Sometimes a cliche is just that – a simple saying that has become so overused that it no longer has any meaning outside of being a one-liner. No cliche in baseball gets more use than “you can never have too much pitching.” It seems like the phrase is used during every game, whether the man on the mound is performing well, reinforcing the wisdom of choice, or struggling, showing the lack of planning because there is no replacement. Scott Boras probably dedicates an entire chapter to the importance (and fragile nature) of pitching depth for each starter he represents.
A desire to have enough pitching is why the Yankees acquired Esteban Loaiza in 2004 and traded Jesus Montero to get Michael Pineda in 2012. It’s why the Red Sox signed Brad Penny and John Smoltz in 2009. It’s why the A’s took a chance at resurrecting the career of Bartolo Colon and why Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt, and Pedro Martinez have been able to make mid-season comebacks in the twilight of their careers.
The Dodgers entered 2013 with one of the deepest starting rotations in baseball. Since Opening day, however, that depth has been tested and depleted. Aaron Harang was traded to the Seattle Mariners, Zack Greinke was injured in a brawl with Carlos Quentin, Chad Billingsly succumed to Tommy John surgery, Chris Capuano hurt his leg while running from the bullpen during the aforementioned Greinke-Quentin melee and then aggravated the injury during his turn in rotation, Stephen Fife was called up from AAA and lasted just 4.2 innings before going on the DL himself. It’s a good thing the Dodgers started with so many options to fill the innings. Ted Lilly, who had been rehabbing in the minors to begin the year, no opening in sight, now finds himself with a grasp on a starting job.
Dodgers management is committed to winning and willing to spend, which is why GM Ned Colletti signed left-handed pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu out of Korea during the offseason. At the time the move seemed to indicate the Dodgers were going to part with one or two members of their pantheon of starting pitchers, but the team stood still. Ryu was just 25 at the time, celebrating his 26th birthday on April 2nd, so youth and inexperience with American baseball was on their side had the team eased the southpaw into MLB rather than handing him a rotation spot out of Spring Training. Yet the youngster impressed and in the process, pushed veterans Capuano and Harang, both surprisingly useful in 2012, to the sidelines. But that still left too many players and too few seats at the table. How could the Dodgers successfully take advantage of eight or nine capable starting pitchers?
As the other common baseball saying goes “these things have a way of working themselves out.” Injuries, poor performance, trades – any one of these can shake up a situation that looks to be set in stone. Aaron Harang was traded because there appeared to be enough depth to compensate for his loss. Chad Billingsley entered 2013 as a member of the walking wounded, having opted to skip surgery last fall and rehab his balky elbow instead. Two down of more-or-less natural causes. But Greinke and Capuano both sustaining injuries in a brawl? Unpredictable. Fife injuring himself as a replacement? That kind of poor timing is hard to imagine. Had young pitchers Allen Webster and/or Rubby De La Rosa remained in the organization rather than shipping off to Boston in the Adrian Gonzalez/Carl Crawford/Josh Beckett trade last summer, things wouldn’t have looked so bad. But again, at the time, they were additional excess pitching capacity.
Starting pitching is a commodity fungible enough to trade and valuable enough to hoard. There is a reason teams try to develop pitchers through the draft and international signings: it’s a resource that can suddenly run out, no matter what the reserve looks like before disaster strikes. It’s why the Cardinals under pitching coach Dave Duncan and the White Sox under his counterpart Don Cooper are renowned for their ability to take marginal pitchers and turn them into contributors. Being able to “fix” a guy who seems to have lost his stuff is something many teams will try every year, but only a few succeed. Kyle Lohse had logged over a thousand innings of 4.82 ERA ball in his career before joining the Cardinals in 2008. Since then his ERA is nearly a full point lower. And from the start of the 2011 season it stands at just 3.08. Lohse came to St. Louis as a reclamation project and left finishing 7th in NL Cy Young voting.
The Dodgers may not have a Kyle Lohse or a wizard masquerading as a pitching coach, but they are the latest team to learn that no matter how many pitchers they start with, it may still not be quite enough.
Cross-posted at The Sports Post