The Dodgers' paper-thin rotation has lost a crucial arm. On Tuesday, the team announced that Brandon McCarthy had suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. McCarthy, who signed a four-year, $48 million contract with Los Angeles in the off-season, will likely undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the rest of the season, dealing a massive blow to a team already struggling to find bodies to fill its starting five.
The 31-year-old McCarthy, who was 3-0 with a 5.87 ERA in 23 innings over four starts, left his last start on Saturday in the sixth inning with tightness in his elbow. An MRI taken on Monday revealed the tear, and though surgery has not yet been recommended, the injury on its own is enough to put a premature end to McCarthy's season. The righthander even told reporters that he would likely undergo a ligament replacement. Luckily, while McCarthy's elbow may be on the fritz, his fantastic sense of humor remained untouched:
to be fair, 31 years of use is a lot to ask for from a ligament— Brandon McCarthy (@BMcCarthy32) April 27, 2015
The torn elbow ligament is the first McCarthy has suffered in his professional career, though he has never been the picture of health. One of baseball's most injury-prone players, McCarthy has a disabled list history longer than War and Peace, mostly consisting of shoulder strains, soreness and stress fractures. Because of that, he has only reached 200 innings in a season once in his career, that coming last year split between the Diamondbacks and Yankees. That 2014 season, McCarthy's first in his 10-year career without a DL stint, was a strong one, with the righty posting a 4.05 ERA, including a 2.89 mark in the Bronx after being acquired by New York in the second half. Despite his checkered injury history and age, that was enough to land McCarthy the multi-year deal from Los Angeles, and it's a contract that the Dodgers' front office must already be regretting just three weeks into the season.
With McCarthy gone for the rest of 2015 and a sizable chunk of '16 as well, the Dodgers must now turn to finding his replacement in the rotation. Short-term, the job will likely belong to veteran Scott Baker, who has a 1.06 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 17 innings for Triple A Oklahoma City. Long-term, Los Angeles will hope for a speedy return from Hyun-Jin Ryu, who has been on the DL since the start of the season with a shoulder impingement.
Neither option is all that safe, however. Baker, who has made one start already for the Dodgers this year (7 IP, 3 ER, 6 K), is a 33-year-old who, like McCarthy, has been an injury-riddled mess in his major league career and hasn't thrown more than 134 2/3 innings in a season in four years. Last year, he was beat up to the tune of a 71 ERA+ and nearly two home runs per nine as a fill-in starter for the Rangers, managing just 80 2/3 ineffective innings. Expecting more than league-average competence out of Baker, if he can stay healthy enough even to produce that, would be foolish on Los Angeles's part.
As for Ryu, there remains no timetable for the Korean lefthander to return to the mound. On Sunday, he threw his first bullpen session since being placed on the DL, and while he'll throw again Tuesday, he's unlikely to return any time before late May. The injury has also shown troubling signs of potentially being chronic: Ryu missed the final three weeks of last season with shoulder fatigue, as well as a 20-game chunk last May with shoulder inflammation. While Ryu has shown the ability to be a well-above-average pitcher when healthy—he has an ERA+ of 112 through 344 major league innings—the Dodgers have to be concerned that he won't stay healthy long enough to produce this season.
In truth, Los Angeles's rotation is full of question marks after its top two, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. Lefty Brett Anderson has an injury history almost as bad as McCarthy's, and the 27-year-old Anderson has struggled so far this year, allowing nine runs in 15 innings going into his Monday night start against the Giants. Beyond Baker, Triple A offers a grab-bag of flawed young starters. Mike Bolsinger had a nice Dodgers debut last week against San Francisco, allowing one run in 5 2/3 innings, but his rookie 2014 season was a disaster, as he was battered for a 5.50 ERA in 52 1/3 innings for the Diamondbacks. Off-season pickup Joe Wieland has 17 whiffs in 15 frames so far this year, but has battled numerous elbow injuries. Zach Lee, meanwhile, has a 0.95 ERA through 18 innings in Triple A, but his brutal '14 (5.38 ERA, 5.79 strikeout-per-nine ratio) took a lot of shine off his top-prospect status.
There are two options in the Dodgers' system, though, that offer the most upside. The first is working back from Tommy John surgery of his own: Brandon Beachy. The former Braves hurler dazzled across 46 career starts for Atlanta, with a 121 ERA+ and a K/9 ratio of 9.2. But injuries have limited Beachy to just 267 2/3 innings over the last four years, including just 111 since the start of 2012. He's also blown out his elbow twice, resulting in a pair of Tommy John surgeries for the 28-year-old righthander, the most recent of which was performed last March. Los Angeles is being cautious with Beachy, who is throwing bullpen sessions and hopes to be back in the majors by June, but as with Anderson, McCarthy and Ryu, it's hard to put much faith in a pitcher who has consistently lost battles against his own health. Nonetheless, Beachy is talented, and if his rehab goes off without a hitch (admittedly a huge if), he could help make up for the loss of McCarthy in the second half.
The other option is a long shot, but still worth entertaining because of his immense potential: top prospect Julio Urias. The 18-year-old lefty was ranked as the No. 10 prospect in the game by Baseball Prospectus before the season, and he has obliterated his competition at every level. Over 87 2/3 innings last year at Class A Rancho Cucamonga, Urias struck out an absurd 109 batters, posting a 2.36 ERA. He's been even better this season at Double A, whiffing 26 hitters in 20 2/3 innings and allowing just five runs and three walks. That includes his most recent start on Monday, when Urias dominated the Angels' Double A team, giving up just one hit and striking out 10 in six scoreless frames. But while Urias's stuff is electric—a fastball that touches 95 mph, a wipe-out curveball and a devastating changeup—he won't even be 19 until August, and he has yet to reach 100 innings in a season.
Los Angeles could also explore the trade market for a pitcher, including making a run at Phillies ace Cole Hamels, but the price, likely a package featuring either Urias or fellow top prospect Corey Seager, would be prohibitive. Nonetheless, the Dodgers don't need a pitcher as good as Hamels to replace McCarthy: They simply need a healthy body who can regularly provide above-average innings.
Those won't come from McCarthy, and they're a long shot to come from the likes of Anderson, Baker, Beachy and possibly even Ryu. The Dodgers took a significant gamble with McCarthy and also failed to acquire adequate reserves to protect them from the worst-case scenario. Los Angeles is now paying the price for its risky choice. Whether the team can fill the void McCarthy's injury creates will go a long way toward determining if the Dodgers can pull off a third straight National League West title.