News Analysis: Dodgers must address their thin starting rotation when the lockout ends

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  • Clayton Kershaw
    Clayton Kershaw
    American baseball player
  • Corey Seager
    Corey Seager
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Chris Taylor
    Chris Taylor
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Max Scherzer
    Max Scherzer
    American baseball player
LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - AUG. 1, 2019. Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw delivers a pitch against the Padres in the second inning Thursday night, Aug. 1, 2019, at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Re-signing franchise icon Clayton Kershaw should be a priority for the Dodgers when the lockout ends. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The Dodgers never expected to retain all their marquee free agents this winter. They braced for seismic changes. The question for Andrew Friedman and his front office colleagues was how many they would lose in this pivotal offseason. That didn’t make Wednesday any easier.

The day started with pitcher Max Scherzer donning a New York Mets cap on an introductory videoconference call from Texas, where he was representing the players’ union in labor negotiations with owners. Hours later, a few miles down the road, shortstop Corey Seager wore a Texas Rangers jersey for the first time at Globe Life Park in Arlington, his home for the next 10 seasons.

The Dodgers managed to re-sign the versatile Chris Taylor before the collective bargaining agreement expired and owners imposed a lockout Wednesday night. It was a positive finish to a difficult day for the franchise and its fans. It can always get worse.

Pitchers Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen, the two longest-tenured Dodgers, remain unsigned. Jansen, the franchise’s all-time saves leader, is not expected to return. But the Dodgers hold hope that Kershaw will choose them over joining Seager to play for his hometown Rangers. Seager, now on the other side, is trying to lure the future Hall of Famer away.

“I’ve had some talks with Kershaw, for sure,” Seager said when asked if he’s tried recruiting Kershaw.

The Dodgers didn’t offer Kershaw a qualifying offer last month because they didn’t want to pressure him as he makes his decision, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. Kershaw, meanwhile, is rehabbing from an elbow injury and wants to make sure he’s healthy before signing with a team.

Losing Kershaw would be an emotional split. The Dodgers are the only franchise he has known. They drafted him in 2006. He made his major league debut two years later and exorcised his postseason demons 12 years later when the Dodgers won the 2020 World Series. He epitomizes one of the most successful stretches in club history. He’s the face of the franchise and an icon in Southern California.

But Scherzer’s departure — he left for $130 million over three years — also makes a reunion important for baseball reasons because starting pitching is the Dodgers’ most pressing need.

The Dodgers are already working under the premise that Trevor Bauer will never pitch for them again. The questions are if Major League Baseball will suspend him without pay after he was accused of sexual assault, for how long, and when they’ll determine the discipline. MLB’s investigation remains ongoing. The discipline’s timing and length could affect the Dodgers’ offseason activity.

Bauer is slated to make $32 million in 2022. The amount the Dodgers must pay him remains unknown. Until they find out, the situation will cloud their offseason and may limit their willingness to commit top dollar for players.

Two of the four Dodgers tendered contracts this week are the best starting pitchers on the roster: Walker Buehler and Julio Urías. Both emerged as Cy Young Award candidates in 2021. Both set career highs for innings pitched. Buehler logged at least six innings in 29 of his 33 regular-season starts. Urías was the majors’ only 20-game winner. They took the next step. They should remain frontline starters if healthy in 2022.

The problem is the Dodgers’ rotation depth is thin. The club signed Andrew Heaney to a one-year deal last month, banking on their ability to rectify Heaney’s home run issues. After that, David Price and Tony Gonsolin are the only healthy pitchers with significant experience starting games in the majors while Dustin May recovers from Tommy John surgery.

The free-agent market for starters diminished over the last month. Scherzer, Robbie Ray, Kevin Gausman, Eduardo Rodriguez, Marcus Stroman, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, Jon Gray, Corey Kluber, Alex Vobb, Dylan Bundy and Justin Verlander all signed with clubs. Carlos Rodón, Zack Greinke and Kershaw are the best options remaining.

The Dodgers could bolster the rotation via trades. The Oakland Athletics and Cincinnati Reds, clubs that have made multiple trades with the Dodgers in recent years, feature intriguing options and are open for business.

