Let's assume for a moment that Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka is the best free agent starting pitcher available. Let's assume that the Dodgers are willing to wait for the new posting system between the Japanese and major leagues to be worked out, which might not happen until mid-December.
Let's assume the Dodgers are willing to spend the $100 million or more it might take to sign Tanaka between the posting fee and his contract.
How, exactly, would that work out? After signing Dan Haren to a $10 million, incentive-laden deal and assuring him he would be a member of the team's rotation, the Dodgers now have four healthy starters and one rotation spot left for two pitchers coming off surgery, Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley.
"If something else comes our way, we'll take a look at it. I'm not going to close the door on any more starters," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said during the conference call to announce Haren's deal. Colletti points out that one of the prevailing story lines of spring training was what the Dodgers would do with eight starting pitchers. By the end of April, they'd already resorted to pitchers who were No. 9 and 10 on their spring training depth chart, Stephen Fife and Matt Magill.
So, yes, pitching depth is a good thing, one of the key assets for teams looking to win their divisions. But it's one thing to shuffle Chris Capuano to the bullpen or arrange a hasty trade to part with Aaron Harang. It's another thing to deny an opportunity to return from injury to two pitchers you owe more than $30 million combined.
Beckett, who makes $15.75 million next season, is expected to be ready at the start of spring training after surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. There is, of course, great uncertainty around Beckett's recovery. A similar injury just forced the St. Louis Cardinals' Chris Carpenter to retire, though he pitched effectively after the surgery in September and October of 2012.
Billingsley had reconstructive elbow surgery April 25. The Dodgers are saying they expect him to be pitching by May or June, which would seem to be on the optimistic side given that most pitchers coming off Tommy John operations need 12 to 18 months to recover fully. Stephen Stasburg returned from his procedure after 13 months and pitched well.
According to Dr. Michael Kaplan, ESPN's consulting medical expert, roughly 75 percent of elite pitchers "come back to full pitching and their full potential." Kaplan made his comments in regard to Strasburg three years ago.
It would be a gamble to count on Billingsley and Beckett, but not unreasonable to count on one or the other. The Dodgers have better in-house alternatives than they did a year ago. They still have Fife and Magill, but they have more promising prospects pushing from below. They view Ross Stripling, who had a 2.78 ERA at Double-A Chattanooga, and Zach Lee, who had a 3.22 ERA there, as viable alternatives some time next season.
Haren seems like an adequate replacement for Ricky Nolasco and, if he can bounce back to 2011 form, a major upgrade. So, while the Dodgers won't rule out another splash in the pitching market, it might be wiser to sit this one out.