Look at the Dodgers rotation pieces. Do you see a jigsaw puzzle or do you see Jenga?
The jigsaw puzzle might be complicated, but all the pieces are there. It is about fitting it together just so to make a satisfying whole.
Jenga is going to make you wonder: If the wrong piece or two or three is removed at the wrong time, will the whole thing collapse?
Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman joked he does not have the “button” to press to have one set of pitchers get healthy just as others might get hurt. But he also noted, “We do feel really good about the collection of arms and feel really good about the quality of stuff.”
When in doubt, bet on the regular-season version of the Dodgers. They have a depth in rotation possibilities combined with talent combined with a recent history of developing their own answers as needed. Plus, they have an offense, in particular, and a bullpen that should help them cover for a lot of sins — if those sins come from the rotation.
But the Dodgers do face the problem encountered by every team of needing someone take the ball to start 162 times. The hope is a rotation will cover a big enough chunk of the roughly 1,450 innings in a season so as to maximize both starters and relievers and have both units fresh if and when the postseason comes around.
The Dodgers won 100 games last year with so much going wrong, including Walker Buehler (after Tommy John surgery) never throwing a pitch for the 2023 squad, Julio Urias’ legal problems landing him on administrative leave and Noah Syndergaard proving a $13 million dud.
But in the postseason, the Dodgers were swept in three Division Series games by the Diamondbacks as a broken Clayton Kershaw, a not-ready-for-primetime Bobby Miller and a past-his-prime Lance Lynn combined to yield 13 runs in 4 ⅔ innings.
The Dodgers threw a lot of collateral at the issue, most notably by signing Yoshinobu Yamamoto to the most expensive pitching contract in history ($325 million), trading for and signing Tyler Glasnow, signing James Paxton and re-signing Kershaw.
Alas, the $700 million man, Shohei Ohtani, is a 2025 pitching coming attraction after Tommy John surgery, the same procedure that also will keep 2022 All-Star Tony Gonsolin out for the year.
So what does that leave?
Yamamoto: He has never thrown a major league pitch. He is used to starting once a week in Japan. Manager Dave Roberts acknowledged they will have to determine how to space out starts for Yamamoto (and others). Friedman said there will be times when a sixth starter is inserted to create that extra rest. Perhaps Kodai Senga’s rookie season can be a guidepost: The Mets had Senga start on the standard four days’ rest just three times in 29 starts.
Glasnow: The Dodgers are convinced Glasnow is about to unlock a durability not yet present in his career. Still, he enters his age-30 season having reached career highs last year in starts (21) and innings (120).
Paxton: The oft-injured now-35-year-old lefty made 19 starts for the Red Sox last year covering just 96 innings. It was his most since making 29 starts for the 2019 Yankees. In between, he had made just six total starts, covering 21 ⅔ innings.
Miller and Emmet Sheehan: They are homegrown and talented and have yet to spend a full season in the majors. They are part of the Dodgers pitching machinery that also has youngsters Michael Grove and Gavin Stone, among others, percolating in the minors.
But what is most fascinating is what the Dodgers might receive from veterans who will not be active to begin the season: Buehler, Kershaw and Dustin May.
Buehler, who had his Tommy John surgery in August 2022, probably could begin the season in the rotation. But the Dodgers want to slow-play him to make sure he still has innings in him for the stretch run and playoffs, especially considering he has a 2.94 ERA in 15 career postseason starts. Buehler added about 20 pounds to try to hold up better physically in a vital season for him – he is a free agent after it.
Kershaw was contemplating retirement and signing with the Rangers. But he returned to the only team for which he has played, in part because he did not want his Dodgers time to end with letting up six runs in one-third of an inning in the Division Series against the Diamondbacks. He underwent shoulder surgery in November, and expects to return sometime in July or August.
May is a more uncertain entity. He had flexor tendon surgery last July, and the Dodgers know he will miss at least half the season. May has thrown just 191 ⅔ MLB innings spread over parts of five seasons. He is talented. But might be more useful, if he returns, in a hybrid role.
Again, at best, this is a jigsaw puzzle to assemble carefully. Also, as an all-in team, the Dodgers probably will be willing to trade in July for a starter if that is necessary.
