LOS ANGELES -- If there is one constant in the way Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti explains the building of a championship roster, it’s that you can never have too much pitching. And when it comes to the playoffs, those arms are particularly precious commodities. The starting arms, even more so. Matchups on the mound can swing the course of a series, and there’s no such thing as being too flush with riches. Obviously, there’s more to a win or loss than who takes the hill first, but the potential advantage marked by a team’s respective starters can be huge.
With that in mind, by declining to surrender coveted prospects such as Joc Pederson, Corey Seager and Julio Urias in a deadline deal for the likes of Jon Lester or David Price, the Dodgers’ front office was implicitly expressing strong faith in the team's chances throughout the playoffs with the (presumably healthy) trio of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu, plus a fourth starter.
Which fourth starter will that be? For now, no idea.
For most of this season, that role was Josh Beckett’s to lose, but a likely season-ending hip injury threw that plan for a loop. It’s ultimately manager Don Mattingly’s call to make, but to a large degree it’s also “dealer’s choice,” a choice made by the pitcher who proves himself most likely to deal when it matters most.
The field, for the time being, consists of Dan Haren, Kevin Correia and Roberto Hernandez, a trio that come Tuesday will have started three times over the Dodgers’ past four games. Their recent time on the mound also reflects the crapshoot nature of this situation.
Haren, whose post-All-Star-break showing has been turbulent enough to induce motion sickness, made a statement on Friday against the New York Mets, showing the Dodgers they should hold off on burying him just yet.
Correia, on the heels of a strong six-inning, one-run showing against Atlanta, got torched in Sunday afternoon’s 11-3 loss to New York.
The next ball goes to Hernandez in Arizona. For whatever it’s worth, he has been pretty steady since arriving in L.A. earlier this month, and this season has been among the stronger of his career. But we’re still talking about a pitcher with a career ERA a smidge under 5.00. And as this carousel has demonstrated, anything can and often does happen.
For Mattingly, who indicated after Sunday’s loss that Correia could be headed to the bullpen with all hands on deck, life after Kershaw, Greinke and Ryu becomes a matter of living in the now.
“At this point you’re just in a single-game mode,” Mattingly said. “You go out and you try to win a game that day. We’ll try to line up our guys the best we can, giving guys days off or whatever, the best that we can. But we’re not worried about shoring anything up, other than just going out there and being ready to play and counting on those guys to pitch well. They’ve kept us where we’re at all year long.”
Catcher A.J. Ellis recognized the unpredictable nature of slots four and five in the rotation, but also expressed confidence in the winning mentality and veteran savvy shared by all three pitchers.
“I think getting Hyun-Jin Ryu back hopefully next weekend will help kind of slot everybody back to where we planned,” Ellis said. “Those guys are professionals and they’re battlers. They know how to compete. But it makes it tough, because you put a lot of pressure on the first two guys, Clayton and Zach, right now, because you know you have to go out there and win their games for sure, and hope you can battle and scrap the other three.
“But you’ve seen the way Danny’s turned his season around. The last three or four outings, he looks like he’s on a good trajectory. Roberto and Kevin are professional guys who’ve been around a long time and know how to get a lot of outs.”
The back end of any rotation in baseball is, by definition and across the majors, a roll of the dice. With the exception of the deepest rotations, more often than not, you throw out the best candidates, hold your breath and hope a credible performance coincides with an offense that's feeling its oats. Some days it works out. Some days it doesn’t. And obviously, once a seven-game series begins, only one back-end pitcher needs to emerge a reasonably reliable force, and only once every seven games at the most.
The Dodgers have a little more than a month to figure out who exactly will (or won’t) emerge to fit that bill.