By Jon Weisman
In 2015, the combined total of big-league starts by Jose De León, Brock Stewart, Ross Stripling and Julio Urías — not to mention Kenta Maeda — was zero.
This year, the four traditional rookies amassed 38, with Maeda good for another 32. Nearly half the starts for the 2016 National League West champions came from brand new Major Leaguers, with the team going 40-30 (.571) in those games, compared with 51-41 (.554) in games started by veterans.
Just to clarify for the paranoid: Over the coming offseason, the Dodgers will scour the trade and free-agent markets (which includes midseason acquisition Rich Hill) for starting pitchers that might bolster the 2017 rotation.
At the same time, this year’s rookie quintet already puts Los Angeles a step closer to alleviating the reliance on quantity in recent seasons (16 starters in 2015, 15 in 2016).
“Starting-pitching (depth) is something when we came in two years ago, that is probably the thing that worried us the most,” Dodger president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said Monday. “The only way to really have it with quality is to have really good young prospects that are at the Triple-A level and really knocking down the door to get to the Major League level. We didn’t have that in ’15. We definitely had that this year, and we relied on quite a few of them.”
Urías, of course, is the marquee name among the 2016 rookies, finishing his maiden season with a 3.39 ERA, 3.19 FIP, 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings and only five homers allowed. By comparison, a slightly older Clayton Kershaw had a 4.26 ERA and 4.08 FIPin his 2008 debut.
“In his first stint, (Urías) struggled a little bit, as you would expect from a young pitcher coming up in the middle of a pennant race,” Friedman said. “The maturation, the ability to make adjustments from start to start, is something that often you see guys take more time to be able to put in play. So there were a lot of very encouraging things. Obviously, he was a big part of our success this year, and we were able to build him up in a way that was extremely helpful as we look forward.”
Friedman said that Urías would probably be under some kind of workload restriction in 2017, but he made a key developmental step this season. The same could be said for Stripling, who pitched exactly 100 innings after coming back from Tommy John surgery, and Stewart, who rose all the way in 2016 from Single-A ball to shutting out the Cubs over five innings August 28.
Then there’s De León, who at the end of his Triple-A Oklahoma City season was almost as dominant as Urías had been before his Dodger debut. Having just turned 24, De León had a 1.56 ERA in August while averaging seven innings per start, striking out 45 and walking two.
“I think we’re getting to the point that we have a number of young guys who have put themselves in position to compete for a job next year,” Friedman said.
Maeda isn’t green like the rest, though he’ll still be under 30 in 2017. According to Dodger manager Dave Roberts, Maeda suffered at the end of the year from the overall toll of his first Stateside campaign, which hindered his execution come playoff time.
“I thought Kenta had an outstanding season,” Roberts said. “To transition how he had to and adjust, I can’t say enough about what he did. … He’s a very tough competitor and doesn’t scare off.”
Though he has more big-league experience than the aforementioned five, Alex Wood will still only be 26 — with a 3.40 career ERA as a starter — when next season begins. In his final 10 appearances of 2016, Wood had a 2.52 ERA, 12.4 strikeouts per nine innings and a 6.0 strikeout-walk ratio.
That gives the Dodgers a half-dozen arms with a foothold in the Majors, before you even begin mixing in the true veterans who went through health issues to varying degrees this year — from ace Clayton Kershaw to Scott Kazmir (who can opt into free agency if he chooses), Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu.
Kershaw came back from 2 1/2 months on the disabled list with a disk herniation to pitch a career-high 24 1/3 postseason innings, including his National League Division Series-clinching save. The precocious, prodigious talent has one more under-30 season left.
“He feels good, talking to him today,” Friedman said. “All of our guys have exit physicals and conversations with trainers and doctors. … I don’t expect it to be anything that is newsworthy. He ended the year and felt good.”
“I think that a great by-product of the cultural change and shift we saw on the Major League side with Doc (Roberts) and his coaches is to be able to provide that soft landing spot, that environment where guys can come up and thrive and not be afraid to compete — and be put into positions to succeed,” Friedman said.
“That part is critical. If you don’t have that environmental piece, it’s very difficult on a contending team to bring young players up and continue to get the most out of them.”