From my Dodgers season preview on Wednesday…
Does Clayton Kershaw have enough help in the rotation to lead this team to a playoff berth?
The Dodgers starting rotation last season amassed 13.8 fWAR, tied for tenth in the league. That’s pretty good. Here’s the problem with that: nearly half of that 13.8 fWAR was accrued by Clayton Kershaw, who was worth 6.8 fWAR in his 33 starts. The 128 games started (the Dodgers only played 161 games last year) by non-Kershaw pitchers ended up with just 7.0 fWAR. That’s not really too balanced. And of those 128 starts, the Dodgers lose 56 of them (and 3.4 fWAR) going into 2012. Their current rotation is Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly, Chris Capuano, and Aaron Harang. Kershaw, Billingsley, and Lilly are incumbents in the staff, while Capuano and Harang are newbies.
Assuming Kershaw duplicates his performance from last season, the quartet following him has to just be worth seven wins. That’s not asking too much. The best best to pick up some of that slack comes with Billingsley, whose 4.21 ERA last season was a career worst, and his 2.1 fWAR was his worst in a full season of work. His 7.28 strikeout rate and 4.02 walk rate were the worst he’s had in his career since his rookie year of 2006, when he only threw 90 innings. In the three seasons prior to 2011, Billingsley was worth an average of four wins a season. He definitely can do that again, especially at just age 27. Penciling him in for a four win season as opposed to a two win year already takes a load off of Kershaw’s back.
The three veterans following those two youngsters in the rotation have a much different outlook, though. 36 year-old Ted Lilly is on the downswing of his career, and is already battling neck problems. Lilly hasn’t had a four win season in his career, and has just one three win season over his last three years. In fact, I’d actually expect Lilly to take another step back in 2012. He has just a .270 career BABIP against, but the last five years, his already low BABIP has been lower than even that. While being a flyball pitcher helps him in Dodger Stadium, he’s got a very high homer rate, and as a result, has just one season with a FIP of under 4.00 in his career. I think the 1.3 fWAR he was worth last year is about accurate for him. Two wins is probably his ceiling at this point in his career.
Now, the new guys. Harang and Capuano replace departed Dodgers like Hiroki Kuroda, Dana Eveland, Jon Garland, and the injured Rubby de la Rosa. Harang will shift from one pitchers park to another, going from Petco Park to Dodger Stadium. But the thing about Harang is that he’s just not any good anymore. He has four straight seasons with less than 30 starts, and hasn’t posted a FIP under 4.00 in any of them. Aside from a three year stretch from 2005 to 2007, he’s been thorougly mediocre. His ceiling is maybe a win at this point in time. Capuano missed all of 2008 and 2009 and pitched sparingly for the Brewers in 2010. 2011 was his first season back to pitching full-time, and in 186 innings for the Mets, he was adequate…a 1.6 win pitcher with a FIP hovering around 4.00. I wouldn’t expect him to improve that much upon that.
Essentially, the Dodgers are banking on Harang and Capuano to be worth three wins between them, which I don’t think is completely unreasonable. A six win season from Kershaw and a four win season from Billingsley will tremendously decrease the load on the three veterans in the rotation, and if they combine for four wins, the Dodgers will have improved from 2011 to 2012. But if you’re looking for the most improvement in the rotation, look directly at Billingsley. He’s the key on determining whether or not this is a one man show, or if Kershaw will have any help this year.