The Athletics have been rumored to be willing to move starters Frankie Montas, Chris Bassitt and Sean Manaea. First baseman Matt Olson and third baseman Matt Chapman are also reportedly available for the right price. The Reds have starting pitchers Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo to offer.

Offensively, the Dodgers wanted Seager to stay long before he hit free agency. They offered him an eight-year, $250-million contract during spring training this year. They were among the teams vying for his services as a free agent once the season ended. Ultimately, they weren’t close to meeting the Rangers’ extravagant offer of $325 million over 10 years, according to people with knowledge of the situation.

Trea Turner was acquired at the trade deadline with Scherzer for this possibility, among other reasons. He’ll slide over from second base to shortstop, his natural position, next season. Whether he’ll remain there for the Dodgers beyond next year is unknown; Turner is slated to strike gold in free agency next winter.

That combination rendered the Dodgers re-signing Taylor essential. Taylor is a known commodity. He’s a fit in the clubhouse. He’s a proven postseason performer, adding a walk-off home run in the wild-card game and a three-home run performance to his resume this October.

He also plays six positions, including both middle infield spots. He provides premium insurance. Retaining him Wednesday in the hours before the lockout was a victory after the blows the Dodgers took the previous 96 hours.

But did the Dodgers imagine giving him $60 million guaranteed over four years with a fifth-year club option? No. A year ago, utilityman Kiké Hernández left Los Angeles to sign a two-year, $14-million deal with the Boston Red Sox. Hernández was a significantly better defender in 2021, posted comparable offensive numbers to Taylor during the regular season, and was 20 for 49 with five home runs in the playoffs. And he’s a year younger.

The circumstances surrounding the players’ free agencies, internally and externally, were different. Hernández wanted an everyday role. The Dodgers weren’t willing to promise him one. They believed they had better options. Hernández was never going to re-sign.

With Taylor, the Dodgers were coming off a season in which depth was a major problem for the first time in recent years. Gone were the days of the Dodgers having multiple threats on the bench for the postseason. Steven Souza Jr., Albert Pujols and Billy McKinney were the options this October — not Hernández, Joc Pederson and David Freese. Max Muncy’s season-ending left elbow injury on the regular season’s final day only exacerbated the deficiency.

The markets also weren’t the same. Taylor lucked out on a landscape flush with cash before Wednesday night’s de facto deadline. Hernández’s market was, in comparison, depressed for mid-tier free agents. So he’ll make less than half of Taylor’s salary in 2021.

Taylor fills one hole. There are more to address once the lockout concludes — whenever that is. Another frenzy is expected once a collective bargaining agreement is reached. The second iteration will feature fewer high-priced free agents, but more trades. The Dodgers are expected to shop down both avenues.

They have had discussions with free agent first baseman Freddie Freeman, an Orange County native who won National League MVP in 2020 and the World Series with the Atlanta Braves in 2021. The Braves remain the favorites to land him. He’s beloved in Georgia. He’s insisted he wants to stay there. But he hasn’t signed yet and the Dodgers are lurking.

The Dodgers have also reportedly reached out to Carlos Correa, one of the faces of the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal and an elite 27-year-old shortstop. The Astros offered Correa a five-year, $160-million contract last month. He stands to attract a much bigger deal after Seager’s massive payday. But would the club’s brass be willing to give him one knowing fans and people across the organization believe Correa’s Astros cheated them out of a championship in 2017?

Seager has been a better hitter, by a small margin, in recent years. Correa is the better fielder by a significant margin as evidenced by him winning the Platinum Glove as MLB's best defender. Seager has accumulated an 8.7 WAR over the last three seasons, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Correa has compiled a 12.6 WAR.

Adding Correa could make Turner tradeable instead of losing him next offseason. Or Turner could stay at second base. Or Correa could play third base, moving Justin Turner to first base and designated hitter if the universal DH is implemented as expected.

Freeman could make more sense offensively since he, like Seager, is a left-handed hitter. Correa is a right-handed hitter. Freeman would give the lineup better balance. The Dodgers have only three left-handed batters among their projected regulars: Cody Bellinger, Lux and Muncy. And Muncy this week revealed he has a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow, which could jeopardize his status for the start of next season.

The Dodgers will have their work cut out for them when the lockout ends. They’ll have options. For now, they wait.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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