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Josh Beckett injury poses severe test to Dodgers' rotation depth

Josh Beckett injury poses severe test to Dodgers' rotation depth Photo:

Josh Beckett may have made his final start of the 2014 season. Having struggled in his recent attempt to pitch with a torn labrum and two cysts in his left hip, Beckett is expected to be placed back on the disabled list Friday night. Roberto Hernandez, acquired from the Phillies for two players to be named later on Thursday, takes his place in the starting rotation.

Beckett felt discomfort while playing catch on Wednesday, prompting an MRI on Thursday. The results from that test are still pending, though given the combination of his recent performance and the diagnosis from his last MRI, which revealed the labrum tear and cysts, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which Beckett is cleared to return to the mound any time soon. In fact, it’s more likely that Beckett’s injuries will prove season-ending.

Update: Beckett was indeed placed on the disabled list before Friday night's game. Per MLB.com's Ken Gurnick, Beckett has a groin strain in addition to the torn labrum and cysts in his hip. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said before Friday's game there's a chance Beckett could pitch again this year, but per Gurnick, the hip won't heal without surgery and Beckett's "teammates say he's done for the year and might retire.​"

That’s a blow to both player and team, as Beckett, thanks in part to a renewed emphasis on his curveball at the urging of catcher A.J. Ellis, has been a key part of the Dodgers' admittedly deep rotation this season. Prior to hitting the disabled list with what was then termed a hip impingement on July 6, Beckett had a 2.26 ERA on the season, a performance highlighted by his first career no-hitter on May 25. Toss out his first start of the year, a five-run clunker, and he had a 1.99 ERA in 16 consecutive starts leading up to his hip injury. Even with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke in the Cy Young conversation and Hyun-Jin Ryu having gone 13-5 with a 3.21 ERA and 4.60 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the loss of Beckett stings.

Among other things, that makes Dan Haren, who has gone 1-5 with a 7.92 ERA in his last six starts, a potential playoff starter for Los Angeles. Of course, the Dodgers have to get to the playoffs first, no sure thing given this blow to their rotation and the fact that the Giants remain just three games behind them in the loss column.

The Dodgers have been forced to turn to Hernandez because Paul Maholm, who held the Padres scoreless on two hits in a spot-start for Beckett just before the All-Star break, recently suffered a season-ending injury of his own, a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Maholm was merely 1-4 with a 4.74 ERA in eight starts this season, so his loss is not a particularly impactful one, but the Dodgers' pitching staff as a whole has been thinned out by injuries in the last week. Both Chris Perez (bone spurs in his right ankle) and Paco Rodriguez (strained teres major muscle behind his pitching shoulder, the same injury that sidelined Kershaw in April) also hit the disabled list earlier this week.

Neither of Perez or Rodriguez had been major contributors — Rodriguez had made just three appearances for the big league team since May 1 and Perez had a 5.03 ERA on the season with lousy peripherals — but all the injuries are testing the Dodgers’ depth. To wit: Converted third baseman Pedro Baez and minor league starter Carlos Frias, two non-prospects who have combined to make four major league appearances, now reside in the major league bullpen.

So the Dodgers turn to Hernandez, who has posted a 79 ERA+ and 1.92 strikeout-to-walk ratio in three-plus seasons since his lone All-Star appearance as Fausto Carmona in 2010. Working on a one-year, $4.5 million contract with the Phillies this year, Hernandez has been no better, posting the lowest groundball rate in his career (not counting his three-start 2012 season) and walking 4.1 men per nine innings against just 5.6 strikeouts (a 1.36 K/BB). Some recent luck on balls in play has pushed his ERA closer to average, but his Fielding Independent Pitching mark remains 4.62.

In his last four starts, Hernandez has gone 3-0 with a 1.88 ERA, three of which saw him throw at least seven innings while allowing two or fewer runs, but those four starts are what have created the discrepancy between his performance and his results this season. Prior to those four, Hernandez had a 4.48 ERA (far closer to his FIP) and a .289 BABIP. His .174 BABIP over those last four starts, however, dropped his ERA to 3.87 and his BABIP to .261, but didn’t budge his FIP, as he still walked six men against just eight strikeouts in those games and gave up more flyballs than groundballs in his last time out.

The Dodgers thus go from having one of the best rotations in baseball to one of the most divided, with Kershaw, Greinke, and Ryu on one extreme, and Hernandez and Haren on the other. If Beckett is indeed out for the season, the Dodgers may want to give serious consideration to going with a three-man rotation in the playoffs, something they very nearly did last year, with their fourth starter starting just one of their 10 playoff games. Of course, they have to make it there first. 

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