The Dodgers were dealt some undesirable news last week when All-Star starter Tony Gonsolin rolled his left ankle during a pitcher-fielding practice session. He was diagnosed with a sprain and unable to put much weight on the leg for a few days.
Manager Dave Roberts told reporters yesterday that Gonsolin has again started throwing (via Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register). He’s progressed to long toss from 120 feet but has yet to return to the mound. With Opening Day two weeks out, it seems increasingly likely he’ll require a stint on the 15-day injured list.
If that proves the case, the Dodgers will have to add someone to the season-opening rotation behind Julio Urías, Clayton Kershaw, Noah Syndergaard and Dustin May. Los Angeles doesn’t have the luxury some clubs do of many built-in off days early in the year. They’re scheduled for games in 13 of the first 14 days and 24 of the initial 26 days of the regular season. Unless the club wants to cover some starts via bullpen games, they’ll need a fifth starter if Gonsolin isn’t available.
Likely Front Runners
Ryan Pepiot, 25, two minor league option years remaining
Pepiot seems the favorite for the job. He started seven of his first nine big league games last season, working to a 3.47 ERA over 36 1/3 innings. Pepiot struck out an above-average 26.3% of opponents but his 16.9% walk rate was untenable for a player hoping to stick in a rotation. He showed more serviceable control in the minors, walking 9.8% of batters faced with a lofty 30.9% strikeout rate and a 2.56 ERA in 91 1/3 frames for Triple-A Oklahoma City.
A former third-round pick, Pepiot has developed into one of the better pitching prospects in the sport. The Butler product has a wipeout changeup and plus spin on a fastball that averaged just under 94 MPH last season. Evaluators have expressed trepidation about his breaking ball and especially the consistency of his strike-throwing. Still, he’s an intriguing young pitcher with upper minors success who has shown a decent ability to miss bats early in his time at the big league level. He’s not a finished product but could be capable of providing the Dodgers with a few solid starts in a fill-in capacity.
Michael Grove, 26, two options remaining
A second-round pick in the 2018 draft, Grove overcame some early-career injury concerns to reach the majors last year. He started six of his first seven big league games, posting a 4.60 ERA through 29 1/3 frames. That came with a modest 18% strikeout rate and a lot of hard contact. The 6’3″ righty did a solid job throwing strikes, though, limiting walks to a roughly average 7.5% clip.
Like Pepiot, Grove had a solid 2022 campaign in a hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League setting. He posted a 4.07 ERA in 59 2/3 Triple-A frames, fanning 26.7% of batters faced against an 8.2% walk percentage. Grove held right-handed batters at the top minor league level to a .213/.266/.368 line over 263 plate appearances. Lefties, on the other hand, teed off at a .279/.344/.541 clip in 192 trips to the dish. It was a similar story at the MLB level. Righties hit .241/.293/.389 in his limited look, while left-handers managed a .275/.333/.522 slash.
Grove doesn’t throw a changeup, relying on a fastball/slider/curveball combination. Prospect evaluators have raised questions about his ability to handle left-handed hitters without a pitch that breaks away from them. That has led to concern about whether he can stick in an MLB rotation long term, though the Dodgers could match him up against right-handed heavy teams like Colorado and the Cubs in the season’s first couple weeks.
Gavin Stone, 24, not yet on 40-man roster
Stone fell to the fifth round in the 2020 draft. That now looks like a coup, as the Central Arkansas product is a top 100 prospect on lists from Baseball America, FanGraphs, The Athletic and ESPN. He’s now the second-best pitching prospect in the organization (more on that in a minute) after an utterly dominant minor league season. Across three levels, he combined for a 1.92 ERA with an elite 33.9% strikeout rate and serviceable 8.9% walk percentage through 121 2/3 frames. That culminated in six Triple-A outings, in which he allowed only six runs over 23 1/3 innings.
It now seems a matter of when, not if, Stone will make his big league debut this season. Evaluators credit the 6’1″ righty with a mid-90s fastball and one of the best changeups in the minor leagues and suggest he could be a mid-rotation arm in the near future. He doesn’t have a ton of Triple-A experience and isn’t yet on the 40-man, so the most straightforward move would be to send him back to Oklahoma City to open the season. Given his minor league dominance, there’s at least an argument for plugging him in above Pepiot and Grove immediately, even if it’d require a 40-man roster move to do so.
Bobby Miller, 23, not yet on 40-man roster
The Dodgers’ first-round pick in that ’20 draft class, Miller has shot through the minor league ranks and now ranks among the best prospects in the sport. The Louisville product had a 4.45 ERA over 20 outings for Double-A Tulsa last season. That’s not the most impressive mark but it seems the product of an unlucky 62.5% strand rate. Miller struck out an excellent 30.5% of opponents, induced grounders at a quality 48.2% clip, and kept his walks to an 8.1% rate. He earned a late-season bump to Oklahoma City, where he posted elite strikeout and ground-ball marks over four outings.
He’s now almost universally regarded as the organization’s best pitching prospect and a top 50 minor league talent overall. The righty draws unanimous praise for an upper-90s fastball, a pair of power breaking pitches, and an advanced changeup. Miller’s command is still a work in progress but there’s little question the arsenal can play against major league hitters.
Miller doesn’t figure to be an option for the season-opening rotation. Roberts told reporters last week he was being built up slowly to monitor his workload and was unlikely to pitch in a Spring Training game (relayed by Jack Harris of the Los Angeles Times). He’ll almost certainly be in the majors at some point in 2023 though.
Further Down Depth Chart
Andre Jackson, 26, one option remaining
Jackson has never started a big league game, coming out of the bullpen for all seven of his MLB appearances from 2021-22. The Utah product has worked as a starter in the minors, opening 19 of 21 outings with Oklahoma City last year. He allowed exactly five earned runs per nine innings in Triple-A. Jackson had decent enough strikeout and ground-ball numbers but walked an astronomical 17.2% of opposing hitters.
That’d put him behind Pepiot and Grove on the depth chart. Jackson is on the 40-man roster, though, seemingly giving him a leg up compared to the non-roster invitees in camp. He’s headed into what would be his final option year, so he’ll need to improve his control before long if he’s to earn an extended MLB look in Los Angeles.
Both Covey and Erlin have some big league experience and are in camp as non-roster veterans. The 32-year-old Erlin was hit hard in 77 innings with Oklahoma City last season. Covey, 31, returned stateside after a couple solid years in Taiwan’s top league. Covey, in particular, has gotten out to a good start in camp. He’s struck out eight without issuing a walk over six innings. Still, neither seems likely to leapfrog the younger arms in the organization for a season-opening rotation look.
Nastrini and Knack are both fairly recent college draftees who reached Double-A last season. They’re each among the mid-tier prospects in a strong L.A. system and flashed bat-missing potential with Tulsa. Both pitchers could eventually get an MLB look, though neither figures to be in consideration for a job out of camp. They’re not yet on the 40-man and have yet to reach Triple-A.
The Dodgers again have a few exciting pitching prospects, two of whom have already gotten a taste of the majors. Pepiot and Grove would accordingly be the safest choices to take the final rotation spot if Gonsolin can’t start the season but they’re not as touted as Miller and Stone. The latter two figure to take the Dodger Stadium mound at some point in 2023, the next in a long line of pitching talent to come through the system.