At some time very soon, likely before the end of the weekend, the Los Angeles Dodgers will clinch the NL West title. This was expected to be a "step back" season for Los Angeles as they incorporated more youth into the lineup, and yet they're going to win their 10th division title in 11 years. The Dodgers are inevitable.
Some things in this sport just go together -- the New York Yankees and home runs, the Tampa Bay Rays and good bullpens, etc. -- and the Dodgers and strong starting rotations are among them. Year after year they have boasted one of the best rotations in the game. Not this season though. The 2023 Dodgers have one of the worst rotations in recent franchise history.
Here are the starting pitcher numbers entering Wednesday's game:
|2023 LAD||MLB rank||LAD's worst since|
The Dodgers have dealt with injuries, most notably losing Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May to season-ending elbow surgeries, and underperformance among their starters all season. They have used 16 different starters this season, fewer than only the Oakland Athletics (22), Kansas City Royals (21), and Cincinnati Reds (17). Five of the 16 are rookies.
Los Angeles was able to overcome those rotation issues to repeat as division champs, but the postseason is a different animal. With two weeks and three days remaining in the regular season, it is fair to ask whether the Dodgers have enough pitching to get through the postseason. It has rarely been an issue in recent years. In 2023, it's an enormous uncertainty.
With that in mind, let's take stock of the Dodgers rotation, and who we could see on the mound starting games in October.
Locks: Clayton Kershaw and Bobby Miller
Miller has been the most impressive of the Dodgers rookies, throwing 101 2/3 innings with a 3.98 ERA overall. In his last nine starts, he has a 3.59 ERA and has held opponents to a .227/.278/.380 batting line. Miller has completed at least six innings in each of his last six starts and seven innings in each of his last two starts. He entered the season as a top prospect and has looked the part.
That all said, Miller has thrown 116 innings between Triple-A and MLB this season. His previous career high was the 112 1/3 innings he threw last year. Miller has shown no signs of slowing -- if anything, he's gotten stronger as the season has progressed -- but the Dodgers don't want to be reckless with a prized young arm, and you don't want Miller hitting a wall in October either.
"My arm is bouncing back great. My shoulder is bouncing back great," Miller told the Orange County Register this past weekend. "My body feels outstanding right now."
Clinching a postseason berth and the NL West title relatively early will allow the Dodgers to back off Miller a bit, and perhaps give him extra rest between starts or even pull him out of games early. Bottom line though, Miller is clearly one of the team's best starting pitchers heading into the postseason. He might be the best starting pitcher. He will be in the postseason rotation, no doubt about it.
Kershaw will of course be in the postseason rotation as well and, if I were a betting man, I would bet a shiny nickel on the future Hall of Famer getting the ball in Game 1. Kershaw has had a terrific season overall -- Kershaw and sub-3.00 ERAs are another baseball thing that go together -- though he missed about six weeks with a shoulder issue, and it sounds like he's still not 100%.
"He's just going to try to stay sharp," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts told MLB.com earlier this week, after Kershaw's start was pushed back from Monday to Saturday. "And I talked to him about what we're kind of prognosticating, and he's in with it."
The Dodgers are in position to be cautious and give Kershaw (and anyone else) extra rest leading up to the postseason, though his fastball velocity has been way down in his last two starts. This is worrisome:
Roberts strongly suggested Kershaw is not right physically -- "If he is able to take the baseball, he's gonna take the baseball," Roberts told The Athletic recently -- and that is not reassuring. Not with the postseason coming up and the Dodgers lacking the horses to cover for a compromised Kershaw. They need him to do more than simply tag along for the ride.
As long as they're healthy, Kershaw and Miller will be in the playoff rotation. We don't know how effective Kershaw will be or how deep he'll go into games given his physical issues, but he's in the October rotation. Miller has the power, high-end stuff that plays well in the postseason. He might be the Dodgers' best bet for ace-caliber performance in October.
Maybe a lock?: Lance Lynn
After Eduardo Rodriguez , Los Angeles pivoted to Lynn, who has a 4.60 ERA in eight starts with the team. Tuesday night, he threw seven innings of two-run ball against the rival San Diego Padres, though he also allowed his MLB-leading 41st home run. That is the most since Mike Leake allowed 41 homers in 2019.
