Should James McDonald start?
With the departures of Derek Lowe and Brad Penny, the retirement of Greg Maddux, and the uselessness of Jason Schmidt, the Dodgers' starting rotation has more holes in it than the plot of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie about a golf course made of Swiss cheese.
Among the returning starters, staff ace Chad Billingsley is recovering from a broken leg, sophomore Clayton Kershaw is facing sky-high expectations, and enigma Hiroki Kuroda is presumably searching for a middle ground between triumph and disaster.
Beyond that, nothing is set. Ned Colletti is reportedly in contact with Kris Benson,
Jon Garland, Braden Looper and Randy Wolf. None of these pitchers is, say, CC Sabathia, yet it's a seller's market—meaning these middle-of-the-order starters will be commanding what previously were ace-level salaries.
Which brings us to James McDonald. McDonald, 24, joined the Dodgers last September and pitched 6.0 scoreless regular-season innings and 5.1 scoreless post-season innings. Speculation immediately started about his role on the 2009 club. Relieving was an obvious possibility, but McDonald was a starter in the minors.
After the Dodgers failed to sign a top-flight starter this off-season, McDonald's move into the starting rotation seemed like a lock. Yet Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt is now saying McDonald will start the season in the bullpen, à la Billingsley in 2007.
Which makes sense. There's little to be gained by rushing the kid, and easing him in via the bullpen will be gentler on him both physically and mentally. Why start piling on the high-stress innings at the beginning of the season?
Except...there's still that small detail about the starting rotation. With or without Manny Ramirez, the Dodgers can afford to sign at least one free-agent starter. The question is: Can they afford to sign a second? And if so—given the multi-year deals required to lock up these pitchers—would they even want to?
(1) Billingsley, (2) Overpaid Free-Agent Pitcher, (3) Kuroda, (4) Kershaw, (5) then what? Ramon Troncoso? Scott Elbert? A four-man rotation? There are no obvious answers for that fifth starter spot, and that's before accounting for the inevitable injuries that test the depth of a team's starting pitching.
Long-term patience has paid off for the Dodgers' current crop of youngsters, and the team's decision to conserve McDonald's arm is difficult to argue against even in the winnable NL West. But patience has a price, and this year the price is pitching depth.
In a division that still features Brandon Webb, Jake Peavy and Tim Lincecum, Dodger pitchers won't be setting any records in 2009. And when McDonald finally does crack the rotation, let's hope the team doesn't overwork him. If McDonald stays healthy and effective, the triumvirate of Billingsley, Kershaw and McDonald could indeed be formidable. And that's worth waiting for.
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