And here is an interesting item: The Dodgers are far from the only hopeful contender this year that is waiting on multiple starters to potentially be like in-season acquisitions:
1. Rangers: The defending champions might be in a holding pattern for half a season, hoping Nathan Eovaldi and Jon Gray, supported by Cody Bradford, Dane Dunning and Andrew Heaney and perhaps a few prospects (Jack Leiter?), can keep them as contenders.
If so, Jacob deGrom, Tyler Mahle and Max Scherzer all become factors as soon as July. DeGrom (last June) and Mahle (May) are returning from Tommy John surgery. Scherzer had a December procedure to repair a herniated disk in his lower back.
2. Astros: Perhaps the AL West will come down to which Lone Star organization endures better while key starters heal. Hunter Brown, Cristian Javier, Jose Urquidy, Framber Valdez and Justin Verlander are a fine five. And Houston GM Dana Brown said they are projecting early-August returns from elbow surgery for both Lance McCullers Jr. and Luis Garcia.
In Brown’s words, “It will have the impact of trade acquisitions because if both guys hit their stride, it will make our pitching more dominant.”
3. Rays: They know Shane McClanahan will not be back this year after August Tommy John surgery. They also traded Glasnow. That leaves Taj Bradley, Aaron Civale, Zach Eflin, Zack Littell and Ryan Pepiot for an organization that seems to be able to maximize pitchers and find solutions. Two of those who pitched best last season — Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs — had elbow surgery. Perhaps, they become factors around midseason. Rasmussen, though, has had three elbow procedures, which clouds the prognosis.
4. Giants: They have an ace in NL Cy Young runner-up Logan Webb and then …
They signed Jordan Hicks, a reliever who failed early in his career in the rotation, as a starter. Then there are youngsters Tristan Beck, Kyle Harrison and Keaton Winn. So the need for Alex Cobb (hip surgery) and Robbie Ray (Tommy John) to return to add depth and veteran presence at some point feels necessary if the Giants are going to contend. Cobb is due back around late May to early June. The Giants hope for Ray shortly after the All-Star break.
Got my attention
With Ohtani now a Dodger, it feels as if Mike Trout is further away from the playoffs than ever.
The Angels have not made it to the postseason since 2014, tied with the Tigers for the longest current drought. That was the only time in Trout’s 13 seasons that the Angels made the playoffs. They were swept by the Royals as Trout went 1-for-12 (the hit was a homer).
It got me thinking: Is Trout the best player never to win a postseason game?
The face of that designation has been Ernie Banks, who in his career with the Cubs (1953-71) set the record for most games played (2,528) without appearing in the postseason — though for the majority of his career, the entire postseason was simply the team with the best record in the AL playing the team with the best record in the NL in the World Series.
Phil Niekro won 318 games, but both times his Braves were in the playoffs (1969 and 1981), they were swept.
Joe Mauer was elected to the Hall of Fame last month despite playing on Twins teams that were 0-10 in playoff games — seven of those losses to the Yankees.
Trout, as opposed to Banks, has played his entire career with expanded playoffs.
Free-agent deep dive
I have learned not to doubt Scott Boras when it comes to getting big deals for his clients, even late in the offseason.
There are a myriad of examples of when I heard many in the industry offer their version of “Boras has nothing” only for a late signing to materialize. For example, in 2019, Bryce Harper finalized his 13-year, $330 million deal with the Phillies on March 2. In 2022, Kris Bryant did his seven-year, $182 million pact with the Rockies on March 18.
So camps are going to open, and — inevitably — some time in the next few weeks, a contender is going to suffer a major injury or see a player they expected to be a key out of shape or not ready for primetime.
In perhaps the situation that is cited the most with Boras finding a home for a player late in the offseason, the Tigers’ Victor Martinez fell off a treadmill, tore up a knee and go-for-it owner Mike Ilitch went from his team not interested in Prince Fielder to recommending signing Fielder for nine years at $214 million in late January 2012.
Still, it is difficult to ignore camps are open or opening, and Boras still has six major free agents: Cody Bellinger, Matt Chapman, J.D. Martinez, Jordan Montgomery, Hyun-jin Ryu and Blake Snell. I assume none will be going into plumbing supplies and all will sign in the coming weeks.
These are not the only free agents. Others, such as Adam Duvall, Michael Lorenzen and Jorge Soler, remain too. But Boras has the biggest stable and the longest history of being willing to play chicken late into the offseason.
