With Hyun-jin Ryu facing potentially season-ending shoulder surgery, what starting pitcher options do the Dodgers have in a rotation that is looking increasingly frail?
Dodgers lefty Hyun-jin Ryu, who has spent the first six weeks of 2015 on the disabled list due to tightness in his pitching shoulder, is considering season-ending shoulder surgery, according to reports out of his native Korea. Ryu, who posted a 3.15 ERA in 59 starts between the regular and postseasons for Los Angeles over the last two years, would be the second member of the team’s intended starting rotation to see his year cut short if he does wind up going under the knife. But even if he doesn’t, this news confirms that Ryu’s latest setback in his rehabilitation was a significant one, and that it will be a long time before he returns to the Dodgers’ rotation.
Coming into May, Ryu was believed to be on the verge of throwing to live hitters and on pace to return to the Dodgers’ rotation in June. However, after experiencing decreased velocity in his throwing session on May 1 and renewed stiffness in his shoulder the following week, his throwing program was shut down. Though he has continued to work out, Ryu hasn’t thrown since and would now seem unlikely to return before the All-Star break, even if he does avoid surgery.
If Ryu does go under the knife, he’ll join righty Brandon McCarthy—who had Tommy John surgery in late April—in missing the remainder of the season. That would, in turn, make Brett Anderson the Dodgers’ regular third starter. The injury-prone lefty hasn’t stayed healthy enough to make even nine starts in a single season since 2011, hasn’t surpassed 13 starts since '10, and hasn’t made 20 starts in a season since his rookie year of '09. Behind Anderson, the Dodgers have had six different pitchers, including McCarthy, start in the final two spots in their rotation this season, with those six combining to post a 4.72 ERA in 14 starts. Two of those pitchers, veterans David Huff and Scott Baker, have since been outrighted off the 40-man roster.
The good news is that Carlos Frias, who will start against the Giants on Tuesday night, and Mike Bolsinger, who was purchased from the Diamondbacks in November, have solidified those last two spots this month. Bolsinger, a 27-year-old righty whose fastest pitch is a high-80s cutter, has done so in large part thanks to the slider he added to his repertoire this off-season. Frias, who works primarily with a trio of fastballs (four-seamer, sinker, cutter), has done so thanks to an increase in velocity that has seen both his four-seamer and sinker spike into the high-90s during his starts. Both have done a good job inducing ground balls and limiting hard contact thus far, combining to post a 2.14 ERA in six starts on the season with solid peripherals. The potential certainly exists for both to remain in the rotation and effective going forward, even if Bolsinger experiences the expected regression to his still-plenty-acceptable Fielding Independent mark of 3.50.
Still, with both having just three starts under their belts this season—only one quality for each—it’s too early to say with real confidence that the Dodgers have found permanent replacements for McCarthy and Ryu. Among the alternatives are Joe Wieland, who was acquired in the Matt Kemp trade and was hit hard in a spot start earlier this month; former first-round pick Zach Lee, who is off to a solid start to his second season at Triple A; and veteran Erik Bedard, who is on a minor league contract with the organization and is expected to return to action soon after missing the first month-plus of the season with a strained back muscle. Bedard is certainly an underwhelming option, but it’s not clear the Dodgers would be any better off attempting to move reliever Juan Nicasio into the rotation, given that Nicasio posted a 5.36 ERA with lousy peripherals in 56 starts over the last three seasons.
The Dodgers are also hopeful that they will be able to add Brandon Beachy to that list next month. Beachy, who had his second Tommy John surgery in March 2014, threw to hitters on Saturday for the first time since that procedure, and all reports from that session and the following day were positive. Still, the recent catastrophic injury to fellow two-time Tommy John recipient Jarrod Parker and the extremely gradual returns of the few starting pitchers to make it all the way back from a second surgery strongly suggest that the Dodgers are either being optimistic or foolish in their expectations for Beachy. A more realistic path would be to bring Beachy along slowly as a reliever this year in the hope that he’ll be ready to return to starting next year under a $3 million option.
It would likely be similarly foolish for the Dodgers to rush elite 18-year-old pitching prospect Julio Urias, who is off to a typically impressive start in his Double A debut this season. No pitcher has appeared in the major leagues in his age-18 season since Mike Morgan and Tim Conroy did so in 1978, and as talented as Urias may be, he’s too valuable an asset for Los Angeles to treat recklessly. Even if he might have a higher probability of success than Beachy if forced into the major league rotation this season, the risk involved in rushing him is exponentially greater given Urias’s potential and the team’s six years of team control over him.
Beyond the team’s in-house depth, the Dodgers would appear to be extremely likely to trade for starting pitching help in the next month or two. Beyond the loss of McCarthy and Ryu and ever-present threat of a similarly long-term injury to Anderson, Los Angeles is likely to see both Anderson and Zack Greinke hit free agency in the fall (Greinke via the opt-out in his contract), while McCarthy is unlikely to return until June of next year. Given the Dodgers' need for in-season reinforcements and their standing as both one of the leading contenders in the league and the majors' richest team, it would be a shock to see the trade deadline pass without the Dodgers adding a starting pitcher. For now, however, the Dodgers will await Ryu’s decision and continue to hope for the best from Anderson, Frias, and Bolsinger.