Dodgers must spend more on pitching

BY Ken Rosenthal • September 18, 2012

So who’s next for the Dodgers, Zack Greinke?

I’m not talking about one more trade to salvage the season; the Dodgers, even though they remain in contention for the second wild card, might be doomed given the uncertainty surrounding ace left-hander Clayton Kershaw.

No, I’m talking about the Dodgers signing Greinke or some other free agent, seeing as how the team faces one physical question after another with its starting pitchers — first left-hander Ted Lilly, then right-hander Chad Billingsley, now Kershaw.

The Dodgers can pretend that it’s OK if they miss the playoffs, rationalizing that they’re still set up to win long-term. But the whole point of The Great Trade was to win this season and beyond.

And the future, at least as it concerns 2013, is starting to look dicey.

The solution, then, is obvious.

The Dodgers won’t rely on prospects next season, not when they’re trying to win sooner rather than later. Their only choice is to spend and spend some more, particularly if they continue to spring holes in their rotation.

• Lilly, who has not pitched since May 23, is scheduled to undergo arthroscopic shoulder surgery on Friday. The Dodgers expect him back by spring training to fulfill the final year of his contract, but Lilly, 36, is no sure thing.

• Right-hander Billingsley, completing the first year of his three-year, $35 million extension, could require Tommy John surgery that would force him to miss all of next season.

• Kershaw, suffering from an impingement in his right hip, resumed throwing Tuesday. The Dodgers said that if his pain is not too severe, he could pitch again this season without further injuring his hip.

Then again, the Dodgers also made it clear that Kershaw would not return if his pain continued. Surgery remains possible — and such a procedure likely would sideline him through at least the start of next season.

Without Kershaw, the team’s rotation currently consists of four 30-something pitchers — righties Josh Beckett, Aaron Harang and Joe Blanton, plus lefty Chris Capuano — along with rookie right-hander Stephen Fife.

Granted, the Dodgers trail the Cardinals by only one game for the second wild card. But they barely are hitting, in part because their leading slugger, center fielder Matt Kemp, is dealing with his own injury, a bruised left shoulder.

Never mind the additions of shortstop Hanley Ramirez, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and Co.; the Dodgers’ degree of difficulty, with Kershaw and Kemp physically compromised, is almost unfairly high. The team, besides Lilly and Billingsley, also is missing infielders Jerry Hairston Jr. and Adam Kennedy and relievers Scott Elbert and Javy Guerra, among others.

At some point, the whole thing just gets to be unrealistic. Even if the Dodgers somehow grab the second wild card, even if they beat the Braves in the one-game knockout, how far can anyone seriously expect Los Angeles to advance?

Next season offers greater promise in at least one sense — Carl Crawford, once he returns from Tommy John surgery, will join Kemp and Andre Ethier in the outfield. But the starting pitching looks awfully questionable; the Dodgers, remember, sent Nathan Eovaldi to the Marlins in the Hanley Ramirez trade and included top prospects Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster in their deal with the Red Sox.

Lilly turns 37 next year, Harang and Capuano 35, Beckett 33 (Blanton is a free agent). The Dodgers have a number of highly regarded prospects at Double A, but none is expected to be ready at the start of '13. Kershaw, who turns 25 next year, and Billingsley, who turns 29, are supposed to be the mainstays.

The questions surrounding one or both of them almost certainly will force the Dodgers into the market — not that the team would have shied away from it otherwise.

Greinke, 28, is likely to be the top free-agent pitcher. The Dodgers, though, did not pursue him before the non-waiver deadline, perhaps out of fear he could not succeed in a large market with his history of depression of social-anxiety disorder.

True, Greinke is doing just fine in Anaheim, but Los Angeles is more intense. The Dodgers, in considering free agents, ultimately might prefer to bring back Hiroki Kuroda or renew their pursuit of Ryan Dempster, whom they tried to acquire before the non-waiver deadline. But Kuroda turns 38 next February, Dempster 36 next May.

Anibal Sanchez? Edwin Jackson? Another free agent? Sure, anything’s possible, including a trade for another expensive starter, someone such as Cliff Lee. In case you haven’t noticed, the Dodgers no longer aim low.

Club officials have yet to acknowledge any spending limit, and the expected signing of a new local TV deal in the near future only will reinforce the team’s financial might.

Whether or not Kershaw is healthy, there is no turning back.