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The fourth line of Dodgers pitching depth

Three unheralded veterans are off to strong starts in Triple-A, as the Dodgers continue to cultivate internal pitching options.

Photo by Mike Strasinger/Nashville Sounds

The story on the Dodgers’ approach to starting pitching in the Andrew Friedman era is now relatively well-worn. Since Friedman and Farhan Zaidi arrived in 2014, the club has skipped out on many opportunities to support Clayton Kershaw at the top of the rotation in the way that large-market teams usually support their aces—by paying handsomely for elite, workhorse free agent starters. Instead of shelling out for Jon Lester, David Price, Zack Greinke or Johnny Cueto, the Dodgers have relied on a combination of young pitching prospects like Julio Urias, Ross Stripling, and Brock Stewart (who have shown great promise but haven’t quite established themselves as rotation members), and bargain-bin veterans with dramatic injury histories.

In short, instead of a pitching rotation, the Dodgers have been building a hockey team. After checking in on the results of this approach over the last two-plus seasons, this article will focus on that team’s fourth line, an interesting crop of veterans currently pitching at AAA.

By design, this approach produces a great deal of variance when you look at individual pitchers’ results. Brett Anderson gave the Dodgers a fine 2015 season before turning in an injury-marred dud in 2016. On the purely negative side, Brandon Beachy, Bud Norris, and Mat Latos added a collective .2 fWAR in their stints with the team.

But there have been success stories too. Even though Kenta Maeda had to take an extremely team-friendly contract due to elbow concerns revealed by his physical—and despite an uneven start to 2017—he has been a stable presence in the rotation, contributing 42 starts and 3.8 fWAR to date. Brandon McCarthy tore his UCL after only four starts in 2015 and looked awful in his late 2016 return, but has overcome a case of the yips to turn in a very strong 2017 so far, pitching to a 3.28 ERA and 3.02 FIP with a 51:15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 57.2 innings, and providing quality starts in 6 of his 10 outings.

Individual ups and downs notwithstanding, the staff as a whole has put up consistently strong results: the Dodgers’ starters finished second and then sixth in ERA among all MLB teams the last two years, and they currently sit in third place on that list for the 2017 season. When you include the bullpen, the Dodgers rank 1st in overall ERA so far this year, after finishing 8th in 2016 and 10th in 2015. The staff as a whole has lead the majors with 55.5 fWAR since the 2015 season began, 4.4 more than the second highest total.

The club has supplemented its depth-centric personnel scheme with in-game strategy that limits starters’ innings to minimize injury and avoid the drop-off in performance that comes with the third trip through the batting order. The Dodgers used 16 and then 15 different starting pitchers in 2015 and 2016, but they also used 15 and then 16 relief pitchers in those years. So, just as only Maeda pitched enough innings to qualify for the ERA title last year (due to Kershaw’s injury), only two Dodger relievers (Baez and Blanton) pitched more than 70 innings in 2016.

The idea is to divide up the roughly 1450 innings the team is going to need from its pitching staff, assume that pitchers will get injured or need extra rest on a regular basis, and try to find the most efficient value in each inning by generating depth through every available means: making disciplined offers to expensive players, but avoiding overpays on long-term deals; stockpiling and developing talented young prospects acquired both internationally and through the draft; taking flyers on picked-over veterans showing signs of life; cycling relief pitchers through the minors and the disabled list to allow the bullpen to handle the third trip through the order on a regular basis; and, finally, taking advantage of the new 10-day DL (5 of the 7 pitchers who have started for Los Angeles this year have skipped starts with DL trips).

Perhaps the least glamorous element of this all-of-the-above strategy is the main focus of this article: an effort to revive the careers of veterans with their best years behind them. This year’s group includes three journeymen off to intriguing starts at AAA Oklahoma City: Wilmer Font, Jair Jurrjens, and Justin Masterson.

Photo by Cody Roper / OKC Dodgers

Signed by the Rangers out of Venezuela in 2006, Wilmer Font underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010, was moved to the bullpen after making it to Double-A in 2012, and made brief appearances in the majors in 2012 and 2013. He was the organization’s sixth-ranked prospect entering 2014, but struggled with his command in that season (31/17 K/BB), and was shut down in August for surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow. After the Rangers cut him, Font pitched—mostly as a starter—for a full season and a half in the independent Canadian-American League, before catching on with the Blue Jays system in July of last year.

During Font’s winding journey through the Rangers’ system, he featured a lively high-90s fastball, but struggled with his command and secondary pitches (a slurvy breaking ball and a below-average change up). Through 11 starts of his age-27 season with Oklahoma City this year, he continues to lean on his fastball, which is sitting at 91-94 mph and touching 96 with late arm-side run. But there are two major differences: Font has shown confidence in his upper-70s breaking ball (even using it to pitch backwards at times), and he is commanding both pitches. The results have been strong: he is leading the minor leagues with 88 strikeouts against only 13 walks, and has overcome some early run prevention struggles, featuring a 2.93 ERA over his last 7 starts to get his season ERA down to 3.97.

