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Spring drama? Seven players for two spots is L.A.'s early theme

The Dodgers will likely limit young Julio Urias' innings this season. Rob Leiter/MLB Photos/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES -- If the Los Angeles Dodgers need a theme for spring training 2017, perhaps this one will suffice: seven men for two spots.

On a roster loaded with major league-ready players, the Dodgers’ toughest decision figures to come within the starting rotation. While some organizations need to find a worthy fifth -- and in some cases a fourth -- starter, the Dodgers have a different kind of daunting task ahead.

Three starters seem set: Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda. Squeezing the final seven options into the five-man boat could end up creating waves.

Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, Julio Urias, Alex Wood, Ross Stripling, Brock Stewart and even Hyun-Jin Ryu all have shown they are worthy of a look. And there are no plans for a six-, seven- or eight-man rotation.

It’s a good problem to have, but only from the team perspective. Assuming a majority of the final rotation candidates have a strong spring, at least two will not think the situation is entirely positive.

“There are only so many starting rotation spots,” manager Dave Roberts said recently. “I hope we don’t have to exhaust all those starters as we did this past season. But knowing [president of baseball operations] Andrew [Friedman] and this front office for a year, obviously depth is very important to our front office. And it really played itself out last year.”

It was forced to play out in 2016, of course, as the injuries mounted. Yet instead of crumbling under the weight of lost starts to proven veterans, the Dodgers plugged in one answer after another.

In an odd way, the Dodgers actually hope they will have to break somebody’s heart by telling them that, despite proving they should be in an Opening Day starting rotation, they are going to have to take on a different role. It will mean the Dodgers have the sharpest possible starting staff when the season opens.

“As we look around here today, we have a lot of starting pitching depth, but as we finish spring training, guys like Alex Wood, Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, they’re going to have to pitch somewhere,” Roberts said. “So whether it is out of the rotation or potentially out of the pen, I don’t know that answer right now.”

From the first day pitchers and catchers report to the desert on Wednesday, to the April 3 opener at home against the San Diego Padres, the coaching staff and front office will have 48 days to sort through all of the data.

Through this lens, the rumored plan to have Urias open the season in extended spring training is a prudent one. It will give the Dodgers one less rotation decision to make when camp breaks and help keep the 20-year-old’s innings in check for the second half and on into what the Dodgers believe will be another postseason appearance.

Stripling and Stewart could find themselves as members of a formidable rotation at Triple-A Oklahoma City. Wood could find himself as the bullpen’s swing man, while Ryu is possibly asked to slowly work his way back into a productive pitcher again in one-inning relief bursts.

“Yeah, I think some will be [bullpen] candidates,” Friedman said. “It’s obviously tricky in once you do it, it just becomes that much harder to build them back up as starters. So we’ll have to factor all that in. And it depends on what our bullpen looks like, whether we have had injuries in spring training. So all of that will go into our decision come Opening Day.”

Potential injuries among members of the staff will most certainly play a role, but starting-pitching injuries through baseball could ultimately impact the Dodgers. Although blockbuster trades during spring training are rare, the Dodgers could always deal somebody such as Kazmir to a team that loses a key component at the top of their rotation.

But it is not as though the Dodgers are looking to shed starters. In fact, even with good health in the pitching department, all 10 of the club’s starters could see key action. The starting depth is a reason the club is optimistic, even while carrying three pitchers, in Hill, Maeda and Urias, who don’t figure to be asked to push things toward the 200-inning mark. And Ryu certainly won’t carry a heavy innings load even if he is pain-free.

Urias threw 122 innings combined in the major and minor leagues in 2016. Then there were 5⅔ more in the postseason. The Dodgers won’t put an exact number on it, but Urias doesn’t figure to be set up to go too far past the 150-innings mark this season.

Hill threw a combined 110⅓ innings with the Dodgers and Oakland Athletics last season, including 13 more in the postseason. He had been a reliever for most of the previous six seasons and had not thrown that many innings since his 195 in 2007. Hill’s blister issues from last season likely will influence the Dodgers to curtail his innings total.

And in Maeda, his pitch-efficiency issues reduced his innings total to 175⅔ in 2016, but it is not as though the Dodgers wanted him to go too far past that total anyway. The club did its best to give Maeda an extra day between starts, to better simulate his schedule in Japan. The goal this year seems to be a five-day schedule for Maeda, but it still does not sound as if the Dodgers want him to eclipse the 200-innings total.

The new 10-day disabled list could help the Dodgers to manipulate innings totals and get multiple starters into the mix, but Friedman sounded this winter as if he wasn’t sure that avenue would make much of a difference.

“So much of it has to do with the schedule and what day certain guys pitch on and where off days are,” Friedman said about keeping all of his starters busy while limiting workloads. “There are just so many factors to it. And how guys feel at different points and time, and how a guy’s stuff is maintaining start to start.

“There are just so many different factors, but we are doing everything we can to put our guys in the best position to stay healthy, which is important to us. So we will monitor it and have the requisite depth for when things pop up.”

Indeed, “seven starters for two spots” could be the theme of the spring. But these Dodgers are so deep that maybe another theme emerges. “Eight outfielders for three spots” anyone?

There will be no shortage of drama for the Dodgers this spring. And that really will be a good problem to have.