Winter wish list: Starting Pitching

For a team picked by many to win the World Series next year, the Dodgers aren’t exactly the complete package just yet. At the top of their priority list for offseason upgrades is completing a starting rotation that only has three bankable pitchers at the moment.

Granted, “bankable,” might be an understatement for a trio that includes two Cy Young winners (including a two-time winner) and a Rookie of the Year contender. But beyond Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu, the Dodgers have nothing but questions.

Back in September, five months removed from reconstructive elbow surgery, Chad Billingsley was feeling great. He was hoping to be throwing off a mound some time early in 2014 and competing by spring training. Maybe it will happen, but most pitchers need a little more time than that to return from Tommy John surgery. The Dodgers can’t write Billingsley’s name into their plans until they see him pitching again, pain-free. It could be May or June before that happens.

Josh Beckett is even more of a mystery, primarily because he’s four years older than Billingsley and more than 1,900 innings into his major league career. Beckett had a rib removed in July to ease the discomfort stemming from thoracic outlet syndrome. He was hoping to be ready in February or March, but again, much is still unknown.

The Dodgers don’t seem confident in their internal options at the moment. That's not surprising since journeyman Matt Palmer led their Triple-A team in innings, Matt Magill struggled badly in his last two major-league starts, Stephen Fife got hurt and most of the team’s top pitching prospects were in Class-A ball last year.

So, of all the Dodgers’ needs, adding rotation depth will be at the top of their priority list going into next month’s winter meetings and, probably, beyond. Let’s explore some options:

Masahiro Tanaka: We’ve already discussed this possibility, so we’ll keep this fairly concise. It speaks volumes about the simultaneous rise in free-agent prices and decline in free-agent talent that teams are seriously considering making a run at the best pitcher in Japan given the costs involved. MLB and the Japanese league are still working out details of the new posting system, but it’s widely believed Tanaka’s team will get more than the previous record of $52 million and that the total cost of signing Tanaka could approach $150 million. He’s coming off a magical season and only 25 years old, but just a year ago, that was the going rate for a Cy Young-caliber pitcher who had already proven himself in the majors, eg., Zack Greinke.

On the plus side, the Dodgers wouldn’t have to surrender a draft pick to sign Tanaka, he would fit perfectly into their push to get younger, he’d help them own the Pacific Rim in terms of marketing and the posting fee wouldn’t count against the luxury tax. Oh, and he was 24-0 last year, so there’s that. Some people have taken to comparing the Dodgers to the New York Yankees. We’ll find out, because the Yankees might be their primary rivals for Tanaka.

Chances: Strong

David Price: Imagine a rotation with the two best left-handed starters in baseball sandwiched around Greinke. At that point, who cares who the fifth starter is? You or I could probably do it and the Dodgers could still win 95 games. He just turned 28, has a lifetime 3.16 ERA and averages 199 strikeouts per year. He’d probably thrive even more pitching in the National League. If the Dodgers could acquire him and then agree to a multi-year extension, he could also give them some insurance in case, somehow, they couldn’t reach a long-term deal with Kershaw. On the other hand, Tampa Bay hasn’t thrived in the toughest division in baseball for all these years because it makes bad decisions. The Rays are going to want a quality return of young talent to part with Price and, even if the Dodgers had all those pieces to trade, it would drain an already-thin system.

Chances: Slim

Ricky Nolasco: He struggled in September and gave up a punishing home run to Matt Holliday in the playoffs, but when the Dodgers acquired him in June, he was the perfect addition to their rotation. He added quality depth. Could he be the answer in the long term? He’s from Southern California and said he wanted to remain a Dodger. Keeping Nolasco just might prove too pricey for the return. There were reports out of last week’s general manager meetings that Nolasco already had a four-year deal in hand, with the Minnesota Twins apparently in serious pursuit. Is he worth $60 million or more? It’s an overheated market for pitching and Nolasco seems like the embodiment of that.

Chances: Slim

Hiroki Kuroda: He gets older, but the results stay the same. In six seasons in the major leagues, four of them with the Dodgers, Kuroda has never had an ERA higher than 3.76. The past two seasons, he has given the New York Yankees 421 innings and posted a 3.31 ERA. He could probably be signed on a one-year deal. Perfect, right? No, because he rejected the Yankees’ $14.1 million qualifying offer, which means two things. He wants to be paid more than that if he’s going to stay in the U.S. and he would cost the Dodgers a valuable draft pick, which would run counter to their rebuild-the-system push. Plus, he’ll be 39 next year.

Chances: Slim

Other free agents: Ervin Santana and Matt Garza have their appeals, but not at the price tags they’re likely to command. Bartolo Colon might be available on a reasonable one-year deal and wouldn’t cost the Dodgers a draft pick, but he turns 41 next May. With the exception of Tanaka, it’s an exceptionally flawed market for free agent starting pitchers and it seems like the Dodgers are more than aware of that. Much as they’d like to improve their rotation, they might be better served to sit this one out.

Chances: Slim

Other trade candidates: There have been reports that both the Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers have engaged the Dodgers in trade talks lately involving one of the Dodgers’ spare outfielders. If the Dodgers are willing to move Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford or Andre Ethier, and it certainly appears they are, they might be able to land a starter that way. If Texas isn’t willing to part with Elvis Andrus, for example, what if the Dodgers could land Ian Kinsler and Alexi Ogando in some kind of multi-player transaction? Texas has a deep system, so the Dodgers might be able to land a Triple-A arm that would be ready to help them at some point this season. And, of course, if the Dodgers are willing to field offers for Yasiel Puig, there’s no telling the kind of talent they could get in return, including the most coveted treasure of all, a quality starting pitcher or two.

Chances: Strong