LOS ANGELES -- If the Los Angeles Dodgers seem overly optimistic about Rich Hill’s value as a starting pitcher, it could be because they are in a unique position to get the most out of the soon-to-be 37-year-old.
Los Angeles signed Hill to a free-agent contract in December that will pay out a guaranteed $48 million over three years, starting with $12 million in 2017. Less guaranteed is how many innings Hill will be able to provide in the upcoming season and beyond.
The left-hander made a stirring return to a starting role midway through the 2015 season, doing it first with the independent Long Island Ducks. He ended that year in the Boston Red Sox's rotation, earning a one-year, $6 million deal with the Oakland Athletics.
His rise continued in August when the Dodgers acquired Hill, along with outfielder Josh Reddick, for three pitching prospects. The Dodgers were more than pleased with the 1.83 ERA Hill delivered over six starts down the stretch. He also dominated in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs, tossing six scoreless innings.
But Hill threw just 110 1/3 regular-season innings as a starter with both the A’s and Dodgers last season, spending a significant amount of time on the disabled list with blister issues on the fingers of his left hand. Since becoming a major league starter again in 2015, Hill has just 139 1/3 innings to his credit.
What approach will the Dodgers take with Hill in 2017?
“So much of it is how his body is responding start to start,” team president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “Every couple of weeks, we’ll do everything we can to keep him in the position of being strong and going out and competing every fifth day. And at some point in time, if he needs a blow, I think we are uniquely positioned to withstand that.”
It sounds, then, as if the Dodgers are prepared to tap into their starting pitching depth, much as they did in 2016 when injuries racked the club and 15 starters saw action, including rookies Julio Urias, Ross Stripling, Kenta Maeda, Jose De Leon and Brock Stewart. This time, though, the Dodgers will be prepared for it.
It appears they will once again keep a close eye on their rotation to make sure Hill stays fresh, Maeda can stay strong deep into the season, and Urias progresses reasonably on the 77 major league innings and 122 total innings he pitched last season.
As of now, the Dodgers have nine starters at their disposal, a list that includes Hill, Maeda, Urias, Stripling, De Leon and Stewart as well as Scott Kazmir, Alex Wood and, of course, Clayton Kershaw. Then there are Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu; both missed a bulk of last season because of injuries but are expected to be ready for the start of spring training.
“It will be something we will be mindful of, just as we are with all of our guys ... to do everything we can to put them in the best position to help us as much as they can in 2017, and also hopefully have them ready to have them help us in the postseason as well,” Friedman said.
One tool the Dodgers could use to their advantage is the new 10-day disabled list that replaces the 15-day list in baseball's new collective bargaining agreement. It could effectively help a pitcher like Hill skip a start periodically, while the team gets to replace him with a different starter, or whatever they might need most during that stretch.
“As far as the 10-day [DL], yeah, that's going to give guys a blow; I think that's a good thing,” manager Dave Roberts said during the winter meetings, admitting at the time, though, that he had not fully digested the specifics of the new DL. “I think it would make sense in that time of the season, for a starting pitcher. It might happen, yeah.”
Friedman was less positive that the 10-day DL could work to the Dodgers’ advantage, but he seemed willing to explore the possibilities.
“You’re talking about a very narrow band of a guy who could use a break, but really needs one start off and not two,” Friedman said. “But in the event that it happens to fall in that ... this is definitely helpful. But I can’t think of scenarios where, ‘This guy can really use one, but definitely not two.’”
Even with all of the pitching depth, don't expect to see a six-man rotation to keep pitchers like Hill, Maeda and Urias fresh.
“I’m not a fan of a six-man rotation,” Friedman said. “I think, for the most part, guys are creatures of habit and accustomed to the schedule every fifth day. Now you have off days, but that’s a mentally acceptable thing for guys. I just think it is a hard thing to spring on them. If you get to a point where you have a rotation full of guys, you are kind of monitoring when it might make sense, but it would be circumstantial and not something that, philosophically, we are in favor of.”
Judging by how the Dodgers played it so safe with Hill last season, even removing him after seven innings of a perfect game on Sept. 10 at Miami, it figures they will take further steps to protect him in 2017.
Less of a wonder for the club is the determination Hill has to succeed, something the Dodgers witnessed up close and personal over the final two months of 2016.
“You know Clayton Kershaw and his intensity and how he prepares; Rich mirrors that,” Roberts said. “When you get guys that lead your rotation like that, then it's contagious. We're very fortunate.”