It’s risky to place too much importance on who will be the Dodgers’ No. 5 starter when the season begins, just because that role fluctuates so much. So instead of trying to predict the winner, I’m going to pursue this from another angle: truth-based fiction.
March: Josh Lindblom has a sensational spring, but the Dodgers decide there’s no way he can handle a starter’s innings from April on, without being eased into the role via the minors. Scott Elbert also shows flashes of brilliance, but the team prefers he also wet his feet in Albuquerque, where John Ely (the new one, not the old one, though both will end up with stops in Chattanooga) is slated to spend most of the year. James McDonald is penciled in early for the bullpen. Charlie Haeger is denied meaningful innings. Russ Ortiz has one good start that generates a day’s worth of comeback stories, then implodes and is a non-factor. The longshot bids of Rule 5 Day acquisitions Carlos Monasterios and Armando Zerpa devolve into a slightly less longshot bid to become the seventh reliever.
That leaves Eric Stults. Despite his annual shutouts, the Dodgers don’t have any long-term faith in him, but with Stults out of minor-league options, they decide to give him first crack rather than throw a less experienced pitcher into the mix. The memory of McDonald’s April from last year still stings. Monasterios gets the (way) back-of-the-bullpen role, Zerpa is sent back on the Rule 5 highway, Ortiz goes to Albuquerque to find Shawn Estes’ old locker, and Haeger is released but doesn’t clear waivers.
April: Thanks to some rest-infused early season scheduling, the Dodgers don’t use a fifth starter until April 24 at Washington, an outing that finds Stults rusty but reasonably effective. He makes it through the capital city and his next start at home against Pittsburgh.
May: Before the month is out, Stults turns in the mediocre outing that confirms his limitations in the Dodgers’ eyes, and he is designated for assignment. Elbert, off to a strong start in Albuquerque, gets the callup.
June: Wear and tear on the staff — I’ll say Padilla, but it could be anyone — forces the Dodgers to bring up Lindblom to work alongside Elbert. McDonald wonders if he’ll ever be stretched out, but he becomes too valuable in the bullpen for the Dodgers to envision changing his role.
July: A four-game series in St. Louis right after the All-Star Break trashes the Dodger staff, though McDonald turns in a sterling four-inning relief stint that stops the bleeding in one game and rekindles thoughts of putting him back in the rotation. With the trade deadline approaching and the McCourt divorce case having been decided, there’s much talk about a deal. In the meantime, Ely is called upon to make a spot start, and Elbert gets a second wind after a poor stretch.
By the time the July 31 trading deadline comes, the Dodgers have a much better idea of what their starting pitching needs are. And that’s where I’m going to pause this speculation.
While few of the above plot twists might actually come true — the lack of need for a fifth starter for most of April could be enough to derail Stults’ chances of sticking, for example — the overall points are safe ones. No matter what happens in March:
1) Odds are, the Dodgers will run through several No. 5 starters.
2) Odds are, their collective performance will be good enough to allow the Dodgers to post a decent record in their outings, which is all you can really ask in a baseball world where virtually no team has a reliable No. 5 starter.
There are enough candidates for the fifth starter position that the Dodgers will have a low tolerance for failure. Unless none of them can do the job — and there’s no real reason to think all of them will fail to manage even a short hot streak — this part of the rotation will be less of a concern than some people think.
The Dodgers’ fortunes depend greatly on how their front four performs. If they can be relatively stable, the Dodger rotation will be fine — better than fine. If Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw, Hiroki Kuroda or Vicente Padilla develop a serious, prolonged problem, then the Dodgers could be in trouble.
Update: Tim Brown of Yahoo! Sports tweets that Jeff Weaver has agreed to a minor-league deal with the Dodgers.
Correction: I misread the schedule somehow. The Dodgers will need a fifth starter April 11 at Florida and April 17 against San Francisco. Chalk up a couple of confidence-building victories for Stults?