Eight starters? For Dodgers, too much pitching is a good problem

Jae C. Hong/AP Photo

LOS ANGELES -- It is a good problem, Dave Roberts will admit, but it torments him nonetheless. His Los Angeles Dodgers will begin the season's second half with what appears to be an excess of quality starting pitchers, and Roberts has spent the past few days racking his brain over how to maximize this newfound depth while navigating the potential obstacles.

At some point this week, before the Dodgers' next game on Friday afternoon, the coaches and front-office members are expected to engage in what Roberts called "deep discussions" to plan for this looming situation.

A six-man rotation is under consideration, especially for an initial stretch of 17 games in 17 days. It would include, in no particular order, Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, Alex Wood, Ross Stripling, Kenta Maeda and Walker Buehler. But Hyun-Jin Ryu, who is throwing off a mound, could come back next month. And Julio Urias, the lefty phenom who is recovering from shoulder surgery, theoretically could rejoin the rotation by the start of September, if not sooner.

That's eight starters if everyone stays healthy, and the Dodgers would like to somehow use all of them.

Said Kershaw: "They like the word 'depth' around here for a reason."

"There's going to have to be some sacrifices from everyone," said Roberts, in his third year as Dodgers manager. "It's a great problem to have because unforeseen injuries obviously can happen and can change that. But if everything stays status quo, then we're going to have to have some big conversations."

Just a month ago, the Dodgers faced the opposite problem. Four of the five members of their Opening Day rotation were on the disabled list during the first 13 days of June. Kershaw's back had flared up again, Hill was hampered by another blister, Ryu nursed a groin strain and Maeda had a balky hip. Buehler, an in-season reinforcement, dealt with a sore rib and also spent time on the DL in that stretch.

"We were in a bad swing, but we figured we'd come out of it eventually," Wood said.

The Dodgers have done so miraculously. In less than two months, they went from 10 games under .500 to 10 games over. They entered the All-Star break leading the National League West by a half-game over the Arizona Diamondbacks. Then they acquired superstar shortstop Manny Machado from the Baltimore Orioles, lengthening their lineup with a potent bat that fills their biggest hole.

The home run ball powered the Dodgers through June, but starting pitching has played a major role in prolonging their excellence.

Dodgers starters own a 2.93 ERA since the start of July, trailing only the Colorado Rockies for the lowest in the major leagues in that span. Hill has struck out 35 batters while walking only seven in 30 2/3 innings since coming off his second DL stint. Wood, the only one among them who hasn't missed time, has a 2.95 ERA over his past six starts. Maeda has allowed only four earned runs in his past 25 2/3 innings, and Stripling has allowed only one run over his past 12. Kershaw, meanwhile, has fashioned a 2.70 ERA since his return on June 23.

"These last two or three weeks, we're throwing the ball really well and consistently," Wood said. "But I think there's another gear for us to go to."

Perhaps, but there's also some noticeable volatility. The Dodgers' rotation group is deep enough that president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman used what little room he had below the luxury-tax threshold to add a premier position player rather than a top-of-the-rotation starter as he did with Yu Darvish last year.

Still, questions persist about the Dodgers' starters, and juggling their workloads while keeping them in rhythm promises to be an excruciating exercise.

Here is a look at what Roberts is dealing with:

Kershaw and Hill: Kershaw has been on the DL in each of the past three seasons with back injuries, and his workload -- 2,023 innings, including playoffs, from 2009 to 2018 -- has been exceedingly heavy. He needs to be monitored carefully. But Kershaw is expected to be exempt from the every-sixth-day schedule, and his unrelenting competitiveness makes it difficult to remove him early from games. Hill is 38 and has made five blister-related trips to the DL over the past three seasons.

Wood and Stripling: Wood threw 152 1/3 innings in 2017, his first season removed from arthroscopic elbow surgery, and is on pace to be in the neighborhood of 180 in 2018. Roberts mentioned Wood as "a guy that you have to continue to keep an eye on." The same can be said for Stripling, who has never pitched more than 127 2/3 innings in a professional season. Stripling is already at 95 1/3 innings, so he's on pace to blow past that mark.

Buehler: The 23-year-old is on an innings limit that, though not publicized, is expected to fall between 140 and 150. Buehler has compiled 93 1/3 innings so far and seems like an ideal candidate to serve as the Dodgers' sixth starter. If Buehler indeed steps into that role, and thus takes the mound only for stretches when the Dodgers play six or more games consecutively, he would make eight more starts. And if he maintains his average, he'll finish the regular season approaching 140 innings, saving very little for a potential playoff run.

This doesn't even count Ryu, who possibly had been the Dodgers' best pitcher before he went down in early May. Or Maeda, who arguably has been their most consistent starter all season. Or Urias, a potential face of the franchise before he underwent surgery last June to repair his left anterior capsule.

"At some point, we're going to reach a crossroads," Roberts said.

Ideally, the manager will have his hands full.

"It's kind of uncharted territory where you have eight legitimate major league starters, if all healthy," Roberts added. "And to keep them current, sharp -- because when they do pitch, the No. 1 thing is they have to have a confidence that they can be at their peak and help us win a major league game -- we're very sensitive to that. But there's no exact science."