Dodgers' staff woes may cost them in October

BY foxsports • September 20, 2009

Even in the midst of baseball's statistical evolution, one signpost remains: Starters are supposed to pitch 30 games or more each year.

It sounds like an ordinary achievement for a healthy, effective starter, but the significance goes far beyond that. The most consistent teams in the regular season — the ones with good records and rested bullpens — tend to have three or four pitchers with at least 30 starts.

When the season ends in 14 days, the Dodgers may have only two.

"You'd like to have four," general manager Ned Colletti said. "But with the way the game is today and how many people get hurt, it's tough to plan on that. We don't always plan on that.

"Going into the season, you would have liked to see our top four — (Chad) Billingsley, (Randy) Wolf, (Hiroki) Kuroda, (Clayton) Kershaw — get 30-plus starts each. But that hasn't worked out. So, we've done the next-best thing. We've mixed and matched."

This month, the mix-and-match Dodgers have relied heavily on two starters, Jon Garland and Vicente Padilla, who arrived after the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. And the key starters Colletti mentioned have missed at least one start apiece in recent weeks: Wolf, Kuroda and Kershaw because of injuries; Billingsley because of inconsistent performance and waning confidence.

The end result is that only Billingsley and Wolf have reached the 30-start mark. Kershaw has 28 but may not pitch often enough to join them because of a separated right (non-throwing) shoulder.

What does it all mean? Well, it's been six years since a team won the World Series following a regular season in which only two of its pitchers made 30 starts (Brad Penny and Carl Pavano with the 2003 Marlins). So, the odds won't be in the Dodgers' favor this October.

Still, there's at least some precedent for championship teams having rotations assembled on the fly. In the first two games of the 2006 World Series, the St. Louis starter was a right-hander whose regular season ERA was above 5.00 (Anthony Reyes and Jeff Weaver).

The Cardinals won that series in five games.

"If we're fortunate enough to get there, the postseason is game-by-game," Colletti said. "You try to figure out how to win one game at a time. You can set up your rotation, but a lot of times the bullpen will end up taking over a game."

Twelve pitchers have started three or more games for the Dodgers this season. Twelve. That's a statistic one would expect from an also-ran, not a near-certain playoff team. But Padilla and Garland have performed beyond expectations, with a 6-0 record and 2.65 ERA over nine combined starts through Saturday.

The Dodgers have the most wins in the National League. Still, it's hard to imagine them doing much in the postseason without contributions from the pitchers who were such a big part of Colletti's initial plans.

"They might have to slug their way through the playoffs," one scout said of the Dodgers, "but it always comes down to pitching."

Kershaw injured his shoulder during batting practice Sept. 6 and hasn't pitched in a game since. But his simulated game Friday was an apparent success, and the team has made plans for him to pitch out of the bullpen this week.

Billingsley is probably the greater concern. He is 3-6 with a 5.49 ERA since appearing in the All-Star Game and was skipped in the rotation for this weekend's series against the Giants.

Manager Joe Torre recently told reporters that the team needs "to get him straightened out." But Billingsley hasn't made much progress yet, based on an iffy relief appearance in Friday's loss (1 2/3 innings, two earned runs). senior baseball writer Ken Rosenthal reported during Saturday's MLB on FOX telecast that Wolf and Kershaw are likely to pitch the Dodgers' first two postseason games — and that there's a good chance Billingsley won't be in the rotation at all.

A Wake in 2010

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