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Los Angeles Dodgers Must Now Deal with the Fifth Starter Conundrum

January 23rd, 2014 at 4:00 AM
By Jimmy Reynolds

The Los Angeles Dodgers missed out on signing Masahiro Tanaka yesterday, leaving them with some concerns about the back end of the rotation. The Dodgers may not yet be done, but it is not as if they are without internal options. While their pursuit of Tanaka at least seemed to indicate a lack of faith in the strength and depth of the rotation, their unwillingness to match or exceed the New York Yankees’ offer of seven years and $155 million says that the team may be willing to test the mettle of some of their pitching prospects, or that they believe Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley will return to form after season-ending injuries in 2013. Let’s take a look at the internal fifth starter options available to the Los Angeles Dodgers:

'Josh Beckett' photo (c) 2013, Keith Allison - license:

Josh Beckett

Ned Colletti has said that he believes that Beckett will be recovered and ready to pitch during Spring Training after surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. Beckett has a big contract, and is well past the point in his career where his on-field output will match his salary. As a candidate for fifth starter, Beckett seems less than ideal, especially considering his recent performance. Traditionalists will look at Beckett’s end of 2012 as promising, pointing to a 2.93 ERA as proof of his success after a change of scenery. His peripheral numbers tell a different story, and over the past two years, Beckett has posted an FIP of 4.15 and 4.66, respectively. Beckett is likely the favorite for the fifth starter position at the moment, but he is not necessarily the best option.

Chad Billingsley

Billingsley will have no chance at being in the rotation when the team breaks camp, as his return is currently projected for sometime in June after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Billingsley has been predictably inconsistent over the past few seasons, but as a fifth starter, the Dodgers could certainly do worse. Unfortunately, Billingsley elected to delay his surgery while trying to rehab his torn ulnar collateral ligament. The Los Angeles Times reported that Billingsley has thrown off a mound at 75mph, indicating he remains on track for his scheduled June return. His unavailability to start the season as he continues to rehab gives Beckett the edge, but it also opens the door for some of the Dodgers many pitching prospects.

'Stephen Fife Spring Training 3.15.13' photo (c) 2000, Dustin Nosler - license:

Stephen Fife

Fife’s early-season performance in 2013 was encouraging, and there were those who thought that Fife could be a nice contributor to the rotation as the fifth man. In 58.1 big league innings in 2013, Fife posted an FIP of 4.35 and an ERA of 3.70. Perhaps he was a bit unlucky, as his BABIP was fairly high at .343, though that should be taken with a grain of salt as his career BABIP is fairly high between both the major and minor leagues. He endured some struggles during his time at Triple-A while recovering from injury, and his command was fairly awful thereafter. If he has overcome these troubles, it is possible to see Fife compete for the role of fifth starter.

Matt Magill

Magill struggled in his 27.1 innings of work with the Dodgers this season, but in all fairness, he was called upon under difficult circumstances. To say he did not pitch well is an understatement, as he put up an FIP of 7.13 to go with a 6.51 ERA. He had control issues as well, posting a BB/9 rate of 9.11 in his brief time with the big league club. His numbers at Triple-A were much better, and those numbers were likely inflated due to the nature of Albuquerque and its reputation as a launching pad. If the club turns to Magill, it will only be due to several injuries to other members of the rotation.

'Zach Lee - June 5, 2012' photo (c) 2012, Dustin Nosler - license:

Zach Lee

Lee has pitched well at Double-A Chattanooga after being drafted and signed by Logan White during the dark days of the Frank McCourt era. Lured away from a commitment to LSU football, Lee may have an opportunity to crack the rotation during the 2014 season. In 142.2 innings at Chattanooga last year, Lee posted a 3.22 ERA to go with a solid strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.74/1. Lee’s FIP was 3.37, which may indicate a readiness to go at the Major League level, though the Dodgers may prefer to give him a bit more seasoning in the low-pressure atmosphere of the minors. If the Dodgers do not mind swallowing Beckett's hefty salary while getting zero productivity in 2014 (they likely do not), Lee may be the option they go with.

Ross Stripling

While Lee is the more heralded prospect, an argument could certainly be made for Stripling being the better option at this point. Stripling, pitching at the same level as Lee last season, posted an ERA of 2.78 and an FIP of 2.59. The sample size was smaller than Lee’s, as Stripling only pitched 94 innings of Double-A ball to Lee’s 142.2. Expect Stripling to get a shot, but all things being equal, he is likely headed back the the minors. 

There are others who could possibly compete for this fifth starter role, and perhaps Dan Haren is not exactly a lock for the rotation’s fourth spot either. It is hard to imagine the Dodgers not giving every opportunity to Beckett, who is slated to earn $15.8 million this year. The possibility remains that the Dodgers seek external help, as they have been reportedly interested in Bronson Arroyo on a free-agent deal. The rotation figures to be strong this year, and it seems that while there are plenty of options available, no individual option is anywhere close to a sure thing.

Tags: Baseball, Bronson Arroyo, Chad Billingsley, Josh Beckett, Los Angeles, Los Angeles Dodgers, MLB, Ross Stripling, Stephen Fife, Zach Lee

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