help.
Wants: Well, he’s basically mediocre, he gets hurt a lot, and he was lousy in San Diego last year. He can’t expect that much, right?

Left-hander Randy Wolf’s asking price is believed to be $30 million for three years. The Astros are believed to have offered him between $22 million and $24 million before pulling their proposal due to economic reasons.

So… What’s crazier about that quote, that he wants 3/30 or that the Astros may have actually offered 3/24? There’s no way I’d give Wolf and his mediocre, injury-fueled track record more than one guaranteed year. Someone else will. Pass. Besides, Randy Johnson is a better pitcher and wants less money. Which one would you prefer?

Jon Garland (29)
(196.2 IP, 91 ERA+)
Pro: The man is the model of durability, averaging 207 innings/season over his career and making 30+ starts for 7 seasons in a row. He’s what you call “an innings eater”, as he’s usually been about league average, rarely awful, and occasionally excellent.
Con: Don’t let the 14-8 record in 2008 fool you, because he just wasn’t all that good. A 91 ERA+ and 1.50 WHIP are hardly the numbers you want to take into the free agent market. Even more worrisome are his strikeout numbers. Clearly, a guy whose career high is 115 was never a big fireballer to begin with, but he’s been on a steady 4-year decline in that department, all the way down to just 90 in nearly 200 innings.  
There hasn’t been a whole lot of news about Garland, as he’s mainly been mentioned as a guy that teams will look at once they miss out on Derek Lowe and the other top starters. That said, the fact that his agent is going around telling people that Garland has more wins over the last 4 years than Lowe, Sheets, and Burnett aren’t a great sign for a reasonable value.
So… I don’t mind the idea of having a guy who you know will throw 200 roughly average innings, especially one who’s never been on the DL. There’s value in that at the right price. But you just know that some team like the Mets is going to get desperate about their rotation and offer Garland a three or four year deal. I’d rather it not be the Dodgers. Next.

Oliver Perez (27)
(194 IP, 100 ERA+)
Pro: May have the most pure talent of any remaining starter, and at just 27 in 2009 is only now entering his prime. He made his MLB debut at age 20 and was arguably more successful than Clayton Kershaw at the same age, plus his 2004 season of a 145 ERA+ with 239 strikeouts at age 22 was pure domination.
Con: Geez, where do you start? After that 2004 season, his career fell off a cliff, with ERA of 5.85 and 6.55 the next two seasons. He’s turned it around somewhat with the Mets the last two years, posting ERA+ of 120 and 100 with good strikeout numbers, but his wildness is still a problem (105 walks last year), and more than anyone I’ve ever seen, is prone to the “absolute Chernobyl disaster” start. He gave up 5 runs or more 8 times in 2008, including such gems as “6 runs in 0.1 innings vs. the Giants” and “7 runs in 1.2 innings vs. the Pirates.” Oh, and Scott Boras is his agent, so there’s that. 
It’s hard to ever take Boras seriously, so I can’t get too worked up over the reports that he’s still looking for 5 years and $70 million. That said, the infamous binder comparing Perez to Sandy Koufax was pretty hilarious. Either way, there’s not likely to be much movement on this until Teixeria and Lowe are off the board.
So… I actually like Perez more than most. I think that in the right situation – big ballpark, low-pressure media, doesn’t have to be “the man” he could really turn things around, and his youth is a huge plus. But the combination of Scott Boras and Perez’ propensity for imploding makes this an enormous risk, and I’ll happily laugh when some other team gives him 4 years and $48 million, AKA “the Carlos Silva special”.

