Dodgers' rotation picture clearing up
No word yet, but Kuroda seems on track for Opening Day
PHOENIX -- Not that the order couldn't be juggled between now and April 6, but manager Joe Torre's current alignment seems set up to have right-hander Hiroki Kuroda as the starting pitcher for Opening Day in San Diego, followed by left-hander Randy Wolf, right-hander Chad Billingsley, left-hander Clayton Kershaw and a fifth starter to be named later.If that scenario holds, Billingsley's second start would come up April 13, the Dodgers' home opener against San Francisco. Although a change in the tentative schedule removed an off-day on April 7, forcing the need for a fifth starter on April 10, the fifth starter wouldn't be needed again until April 19.
Torre has not announced his Opening Day starter yet, nor has he chosen a fifth starter, a contributing factor to the recent rash of Pedro Martinez rumors. Torre has said he'd be comfortable starting Kuroda or Billingsley in the opener.Billingsley had his first shaky Spring start on Friday, allowing back-to-back homers to Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz of Texas and was charged with three runs in 2 1/3 innings before using up his pitch limit. "He had good stuff, but couldn't locate it," Torre said of Billingsley. "Brad [Ausmus, the catcher] said his stuff was good." On Thursday, Torre listed the leading contenders for fifth starter as Jason Schmidt, Eric Milton, Claudio Vargas and Shawn Estes. Eric Stults and Ramon Troncoso came into camp as contenders, but have been less effective this spring. Torre also hasn't ruled out Jeff Weaver or James McDonald, although they seem to be thought of more as relievers. Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said on Friday that an ideal cutoff date in his mind is this coming Monday, when the Dodgers play split-squad games against the A's and Mariners. "That still leaves three weeks until Opening Day and there's time to make an adjustment," he said, indicating that to get a fifth starter ready for his turn the first week of the season, three weeks would be needed to stretch out his innings. The pitching matchups over these next few days could be an indicator of what management is thinking. On Saturday, Kershaw starts the "A" game, while Eric Stults and Scott Elbert will pitch in the "B" game. Stults has been erratic this spring (12.46 ERA), while Elbert has been wild (three walks in 4 1/3 innings). On Sunday, Schmidt will get his second start and be followed by Milton. On Monday, Kuroda will start one game, with Estes and Vargas sharing the other. Schmidt has been Torre's preferred pick as the fifth starter, but he's been out for a year and a half with shoulder miseries and he's been behind the other candidates this spring. The approach seems to be, get him ready at whatever timetable he's on, rather than Opening Day or bust. "It's no good to rush him," Honeycutt said of Schmidt, who had a bullpen session on Thursday. "It's a fine line trying to get him ready. You'd rather have him part of the year than none of the year. We've been more conservative with him than aggressive." The most surprising candidate might be Milton, who also has been sidelined the past year and a half, his because of Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery. "He's been impressive since Day 1," Honeycutt said. "He told me he was throwing pens since December, so he was ahead and he wasn't worried about how he'd feel. He's been good from his first outing. You can tell by his arm strength. "Vargas, overall, has been fine. He gave up a home run to Andruw Jones in his last game, it was a mistake, but he also was working on things. Each outing, not only are they trying to win a job, but they're working on things and that has to be factored in. We're very happy with Vargas." Estes is still in that mix, even though he's allowed 10 hits in 5 1/3 innings with a 10.13 ERA. Like the other three top candidates, Estes is a veteran, and that seems to be a key asset for anyone joining a rotation that already has 24-year-old Billingsley and Kershaw, who turns 21 next week. Perhaps the most puzzling pitcher this spring is Troncoso, who was expected to make the club coming into camp and now, not so much with a 9.00 ERA. He has lacked command, and Honeycutt suspects the sinkerball pitcher needs to pitch more frequently instead of having his outings spaced like other starter candidates. James McDonald further muddied his situation on Friday by struggling through two innings of relief, walking four. He escaped without allowing a run. McDonald had not walked any batters in his previous 5 2/3 innings. He said his body felt fine, but his mechanics were out of whack. "He made some good pitches," said Torre, "but he was uncharacteristically wild." The second lefty job seems to be between Stephen Randolph, who bailed Billingsley out of a jam on Friday, and Erick Threets, who did the same for Troncoso on Thursday. Cory Wade eased bullpen concerns with a perfect inning on Friday on the heels of Hong-Chih Kuo's scoreless inning on Thursday. Weaver and Guillermo Mota also pitched scoreless innings on Friday.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.