In his two previous starts, Lynn allowed 15 runs in nine innings, and in his last four starts overall, he has struck out only six batters in 22 innings while allowing nine home runs. More homers than strikeouts in any number of innings is a red flag. Doing it over a four-start span should sound the alarms. The Dodgers have to hope Tuesday's effort is a sign Lynn figured something out.
"The last two were ugly. There's no other way to say it," Lynn told MLB.com after Tuesday's game. "But offense did a great job giving me the lead, defense made great plays behind me. Bullpen needed it. So it was a good win all the way around."
Originally, the Dodgers brought in Lynn to eat up innings down the stretch, and be a depth option in the postseason. Now, despite the home run trouble and his down year in general, and it sounds like Los Angeles is planning to have Lynn in their postseason rotation. They simply lack alternatives and he has the most pedigree behind Kershaw and Miller.
"What we do with these guys still remains to be determined, as well as with all of the other guys, but in theory, yeah," Roberts told the New York Times recently when asked about Lynn being in the postseason rotation behind Kershaw and Miller.
Being in the postseason rotation does not mean Lynn will be allowed to pitch deep into games. It stands to reason the Dodgers will keep him on a short leash -- isn't everyone on a short leash in the postseason? -- and adjust as necessary. At the moment though, Lynn appears to be the front runner for the No. 3 rotation spot in October, league-leading home run total and all.
Making a case: Ryan Pepiot
A spring training oblique strain sidelined Pepiot into July, so, if nothing else, he has fewer miles on his arm than most pitchers this time of year. He has made three starts and two relief appearances with the Dodgers and, last week, he took a perfect game into the seventh inning against the Miami Marlins. Pepiot has given the club a real nice shot in the arm over the last month.
Armed with a mid-90s fastball and a changeup with strong swing-and-miss rates, plus the ability to go multiple innings, there is a place for Pepiot on the postseason roster. The only question is role. Do the Dodgers trust him as a starter, or do they think he could help them more as a multi-inning reliever? Those multi-inning relievers are important. There's no shame in that role these days.
"He is earning opportunities and he's building experience, building trust," Roberts told The Athletic about Pepiot recently. "He's doing everything he can to open our eyes even more."
Pepiot's postseason role could come down to matchups. If the Dodgers meet a team that is especially susceptible to right-handed changeups (the Milwaukee Brewers, for example), then they'll find a way to get him involved, and possibly even give him a start in a best-of-seven series. If not, then Pepiot's role could be reduced.
Point is, Pepiot was a non-factor much of the season because of his oblique injury, and now he is very much in the playoffs discussion. He's earned the right to at least be considered for a postseason start, and it seems likely the Dodgers will find a way to use him in October. Pepiot has pitched too well of late to pass over.
Other candidates: Emmet Sheehan and Gavin Stone
Stone entered the season as one of the top 60 or so prospects in baseball and he impressed so much in spring training (14 strikeouts in 6 2/3 scoreless innings) that there was speculation the Dodgers could make room for him on the Opening Day roster. That didn't happen, and Stone instead had to wait until May to make his MLB debut.
The results, however, have been disastrous. Stone has a 10.80 ERA in 23 1/3 innings -- it is the second worst single-season ERA in franchise history, behind only Orel Hershiser's 13.14 ERA in 2000 (min. 20 innings) -- and opponents are hitting .385/.438/.651 against him. Stone has made two starts and four relief appearances and allowed at least four runs in five of his six games. Ouch.
Stone is not the first top prospect to have a (very) difficult MLB debut and he won't be the last, and this doesn't mean his career is over. Not even close. It does mean he is unlikely to be on the postseason roster, let alone make a postseason start. Stone is still learning to harness his ability and high-end stuff. The postseason is no time for learning though. Results matter.
Sheehan, who the Dodgers called up directly from Double-A in June, has an unsightly 5.79 ERA in 46 2/3 big league innings this season, though he has the kind of power bat-missing stuff that plays well in October. Sheehan has not thrown more than 76 pitches in a game since July, so he's not really stretched out to start. He's positioned to be a bullpen weapon in October.
