Lilly’s encouraging starts raise roster questions

RANCHO CUCAMONGA – Ted Lilly took the mound at The Epicenter earlier this week on Tuesday, 11 days after a planned Rancho Cucamonga rehabilitation start was postponed due to the recurring bout of shoulder soreness that has limited the veteran left-hander to 48.2 innings, in which he has produced a 5-1 record and 3.14 ERA.

Lilly struck out two batters on fastballs in a perfect first inning and expressed optimism towards a late-season return to the Dodgers.

“It felt good today,” Lilly said. “I threw the ball as well as I’ve thrown it since I got hurt. I’m hoping that I don’t have to do too many more of these, and I can back up with the club.”

He added a two-inning rehab stint in Rancho Cucamonga on Thursday, allowing a solo homerun and striking out two in his two innings of work.

If he returns, he’d create a bottleneck of players fighting for roster spots prior to roster expansion. Relievers Scott Elbert (elbow scar tissue) and Matt Guerrier (elbow tendinitis), along with infielders Jerry Hairston (hip inflammation) and Dee Gordon (torn thumb ligament) will all be eyeing returns to the active roster at or before Sept. 1. Guerrier allowed one run for Rancho Cucamonga in his first inning of work since April 18, while Elbert pitched a scoreless inning of relief for Double-A Chatanooga on Thursday.
There is a particularly stubborn logjam in the starting rotation, where the current five starters have lifted the unit to the height of its productivity in 2012. Clayton Kershaw is the reigning Cy Young Award winner and has won four straight starts. Chad Billingsley has won five straight starts, while Chris Capuano has quality starts in eight of 11 and struck out 10 while throwing eight shutout innings in Miami on Sunday. Aaron Harang and Joe Blanton – who gave up three homeruns and eight earned runs in 4.1 innings in Thursday’s 10-6 loss to Pittsburgh – fit in back-end roles.

Lilly, who has averaged 165.5 strikeouts over the past six seasons and has thrown at least 177 innings in eight of his last nine seasons, understands that if he is to rejoin the rotation, his contribution will have to be at the level befitting a team in the thick of a pennant race.

“There are no guarantees,” Lilly said. “I don’t expect any guarantees, and I feel like if I can get myself to where I’m throwing the ball the way I’m capable of, then I can help us.”

The Atlanta Braves, against whom Los Angeles will open a three-game series at Turner Field on Friday (4:30 p.m., Prime Ticket), will use a six-man rotation through the remainder of August while in the midst of playing on 20 consecutive days. Tommy Hanson, who will start against Capuano on Friday, necessitated the change with his return to the rotation from back spasms.

More important than anything, the Dodgers are hoping Lilly is simply able to return and be in a position to contribute. Having too much depth at any position is never a problem for any manager. 

“If you’re serious about winning, you’ve got to have the horses to win,” Mattingly said late last month.

“I think at this point I’m just going to try and get to the point where I can rebound from taking a couple innings on, and I can be relied upon,” Lilly said of his progress.

As roster expansion should grant general manager Ned Colletti a temporary reprieve from decisions about roster spots and player assignments, September will develop into a month in which fringe 25-man roster players will compete for a spot on the playoff roster, should the team advance to the postseason.

With Elbert’s potential return next homestand and Guerrier also looking rejoin the team in September, the current Dodger bullpen is likely a player or two away from the projected pen they’d use should they play past 162 games. Shawn Tolleson (.194 opponents batting average) and Jamie Wright (4-3, 3.74) have done exactly what the Dodgers have asked of them but could be shuffled off the roster with an arms surplus, while Blanton didn’t help his own cause Thursday afternoon and has now surrendered 16 runs in 15.1 innings with Los Angeles. A fully healthy Lilly could be seen as a better option than a fully healthy Blanton, though there’s still no great read on whether Lilly’s arm strength will rise to the level necessary for a starting pitcher to benefit a playoff team.

“I definitely want to [rejoin the team], but I want to make sure that I’m ready to help,” Lilly said Tuesday. “I think today to me was an indication that I’m going in that direction.”

It’s also an indication that Colletti has both insurance – and maybe some awfully tough decisions to make – in what should be a competitive September.