Commentary

Pitching remains Dodgers' priority

With trade deadline looming, L.A. could add an arm but might upgrade elsewhere

Updated: July 22, 2010, 4:11 PM ET
By Tony Jackson | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- With 10 days remaining before baseball's annual trading deadline, the Dodgers' efforts to upgrade their starting rotation appear to be zeroing in on Roy Oswalt of the Houston Astros. However, the Dodgers' chances of actually landing the three-time All-Star might not be very good, for a host of reasons.

[+] EnlargeRoy Oswalt
Aaron M. Sprecher/Icon SMITry as they might, the Dodgers might not be able to acquire Roy Oswalt.

First, there have been widespread reports the Astros were close to dealing Oswalt to the Philadelphia Phillies, although ESPN.com's Jayson Stark reports that trade is on shaky ground. Second, Oswalt is owed, at a minimum, about $25 million through next season, including a $2 million buyout on his club option for 2012. The Dodgers can't take on such a commitment unless the Astros are willing to eat a significant chunk of that, possibly as much as a third of it.

Finally, Stark reported that Oswalt, who has a full no-trade clause, won't approve any trade unless the team acquiring him agrees to guarantee the 2012 option, which carries a $16 million salary. That would make the remaining commitment to Oswalt about $39 million, a lot of money for a Dodgers team that has slashed their payroll by about $33 million over the past two years.

At any rate, there are strong indications Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, who is embroiled in an expensive, high-profile divorce that is widely suspected of sapping the team's operating budget, is willing to add to the club's current $83 million payroll to bring in a significant piece at the July 31 deadline.

That doesn't necessarily mean a starting pitcher, though. With the Dodgers' bullpen having imploded in recent days and outfielders Manny Ramirez and Reed Johnson on the disabled list -- both are expected back fairly soon, but there are no guarantees, of course -- the Dodgers ultimately might decide to upgrade other areas instead.

"Pitching continues to be our priority," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "With Manny going down and Reed Johnson still out, we might look at trying to shore up our outfield as well."

Although Oswalt tops the Dodgers' list of desirable pitchers, that list is long, according to news reports and sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity. It includes at least half a dozen starters about whom the club has at least inquired.

Here is a list of those pitchers:

• Oswalt, RH. Although he entered play Wednesday leading the National League in losses with 11, those are largely the result of poor run support. Oswalt has a rock-solid 3.12 ERA. The Astros have scored 45 runs in Oswalt's 19 starts this season, an average of 2.4 per game, and haven't scored more than five runs in any of them. He has long been the ace of the Astros' staff, is a two-time 20-game winner and reached double figures in wins in each of his first eight seasons before dropping off to eight wins last year.

Ben Sheets, RH, Oakland. He missed all of last season after elbow surgery and has been less than spectacular after signing last winter with the A's, going 4-9 with a 4.53 ERA in 20 starts thus far. He has pitched well in three starts this month, though. He has about $3.5 million left on his one-year, $10 million deal, plus he has a series of $500,000 bonuses based on innings pitched that will start to kick in when he gets to 165 (he already has 119 1/3). There is no guarantee he would be anything more than a two-month rental, so the Dodgers probably aren't going to trade any highly valued prospects to get him.

Dan Haren, RH, Arizona. It is rare to see a player traded within the division, but the Dodgers swung a midseason deal with the Diamondbacks last season to acquire Jon Garland. When such deals are made, though, they usually command a higher price, and it isn't clear whether the Dodgers will be able to give up the players they would have to give up to bring Haren, who pitched at Bishop Amat High School and Pepperdine University, home.

Haren's contract situation is similar to that of Oswalt's. He is owed about $31.75 million through next season, including a $3.5 million buyout of his $15.5 million club option for 2013. But the good news is that unlike Oswalt, Haren doesn't have no-trade rights, so he can't demand that any team acquiring him picks up the option. The Dodgers undoubtedly would want Arizona to pick up some of the commitment.

Haren has a 7-8 record and an ERA of 4.60, but he is a three-time All-Star and reached double digits in victories each of the past five seasons.

Ted Lilly, LH, Chicago Cubs. He is entering the final two months of a four-year, $40 million contract and is still owed about $5 million. But the Cubs, who are out of contention in the NL Central, are said to be intent on moving him and getting something for him rather than losing him to free agency. Lilly isn't high on the Dodgers' wish list, but he could be a nice fit in a rotation that has only one lefty.

Lilly has had two outstanding starts since being lit up by the Dodgers on July 9, including Wednesday against Houston when he gave up a run and seven hits over 7 1/3 innings. His biggest problem this season has been consistency, which may be why he is 3-8 despite a 3.88 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 3-1. He has reached double figures in wins each of the past seven seasons.

Paul Maholm, LH, Pittsburgh. He is way down the list, but he is still on it. He has never had a winning season in the majors and is currently 6-7 with a 4.03 ERA. He is a relatively young pitcher (28) who is locked up through next season at a relatively affordable $8 million, including a $750,000 buyout on a $9.75 million club option for 2012. The Pirates' longstanding habit is to trade established players for prospects, and they undoubtedly would want a package of those prospects in return.

The Dodgers' search for a relief pitcher might have become a tad more urgent this month. Ronald Belisario has been put on the restricted list with no word on how long he figures to be gone. Two relievers the Dodgers have scouted heavily, according to a major league source who asked not to be identified, are Toronto's Scott Downs and Jason Frasor.

Downs has a 2.52 ERA in 44 appearances and is left-handed, so naturally he has caught the interest of several teams. That means the Dodgers might have a better chance of reacquiring Frasor, a right-hander who was a Dodgers prospect when he was traded to the Blue Jays for outfielder Jayson Werth near the end of spring training in 2004.

That trade turned to gold for Frasor, who has more or less been in the majors ever since. This year, he has a 4.42 ERA in 41 appearances.

What ultimately may determine whom the Dodgers pick up at the deadline -- or if they pick up anyone at all -- is whom they are willing to part with. Assuming they don't go into a total freefall in the NL West between now and the deadline, they will be hard-pressed to give up a current major league player.

That means they almost certainly will have to deal from their deck of prospects, most of whom are at the lower rungs. The Dodgers probably are unlikely to trade either of their top two pitching prospects, right-handers Chris Withrow and Ethan Martin, or their top position prospect, shortstop Dee Gordon. As the old saying goes, you can never have enough pitching, and shortstop is considered a premium position.

Those are far from the only Dodgers prospects likely to draw interest from other clubs. Lefty Aaron Miller, their first pick in last year's draft, is a hot commodity, as are right-handers Nate Eovaldi, Allen Webster, Elisaul Pimentel and Rubby De La Rosa along with outfielders Kyle Russell, Jerry Sands and Blake Smith.

What may determine what the Dodgers are able to do is what other clubs are willing to do. Some teams might be more desperate in certain spots and thus more willing to make a better offer than the Dodgers. Some clubs might have more financial flexibility and thus be better able to take on more, if not all, of a highly paid player's current contract.

"I can't predict what other clubs are going to do," Colletti said. "We have narrowed our choices. We have scouted several teams, so we're prepared."

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Tony Jackson

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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