Also in the group: Michael Grove, who has been sidelined with lat tightness since early August. He went one inning in a Triple-A rehab game last week and is expected to return before the end of the regular season. That said, Grove does not have enough time to get stretched out to start. If he factors into the postseason roster, it'll be as a reliever.
Righty Kyle Hurt, who has struck out a minor league-leading 39.0% of the batters he's faced this year, made his MLB debut earlier this week and struck out three in two perfect innings out of the bullpen. This is the time of year where, if you flash any sort of ability and have success, you'll be considered for the postseason roster, though obviously the late call-up works against Hurt.
Among this group, Sheehan is most likely to be given a postseason start or even just a postseason role. Stone hasn't performed at all, Grove is coming off an injury, and Hurt was just called up. And, if Sheehan does get a postseason start, he might just be a one-time-through-the-order guy who starts a bullpen game. The Dodgers wouldn't ask him to go 5-6 innings.
Break glass in case of emergency: Ryan Yarbrough
With all due respect, Yarbrough is a swingman/No. 6 starter type on a contending team, and a lot -- A LOT -- would have to go wrong for the Dodgers to give him meaningful innings in the postseason. Los Angeles picked him up at the deadline just to serve as a depth arm, and he's given them 26 1/3 innings of 3.08 ERA ball across one starts and seven relief appearances.
Yarbrough has pitched in the postseason before, including starting Game 4 of the 2020 World Series for the Rays against the Dodgers. At this point in his career though, he won't be Plan A, B, or C heading into October. The Dodgers could carry him in the postseason as the last guy in the bullpen/third lefty reliever. He's available and an option. Things would really have to go off the rails for Yarbrough to see meaningful postseason work though.
Won't be available: Walker Buehler
The Dodgers recently announced Buehler, who is working his way back from his second career Tommy John surgery,. He had surgery last August and he recently started a minor-league rehab assignment, but there just isn't enough time to safely prepare for a major league role. There had been some hope Buehler, who has a 2.94 ERA in 15 career postseason starts, would return in some capacity in September or October, but it won't happen.
"My goal since last year has been to return to a Major League mound this season," Buehler said in a statement. "After many conversations with my doctor, the Dodgers' front office, training staff and my family, we concluded that waiting until next season is the right course of action. I am disappointed that I will not be able to help this team go after a title in the 2023 postseason, but I look forward to returning fully healthy in 2024 and bringing another World Series to L.A."
Out of the picture: Julio Urías
One thing we know with certainty is Urías will not factor into the postseason rotation. He is currently on administrative leave as MLB investigates a recent incident that led to an arrest under domestic violence charges. A suspension is likely once the investigation is complete..
"I think so," Roberts told the Los Angeles Time when asked whether the organization has moved on from Urías. "I think that's kind of where we're at right now. So there's really not much for me to comment on, other than the fact that it's just like I said on the first day, it's a very unfortunate, sad situation."
The Dodgers are likely to secure a Wild Card Series bye, giving them ample time to set up their postseason rotation. Right now, with their first postseason game more than three weeks away, the smart money is on Kershaw and Miller starting Games 1 and 2 in either order, then Lynn getting the ball with a short leash in Game 3.
As for Game 4, Pepiot seems like the best option, though it could come down to matchups, and whether Pepiot is needed out of the bullpen earlier in the series. It's all hands on deck in October. The Dodgers will do whatever they need to do to win Games 1-3, and if there is a Game 4, they'll figure it out when the times comes and not a second sooner.
Clearly though, the Dodgers do not boast the formidable rotation they're accustomed to taking into October. Their healthiest and most effective starter is Miller, a rookie who has already set a career high in innings. Kershaw seems physically compromised to some extent, Lynn is alarmingly home run prone, the other kids are rolls of the dice.
As good as the Dodgers have been this season -- and they have been very good -- the rotation is a weakness. I don't think that's a harsh assessment. They'll lean on their offense and bullpen to overcome the rotation woes, but those rotation woes are very real. It has been a long time since the Dodgers had a starting staff this unsettled going into October.
"With the postseason, as I've learned, it's talent," Roberts told The Athletic earlier this week. "It's ability to control emotions and it's execution. So I think you certainly don't have to debate the talent with those young pitchers. I think the heartbeat, the experience, is an unknown. You don't know until you know."