Los Angeles fans might be focused on the closer's position today, but as we look ahead to next season, the Dodgers will go into the offseason with three-fifths of their starting rotation on the free agent market. Here's a tentative look ahead at what the Dodger rotation might look like (barring injuries or any other unforseen incidents) on the next Opening Day.
Firstly, let's look at the starters who are under the club's control. Clayton Kershaw can be safely pencilled in as the Dodgers' number one starter next season, so if you hear any news about him this winter, it will likely be the Dodgers exploring long-term contract talks. (Kershaw is eligible for arbitration after 2011.)
Chad Billingsley's name has been mentioned in trade rumors for everyone from Roy Halladay to Roy Oswalt, but the right-hander has remained in Dodger blue. Billingsley has paid off the team's faith in him by developing into a solid starter: a 3.59 career ERA and a 2.05 K/BB ratio over five seasons. He has even shown signs of harnessing his control issues by posting a career-low 3.2 BB/9 ratio thus far in 2010. Billingsley is making $3.85MM this season and has two more arbitration years left, so he might be another target for a long-term deal.
Looming over any contract talks for either pitcher (or any offseason move for the Dodgers) is the ongoing dispute over the Dodgers' ownership stemming from the divorce between Frank and Jamie McCourt. One would think that L.A. would find enough money to lock up their two young starters, especially with the likes of Manny Ramirez's contract coming off the books. The Dodgers have shown that they've been willing and able to spend a bit in the wake of the McCourt divorce, but if a sudden cash crunch pops up in the winter, it's possible that Billingsley could be swapped instead of given what could be substantial arbitration raises for the next two years.
That leaves the Dodgers' three pending free agent starters: Hiroki Kuroda, Ted Lilly and Vicente Padilla. If last year was any indication, L.A. won't offer salary arbitration to any of them, though it seems quite unlikely that Lilly or Kuroda would accept. Lilly seems destined to test the market for a big deal and will no doubt get attention from several teams. Given the Dodgers' payroll uncertainty, it seems safe to presume that Lilly will be pitching elsewhere in 2011.
Kuroda is approaching the end of the three-year, $35.3MM contract he signed with Los Angeles in 2007, and has been the definition of a solid middle-of-the-rotation pitcher since coming to the majors from Japan. Kuroda will turn 36 in February and has a couple of DL stints to his name, which will probably keep him from getting a long-term deal. It's easy to picture a number of teams bidding on the right-hander, so again, the Dodgers could be priced out of the market.
Padilla has put up very good numbers (3.29 ERA, 8.2 K/9 ratio in 22 appearances) since signing with the Dodgers in August 2009, though his L.A. stint has been marred by a two-month stint on the DL this year with a forearm injury. Padilla agreed to return to the Dodgers on a one-year, $5.025MM contract for this season, and given his love of pitching at Dodger Stadium, it's possible to see Padilla return on something akin to a two-year, $14MM deal, possibly with an option year and some incentive clauses.
What will the Dodgers do to fill these holes in the rotation? Help could come from within in the form of John Ely, who threw eight quality starts out of 14 in Padilla's place this season and looked like he belonged in the majors. Charlie Haeger and Carlos Monasterios also started games for L.A. this year, but Haeger pitched terribly and Monasterios projects better out of the bullpen.
Down on the farm, L.A.'s best pitching prospects seem at least a year or two away. Right-hander Josh Lindblom (the Dodgers' second-round pick in the 2008 amateur draft) looked to be on the fast track to the majors after he zoomed from A-ball to Triple-A within two years, but Lindblom struggled badly (7.06 ERA) as a starter at Triple-A Albuquerque this year and was converted back into a reliever.
Two Dodger pitching prospects made Baseball America's midseason top 50 prospects list (right-handers Ethan Martin and Chris Withrow) though both are struggling with control issues. Martin has a 5.7 BB/9 ratio and a 5.57 ERA in high-A ball this season, while Withrow (the #48-ranked prospect in BA's preseason list) has a 4.8 BB/9 ratio and a 5.84 ERA in Chattanooga. With this relative lack of major league-ready arms coming up, it makes the deal of James McDonald for short-term rental Octavio Dotel at the trade deadline seem pretty curious.
Between the ownership issues and Joe Torre's possible retirement, there are still enough changes to come in Los Angeles that it's hard to predict exactly what the Dodgers will do with their rotation next season. Barring any payroll increase, however, it seems likely that L.A. will look to low-cost veterans who might take a Padilla-esque short-term deal to revive themselves pitching at Chavez Ravine.
In his examination of Cincinnati's 2011 rotation, MLBTR's Ben Nicholson-Smith noted that Aaron Harang is likely to have his option declined by the Reds in the winter. A pitcher like Harang, who has struggled but still put up decent peripheral numbers over the last three seasons, could regain his All-Star form in moving from the Great American Ballpark to Dodger Stadium. Free agent NL West veterans like Kevin Correia or Jeff Francis (who will likely have his $7MM option declined by the Rockies) could be possible Dodger targets as well.