I have seen no signs of this, so I AM NOT REPORTING ANYTHING. But with Snell, in particular, I wonder whether he might end up going the route Carlos Correa took after the 2021 season.
Correa did not begin that offseason as a Boras client, but did join the stable in a difficult offseason for players that was disrupted by a long lockout. Boras had negotiated Corey Seager’s 10-year, $325 million pact with the Rangers before the lockout. And it was believed he wanted the same ballpark for Correa coming off a fifth-place finish for the AL MVP.
When that did not materialize, Correa ended up signing a three-year, $105 million deal with the Twins that would allow him to opt out after each of the first two seasons — which he ultimately did, after Year 1, to sign a six-year, $200 million contract with the Twins (after agreements of more than $300 million with the Giants and Mets fell apart when he failed physicals).
The sense is Boras has wanted to push Snell beyond $30 million annually and well beyond $200 million in total. The Yankees had talked earlier in the offseason conceptually about a six-year, $150 million deal. There has been reporting that no other team had made an offer as of a few weeks ago.
So if that $200 million-plus deal never comes, could Boras and Snell pivot to, say, one that guarantees more than $30 million annually with the chance to go back into the free-agent market in each of the next two offseasons? Basically something in the three-year, $105 million neighborhood, like Correa’s.
Even if Snell did agree to such parameters, I would think the Yankees are doubtful to rejoin the fray now after signing Marcus Stroman.
Snell, having turned down the qualifying offer, would cost the Yankees their second and fifth pick in the July draft — a compensation that an organization is much more willing to take if it knows it has a player for a longer term than perhaps one season.
The Yankees’ payroll already is projected over the top luxury-tax threshold of $297 million. And as a third-time payor in 2024, every cent above $297 million is taxed at 110 percent. If the Yankees agreed to pay Snell $35 million this year, there would be $38.5 million in tax added to their ledger.
It is why big-market teams that are not even over the first threshold of $237 million, such as the Angels, Cubs, Giants and Red Sox, are looked at most right now to possibly still be active with the better remaining free agents.
Roster stuff maybe only I notice
In our continuing look at which organizations would be able to build the best 26-man rosters from their original signings, we are at the equivalent of the Division Series with eight teams left.
At No. 8 is the Rays, who had 57 players in the majors last year who were signed by the team to their first pro contracts — the high for the organization in the 17 years in which I have tracked it.
The tricky item in assembling the roster is what to do with Wander Franco and Shane McClanahan.
Franco finished last season on MLB-issued administrative leave as the league awaited action from authorities in the Dominican Republic over Franco’s alleged relationship with an underage girl. Franco’s status to play is uncertain.
McClanahan underwent Tommy John in late August, so he almost certainly will not pitch in the majors in 2024.
Still, these rosters are based on last year’s performance, and Franco and McClanahan were 2023 All-Stars.
So the team, which has highs and lots of Lowes:
C: Rene Pinto
1B: Nate Lowe
2B: Brandon Lowe
3B: Taylor Walls
LF: Jake Fraley
CF: Kevin Kiermaier
RF: Jesus Sanchez
DH: Josh Lowe
Bench: Jake Cronenworth, Evan Longoria, Luke Maile, Brett Wisely
Rotation: McClanahan, Alex Cobb, Merrill Kelly, Joe Ryan, Blake Snell
Closer: Jose Alvarado
Bullpen: Dylan Floro, Ian Gibaut, Matt Moore, Austin Pruitt, Christopher Sanchez, Ryne Stanek, Kirby Yates
At No. 7 are the Cardinals, who annually rank highly for having produced quantity and quality. They had 55 originals in the majors last year, which was ninth and their lowest since 2017, so maybe the faucet is slowing down. Still, they had 22 position players take at least 200 plate appearances — two more than any other organization — and 10 pitchers make at least 10 starts, which was the fourth-most.