bensheets.jpgBen Sheets (30)
(198.1 IP, 139 ERA+)
Pro: Pure performance and talent. You might think a career 116 ERA+ is pretty good, but even that’s underselling him because it includes his first three years in the league when he was relatively mediocre. Since 2004, his ERA+ scores have been 162, 128, 119, 117, and 139 – with WHIP to match, and a fantastic K/BB ratio. Clearly, when healthy, he’s one of the best in baseball.
Con: Ah, yes. “When healthy”. Sheets is one of the most injury prone pitchers in baseball, which makes him a perfect fit for the Dodgers. Not only that, the injuries have been all over the map – an ear infection, a herniated disc, shoulder tendonitis, a torn finger tendon. While that’s better than a guy who keeps blowing out his arm, it doesn’t exactly give a guy the “tough” label either. (For more detail on his injuries and a phenomenal explanation of his windup and pitching tendenacies, please check out this article at The Hardball Times from May 2008).  
Wants: It’s hard to say. If not for his injury history, he’d have been up there in the rarified air between AJ Burnett and CC Sabathia, because he’s just that good. In fact, there’s been very little discussion on Sheets whatsoever, other than a report that the Yankees won’t get involved because they already have Burnett to keep their trainers busy. There’s been whispers about the Rangers or a return to Milwaukee, but it’s hard to see any team giving him a long-term deal.
So… For a team still paying Jason Schmidt to watch “The Golden Girls”, adding a pitcher with injury worries might not be a good idea. That said, it’s not as bad as it may seem. There’s no “missed two seasons due to Tommy John” on his resume; in fact, he’s pitched at least 106 innings in every season of his career, and just keeps getting sidetracked by these various ailments. Despite ending the year injured, he did still make 31 starts in 2008, yet the missed time at the end of the year is what’s fresh on people’s minds. Could this work in our favor, to perhaps get such a talented guy on the cheap? I hesitate to even throw out a number, since I have no idea what his market will be and there’s not even been any rumors of contracts. Would he take a two-year deal with a vesting option for a third? Or perhaps a one-year deal to prove his health and then go back out next year in what might be a better economy? If the money were reasonable, I’d do it, simply because I think his health issues might be a tad overblown, and they’re not all arm injuries anyway. Personally, I think the Dodgers will stay far away because of the Schmidt debacle, but I don’t neccessarily agree.

So, let’s say we sign Sheets, and also Randy Johnson on a one-year deal. I’m completely snowballing here, but that could add about $20m to the 2009 payroll. This may or may not preclude signing Manny, but his market is so uncertain now that it’s insane to try to predict it, so we’ll stick to pitching here. I’ll put Johnson down for 180 IP, which is his average of the last five years, even including being dragged down by his shortened 2007. I hate to make any predictions about Sheets, but his average comes out to 170, which might be low considering he almost put up 200 last year.

920 innings needed
Chad Billingsley 200
Hiroki Kuroda 180
Clayton Kershaw 170
Randy Johnson 180
Ben Sheets 170

Right there, that gets us to 900 innings pitched, which is almost on the nose. Even more importantly, look at that fivesome and tell me you think it wouldn’t be 900 exellent innings. Now, you certainly expect that someone’s going to miss some time. Maybe Kuroda’s shoulder acts up; maybe Johnson’s back flares up; maybe Sheets gets a hangnail and we start pining for the durability of Nomar. But even that’s okay. You’ve still got top prospect James McDonald, who could start in the pen the way Billingsley did in 2006. You’ve got Eric Stults, who might only be an AAAA arm, but is someone we’ve always been high on. You know there’s always going to be the 2009 recipient of the Aaron Sele/Scott Erickson/Chan Ho Park Memorial “Bargain Bin Veteran We All Thought Was Dead Who Comes Back to Be Useful” Award – I’m looking at you, Kris Benson! And who knows, maybe this is the year we finally get something out of Jason Schmidt. Yeah, right.

Anyway, this proposal is not without risk. Few things in life are. And I don’t really see it happening the way I’ve laid out. But I’d certainly take Randy Johnson and Ben Sheets for $5+ million less than one CC Sabathia. Tell me you wouldn’t love that rotation and depth to start the year?


And with this, we’re closing up for the holiday for a few days (unless we see a real Christmas miracle – a post by Vin!) Happy holidays, folks. If you wish hard enough, maybe Santa will bring you what you really want – Juan Pierre wearing a Reds jersey or Andruw Jones wearing pinstripes. Or in prison. Either way.