Dodger manager Don Mattingly is about to make a huge decision – one that will have a direct effect on the Dodgers opening day roster. And guess what? It doesn’t involve spring training sensation Yasiel Puig.
Oh sure, the decision whether or not Puig will be on the opening day roster is a major one, but Carl Crawford has all but made that decision for Mattingly – he (Crawford) will most likely be the starting left fielder on April 1, and I admire the hard work that Carl has put in over the past week to make that happen. Of course Mattingly will be extremely cautious with Crawford and will undoubtedly pull him relatively early in one-sided games and give him an extra day or two off each week during the first six weeks of the season, but I would be shocked if Crawford is not in left field on opening day.
No, Mattingly’s toughest decision no longer involves Puig, it involves his starting rotation and who his fifth start will be, and it all hinges on Zack Greinke.
Without question, Clayton is 100% game-ready as the Dodgers’ ace and opening day starter. His 6-inning performance on Saturday clearly showed that he is in (and I hate this cliché) “mid-season form.” Clayton’s 6-inning / 2-hit performance against the Texas Rangers on Saturday made the eventual 4-0 Dodger loss completely meaningless. Had it been a real game, Clayton very well could have gone the full nine innings, this in spite of the fact that it is so early in the season. Kershaw had thrown only 70 pitches when removed from the game with the score tied 0-0.
And though his elbow will be a concern every time he steps on the mound this season, my guess is that Chad Billingsley will begin the season as the Dodgers’ number two starter, this in spite of having to deal with a slight groin strain. In his two outings prior to his minor setback, Bills had pitched 5.2 innings allowing 4 earned runs on 7 hits with 3 walks and 5 strikeouts, while giving up one home run. And though all of this equates to an unattractive 7.04 ERA, Chad looked impressive in a 5-inning B-game assignment earlier this week and it appears that he will be good to go on April 2.
My pick for the third spot in the rotation goes to Josh Beckett, who is having a better spring than any other Dodger starter in camp. Beckett, who reported for camp in excellent condition, has allowed only one earned run in his 9.1 innings of work for a remarkable 0.96 ERA. He has given up only 4 hits while walking 3 and striking out 11. That one earned run was the result of a solo home run given up in his last outing on March 12. Because Beckett has done extremely well this spring, I wouldn’t even be surprised if Mattingly were to put Beckett ahead of Billingsley in the starting rotation when the season opens. Whoda thunk it?
The number four spot gets a little more iffy and will undoubtedly come down to the final two weeks of spring training. Although he hasn’t lived up to the hype, Hyun-jin Ryu will probably get the nod. Through 10.2 spring training innings thus far, Ryu has allowed 7 earned runs on 13 hits for a 5.91 ERA. He has walked 4 and struck out 12, while giving up one home run. While many are down on Ryu for his apparent lackadaisical work ethic and his reluctance to listen to his coaches, I believe that he will eventually adjust to the vast differences in pitching in Korea and pitching in the MLB. One big advantage that Ryu has over any other Dodger starter is that he has never been seen by most MLB hitters, but this will only carry him so far into the season – especially against teams in the NL West.
This is where things get dicey for Mattingly and boils down to whether or not Zack Greinke will start the 2013 season in the starting rotation or on the DL with his inflamed elbow. One huge advantage for the Dodgers (and more so for Greinke) is that a fifth starter will not be needed until April 13, almost a full two weeks into the season – this because of scheduled days off. In his limited spring training work, Greinke has allowed 2 earned runs in 6 innings for a 3.60 ERA. He has given up 6 hits, one walk and struck out 3, while allowing one home run. Greinke’s role as the Dodgers number five starter (instead of a top-of-the-rotation spot) is predicated on his questionable health, not his effectiveness.
But what if Greinke isn’t ready by April 13?
Herein lays Mattingly’s dilemma – a dilemma that, quite frankly, is entirely unnecessary. You have Aaron Harang and his horrible 10.00 ERA (10 earned runs in 9 innings pitched); Chris Capuano with his even worse 10.61 ERA (11 earned runs in 9.1 innings pitched) and his team-leading 4 home runs allowed; and the oft hurt (or sick) Ted Lilly, who has pitched exactly 4.2 innings this spring and given up 2 earned runs (one a home run) for a misleading 3.86 ERA.
And then there’s Stephen Fife, who has not only answered the bell when called upon, but has done so in such a way that it would be a crime for him not to be in the starting rotation should Greinke be unavailable. Fife has been nothing short of outstanding this spring. He has allowed 4 earned runs in his 9.2 spring training innings of work for a 3.72 ERA, has given up 8 hits, walked 2 and struck out 9, allowing only one home run. I simply do not know what else this kid can do to convince Mattingly (and Ned Colletti) that he is a viable MLB starting pitcher. Granted, he is a back of the rotation guy (for now, at least), but he is a far better option than Harang, Capuano or Lilly. In fact, there isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) any comparison – Fife is way better than any of those guys, not to mention a much younger 26 years old.
The bottom line here is that Don Mattingly is making a very simple decision far more difficult than it needs to be. In the event that Zack Greinke is forced to start the season on the DL, a rotation of Kershaw, Billingsley, Beckett, Ryu and Fife will work – and probably very well.
Will Don Mattingly make the wrong decision?
I certainly hope not.