Like with McClanahan, I have put Sandy Alcantara on the roster, though he will miss this year after Tommy John surgery. The team:
C: Andrew Knizner
1B: Donovan Solano
2B: Nolan Gorman
SS: Tommy Edman
3B: Patrick Wisdom
LF: Brandon Donovan
CF: Lars Nootbaar
RF: Adolis Garcia
DH: Randy Arozarena
Bench: Paul DeJong, Carson Kelly, Tommy Pham, Jordan Walker
Rotation: Alcantara, Jack Flaherty, Zac Gallen, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha
Closer: Jordan Hicks
Bullpen: Ryan Helsley, Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller, Adam Ottavino, Johan Oviedo, Andre Pallante, Zack Thompson
Got my attention, the sequel
When a team is deciding whether to acquire a player, they of course should do all of the standard homework in breaking him down via scouts and via analytics and trying to learn as best as possible what kind of person and clubhouse presence he is — though veteran executives will tell you that is difficult to truly know well until the player is in your environment.
As one top club official once told me, “It is why the tiebreaker for me is always talent because trying to determine what kind of person someone is going to be in your clubhouse sounds a lot easier than it actually is.”
One other item that is tough to know — but I would try to figure out before making an acquisition — is just how fearless a player is. I think it is important anywhere. Perhaps more so in New York. Probably even more so with the Yankees.
I have found over time that the players who do not shake in big moments are the ones most likely to thrive in The Bronx.
He is lost to time a bit, but Jimmy Key was a transformative player for the Yankees, helping move them from non-contenders to ultimately champions with his unflappable nature. Key could make you feel he would pitch the same game in an active war zone as he would, say, in Kansas City in June.
Orlando Hernandez was like that, as were Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter and Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon. The lights were never too bright for any of them. The moment was never too big. They might fail, but they weren’t going to fail because they were scared.
And it is not even just about stars. Luis Sojo, for example, could handle a tough grounder with a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth at Fenway like he was taking fungoes in spring training.
I bring this up because the Yankees officially learned recently that a player who was able to handle anything in their universe was leaving.
Wandy Peralta signed with the Padres for four years at $16.25 million. Peralta was not as sharp last year as he was in his first two seasons as a Yankee, even as he pitched to a 2.83 ERA and mostly dominated lefty hitters. But if the Yankees were considering bringing him back, the tiebreaker for me to extend a bit financially would have been his fearlessness — not to mention what a positive clubhouse presence he was.
The Yankees acquired two lefty setup men from the Dodgers in Victor Gonzalez and Caleb Ferguson.
They will cost less in 2024 together than Peralta by himself. What we will learn over time is whether they will blink in a big spot against, say, Rafael Devers or Gunnar Henderson. Because Peralta would not.
I promise you, Yankees fans, I am not doing this to annoy you because I can hardly think of anything that might aggravate a pinstripe diehard quite like comparing Jose Altuve to Jeter.
But when Altuve signed his five-year, $125 million extension last week, it is the comp I thought about. Because Altuve’s career is, at minimum, in a Venn diagram with Jeter’s.
Consider through their age-33 seasons, Altuve has a slash line of .307/.364/.471 for a 129 OPS-plus and Jeter was at .317/.388/.462 for a 122 OPS-plus. Both were eight-time All-Stars through age 33, and to that point, Jeter had won four championships with the Yankees, been a World Series MVP and been awarded three Gold Gloves and two Silver Sluggers at shortstop. Altuve has won two World Series, was an ALCS MVP, won a regular-season MVP, three batting titles, one Gold Glove and six Silver Sluggers at second base.
They also both excelled in the postseason. Altuve has a .273/.340/.510 slash line with 27 homers in 103 career postseason games. In 158 career postseason games, Jeter had a .308/.374/.465 slash line with 20 homers.
One category in which Jeter had a big edge over Altuve through age 33 was with 2,356 hits, en route to 3,465 for his career. Altuve has 2,047.
It is possible the battle for the next player to get to 3,000 hits is between Altuve and Freddie Freeman, who just completed his age-33 season with 2,114 hits (67 more than Altuve).
If Joey Votto finds a job, he would be the active leader with 2,135 career hits. But at 40, he is not getting close to 3,000. Elvis Andrus, who will play at 36 this year, has 2,091 hits, but is a backup-type player now. Andrew McCutchen has 2,048, but is entering his age-37 season.
If neither Freeman nor Altuve reaches 3,000 hits, the next best bet is Manny Machado, who is entering his age-31 season with 1,737 — 127 more than Altuve had through his age-30 season and 213 more than Freeman did.