Dodgers keep everyone guessing

LOS ANGELES -- It was so striking in the chill of late October there seemed no way it would ever blur. The next step toward wherever the Dodgers were going could only be guided by an ace.

Two years in a row, the Philadelphia Phillies had underscored what the Dodgers had already known for some time but hoped was not irrefutable. First behind the high-leg kick of Cole Hamels, then with the sharp hook of Cliff Lee's devastating curveball.

No one disputed it. No one even tried to hide it. Joe Torre said it. So did Ned Colletti.

"We have to pitch better," Torre memorably said after the Phillies beat the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series for the second season in a row. "That's the one thing that's going to expose you more than anything else is being able to get those outs.''

And yet 6½ months later, the team has been unable -- or unwilling? -- to do much about it.

Even before starter Charlie Haeger's awful outing Saturday night against the Colorado Rockies (he faced five batters, all of whom scored), what the Dodgers are lacking in the temperate haze of early May is even more striking than it was on the final frigid night in Philadelphia.

Coming into Saturday's 8-0 loss to the Rockies, Dodgers starters had a collective 5.62 ERA this season, tied for second-worst in the National League behind the Pirates (6.34 ERA).

The pitchers have given Torre just 5.5 innings a start, tied for third-fewest in the NL behind Pittsburgh (5.1) and St. Louis (5.4).

Explaining why this is still such a problem is where things get difficult and uncomfortable.

As was the case in October, the Dodgers are the first to acknowledge their shortcomings.

"Since the end of the last season [starting] pitching was the one area we knew we had to support as much as we could," said Colletti. "We even knew it last year, halfway through the season when we went after [Vicente] Padilla and we went after [Jon] Garland, that it was a place that needed to be shored up.

"We're still in that mode. [Clayton] Kershaw's pitched some great games, but he's going to struggle from time to time, that's the nature of being young. Chad [Billingsley], the last three times out, save for an inning here or an inning there, has been much better. Still, that's a lot to put on two younger players.

"We're going to continue to work to get them better and see if we can come up with another starter at some point. There's nobody out there right now. Will there be people out there in two months? Yeah, there will be people out there in two months."

The question is, will the Dodger be buyers or sellers this year?

The way things have been set up each of the last three seasons is for the team's performance to dictate what it does at the trading deadline. If the Dodgers are in contention for the playoffs, they will be buyers. The alternative hasn't come up and Colletti isn't ready to consider that option yet. But if the team's tepid, tumultuous start drags into June or July, he might have to.

"I think how a lot of teams look at it is, 'They're going to play the first four months and see where they're at. If they have a chance to do something good, if they have a definitive weakness that they feel they can shore up, they usually go for it and shore that up," Colletti said.

"It may be an addition that'll get them to the postseason, or it may be an addition that'll get them deep into the postseason. Depends on the makeup of the club."

For a young team seemingly so close to breaking through the past two seasons, that would be profoundly disappointing. Not just because it would waste another prime year for the team's budding core of young stars, but because it should never come to that.

The Phillies found themselves at a similar juncture in 2007 when they were swept by the Rockies in the NL Division Series. From there they went forward, building from the inside and outside, and deciding it was worthwhile to open their pocketbook even if a few investments didn't work out. They won a World Series in 2008 and lost to the Yankees in the World Series in 2009.

The Dodgers have been unwilling to do that.

It's easy to point to the divorce between owner Frank McCourt and the team's former CEO Jamie McCourt as the irritant provoking that approach, but the same set of issues existed last season before either of them began filing salacious legal briefs.

The divorce, in a way, has provided false cover for the team's unwillingness to take long-term financial risk.

To be fair, it's hard to argue that any team is going to feel good about paying John Lackey $15.25 million when he's 36 years old in 2014. Or paying Randy Wolf $9.5 million in 2012.

But in today's market, that's evolved into the assumed risk a team must take on when it signs a big-money free-agent pitcher heading into his 30s. A team assumes the final few years of a four- or five-year deal aren't going to be worth what they are paying that player, but swallows those two seasons of overpaying an aging pitcher for three productive years that come before it.

The Dodgers can't or won't do that right now.

Which in itself is a risk. Maybe not a quantifiable risk on the balance sheet that can turn ink from black to red. But a risk of something even more important.

The Dodgers' window to win is ajar right now.

Their way forward is and has been clear. They need an ace.

They still have to prove they have the will to go get one.

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.