Perhaps most encouragingly, Font’s peripherals suggest that the top-line numbers are legitimate—he is running an higher-than-average BABIP at .333, and his FIP (2.52) and xFIP (2.83) are each more than a point below his ERA. While his age and injury history have kept the hype at bay thus far, Font is sure to get broader attention if he can maintain his early season performance.

Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

You may remember Jair Jurrjens from a 2008-2011 stint with the Braves that saw him contribute 10.2 fWAR, finish third in the Rookie of the Year voting, and earn a trip to the 2011 All-Star game. But chronic knee problems in his back leg sapped his velocity in 2012 and 2013, and he hasn’t pitched in the majors since an ugly two-game stint with the Rockies at the end of 2014. After spending 2015 giving up runs in Albuquerque (understandable), he pitched to a 5.38 ERA in 90.1 innings in the Chinese Professional Baseball League last year (less understandable), eventually getting cut in August. But Jurrjens has clearly dedicated himself to a 2017 comeback, with significantly improved results.

The Dodgers snapped up Jurrjens, who despite such a long career is still only 31, after an impressive 11.1 inning showing in the World Baseball Classic, where he helped the Netherlands reach the semifinals and finished with a 2.38 ERA, 9 strikeouts, and 4 walks. In his first 10 appearances (9 starts) for Triple-A Oklahoma City, Jurrjens has a 4.13 ERA in 52.1 innings, with 43 strikeouts against 14 walks. Jurrjens’ struggles this season have been confined to three tough starts in which he surrendered 16 of the 24 earned runs he has allowed all year. An instructive example is his April 19 start against the Nashville Sounds, in which a highly questionable fielder’s choice call at third base, a tight strike zone, and an automatic balk from a clock violation conspired to derail his start in the fifth inning, costing him two runs and three walks and knocking him out of the game after just 4.2 innings.

In his 13 outings in the WBC and at AAA this year, Jurrjens is sitting 89-91 mph with a fastball that has touched 94 multiple times in all of his outings. He supports the fastball, which he can also sink and cut (at reduced velocity), with an effective 79-83 mph changeup that he’s willing to throw for strikes in any count. His 78 mph breaking ball is used sparingly, but not for lack of confidence—he has also shown the ability to consistently throw that pitch for strikes. At this point in the season, the question is whether you believe in Jurrjens’ 10 strong appearances, or his 3 rough starts. With that pitch mix and the return of his velocity, he may have the best chance in this group of earning a major league start this year, should the opportunity arise.

Photo by Cody Roper/OKC Dodgers

Justin Masterson’s story bears some similarity to Jurrjens’. After breaking in with the Red Sox in 2008 (his age 23 season), Justin Masterson was a useful starter, mostly for the Indians, from 2009-2013. Masterson’s velocity suffered a 3-4 mph nosedive in 2014 due to—you guessed it—a back leg knee injury. After his velocity stayed down in a lackluster 59.1 inning 2015 return to the Red Sox, he underwent offseason shoulder surgery, then pitched to a 4.97 ERA in the Pirates’ International League outfit last year.

Now 32 and also pitching on the Oklahoma City staff, Masterson hasn’t regained his velocity like Jurrjens (the fastball is sitting 84-88 and touching 90), but he has struck out 59 against 22 walks in 60.2 innings so far, with an ERA of 2.82. Masterson continues to feature his sinker-slider combination, but has cleaned up his command quite a bit. His adjustments have yielded a K% nearly double last year’s rate, but a .238 BABIP, a 4.53 xFIP, and a GB/FB ratio half his career rate, there’s plenty of reason to expect some regression.

In other organizations, Font, Jurrjens, and Masterson might have done enough already to get a look at a major league start, but there are a lot of names in front of them on the Dodgers depth chart. Scott Kazmir is still around rehabbing a hip injury, and reportedly has begun to regain his velocity. Stripling has looked strong in the bullpen, and may be given an opportunity. Brock Stewart has already made three short minor league starts as he rehabs a shoulder injury, and Oklahoma City teammate Trevor Oaks (the Dodgers’ #16 prospect according to MLB Pipeline) has a 3.46 ERA and a K/BB over 5 in his first 10 starts. Yet, with Rich Hill’s blister situation, McCarthy’s injury history, and some early shakiness from both Maeda and Ryu, the non-Kershaw portion of the Dodgers’ rotation looks to be a revolving cast of characters again this year. If they were to match the last two years’ numbers, the Dodgers would be using 8 or 9 more starters this year. Just don’t be too surprised if you see Font, Jurrjens, or maybe even Masterson, jumping over the boards and onto the Dodger Stadium mound in 2017.

All statistics current through June 6, 2017.

Ross Drath is a contributing writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on twitter @looselids.