As the Dodgers remade their starting rotation this winter, aggressively splashing money on a position group that had faltered the last two postseasons, they compiled their staff with a best-case scenario in mind:
That Yoshinobu Yamamoto will live up to his billing as the highest-paid pitcher in Major League Baseball history, fooling hitters with his deceptive mechanics and overpowering arsenal to be a Cy Young Award candidate in his first season after coming over from Japan.
That Tyler Glasnow will stay healthy and consistent, showcasing his highly touted repertoire over a full season for the first time in his injury-plagued career.
That Walker Buehler will make an impactful return from Tommy John surgery at some point early in the season, with Clayton Kershaw (shoulder surgery) and Dustin May (elbow surgery) staging their own post-surgical comebacks in the second half of the schedule.
That Bobby Miller, Emmet Sheehan and Gavin Stone will all make strides in Year 2 of their careers, giving the Dodgers a younger crop of arms to pair with their more veteran counterparts (a group that also includes newly signed James Paxton).
That the new-look group will come together as expected, and be able to live up to lofty preseason hype.
“We feel really good about the collection of arms we have,” president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “We feel really good about the quality of stuff and [our] volume of really talented pitchers.”
For every dream outcome, however, there is an equally fraught nightmare possibility, as well:
That an undersized Yamamoto struggles to adapt to a new league, a new ball and a heightened workload compared to his routine in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league.
That Glasnow will have another injury setback, forcing him to again sit out large chunks of the season.
That Buehler, Kershaw and May either struggle to regain their health, or don’t look like their old selves once they return.
That Miller and Co. can’t pick up the slack in their sophomore seasons, causing a potential house of cards on the mound to come crashing down.
The eventual result probably will fall somewhere between those extremes. Even if everything doesn’t go according to plan, the Dodgers should still have a strong starting staff. Even if some pitchers fall short of expectations, the team is confident it has enough depth and talent to sustain a deep playoff run.
Yet, despite spending $375 million to land Yamamoto, another $136.5 million to extend Glasnow, and (based on incentives and performance bonuses) potentially dozens of millions more on Kershaw, Paxton and other arms to reinforce the staff, the club’s rotation still faces lingering questions.
It’s a more talented group, but not one without flaws.
And how well it all comes together — from the players’ individual performances to the team’s management of workloads and schedules — could be one of the biggest factors in the Dodgers’ 2024 success.
“For each guy, it’s a little bit different,” Friedman said. “But we feel the collection of arms and the depth of it is something that is going to help us navigate a 162-game season and then still have really talented arms when we go into October — if we’re fortunate enough.”
In some ways, the most important linchpin in the rotation could be Glasnow.
Unlike Yamamoto, who will be eased into a more regular MLB schedule early in the season, Glasnow is “good to go however the schedule shakes out,” Friedman said, positioning the right-hander to potentially shoulder the significant role in the rotation early in the season.
Glasnow has some track record of MLB success. Over the last five seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, the 30-year-old Southland native was 26-11 with a 3.03 ERA (albeit, while making only 60 starts because of injuries).
Both Glasnow and the Dodgers are hopeful those physical issues are behind him.
Glasnow said he has completely recovered from myriad elbow problems that forced him to undergo Tommy John surgery in 2021.
“Once that healed, everything was good and I feel really good right now,” he said.
Friedman described Glasnow’s other ailments — such as an oblique strain that sidelined him for the first two months of last season — as more “freakish” issues the team says it believes he can avoid in the future.
“We feel like the arrow is really pointing up and that, over the next few years, he is really going to take on a lot of starts,” Friedman said. “The work ethic is there. We spent a lot of time digging into that. And that’s a bet we’re making. We’ll see as things play out.”
Yamamoto, meanwhile, is the ultimate wild card.
The three-time Japanese league MVP has already wowed Dodgers personnel in camp with his consistent delivery and distinctive pitching style (including a pre-pitch slide step and pirouette-like motion on the mound). There is hope Yamamoto, 25, is entering the prime of his career, as well, making his move to MLB just in time to take another step forward in his career.
“He's very in tune with his body and how his body moves,” manager Dave Roberts said. “The commanding of the baseball is really impressive."
Beyond those two, the rotation questions become much more pronounced.
Buehler said he was trending in the right direction in his return from surgery — but the team has yet to offer a firm timeline for when he might return to game action (it is generally expected to be early in the season).
“There’s still no hard start date,” Roberts said. “There’s a progression that needs to be in place and is in place. Once he passes all those markers, he’ll be ready to go. I just don’t know when that’s going to be. We just don’t want to rush him.”
Paxton, a 10-year veteran with a career 3.69 ERA, has his own injury concerns — so much so that the Dodgers reworked his one-year deal to include less guaranteed money and more incentive-based bonuses after raising concerns with his physical examination.
“I’m an older player now, and I’m not perfect anymore,” acknowledged Paxton, who said the team’s specific concerns were with a knee injury he suffered last season and his history of Tommy John surgery. “But I’m feeling really good right now … and I’m gonna keep on building and getting ready. I’ll be ready for Day 1.”
Miller will face a different challenge in trying to build upon his promising rookie season in 2023, when he went 11-4 with a 3.76 ERA before struggling as the team’s Game 2 postseason starter.
And, for at least as long as Buehler is held back, there should be an opportunity for younger options such as Sheehan, Stone or Michael Grove to also claim an early rotation spot.
The only guarantee at the point: The Dodgers won’t be using a permanent six-man rotation, opting instead to try to carve extra rest for their starters by planning strategically around off days and calling up spot starters when needed.
Beyond that, the production the Dodgers get from their starting pitching this year could fall within a wide range of outcomes. On paper, they have the potential to be one of the best units in the majors. But only in time will they find out if their best-laid plans will ever come to fruition.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.