Battle for Dodgers' 5th starter begins
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Cactus League season, at least for the Dodgers, doesn't start until Friday. But the competition for the fifth spot in the starting rotation began in earnest on Tuesday, when Eric Stults, Charlie Haeger and Carlos Monasterios all took the mound in a "B" game against the Chicago White Sox.
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All three had good results in a 4-2 Dodgers win, but that isn't to say any of them has moved to the head of the class. There are five weeks left in spring training, and Dodgers manager Joe Torre said he, the coaching staff and the front office will take that entire time to make a decision.
"I think you have to, especially when you know you're going to have roster issues,'' Torre said. "Spring training is great until about the last week, and then you have to start making final decisions when you wish you had a little more time. We're going to give them as much rope as we can. We'll give them games and give them innings."
For what it's worth, Stults started, pitched one inning, threw 12 pitches and gave up no runs on one hit. Haeger, a knuckleballer, pitched one inning, threw 24 pitches and gave up a home run to Josh Kroeger, a walk and nothing else. Monasterios, a Rule 5 pick who has appeared in all of two games above Single-A, threw 12 pitches in one perfect inning.
The other candidates for the spot are lefty Scott Elbert, who made all 19 of his big league appearances last season out of the bullpen, and non-roster invitee Ramon Ortiz, who is 36 and trying to earn a major league job for the first time in three years.
The odds-on favorite, though, is probably right-hander James McDonald, who won the fifth starter's job in spring training last year but had lost it by the end of April and spent the rest of the year either pitching in relief or pitching in Albuquerque.
Complicating the whole issue is the fact that both Stults and Haeger are out of minor league options, meaning the Dodgers will almost certainly have to risk losing one and possibly both of them on the waiver wire.
"The mindset as far as preparing for spring doesn't change," Stults said. "I definitely think it's in the Dodgers' hands. They have to make a decision, and I feel I have put myself in a good situation the past couple of years by going out and helping them."
Indeed, Stults is the only Dodgers pitcher to throw a complete-game shutout last season, something he also did in 2008. But over the past four years, during which he has shuttled between the big leagues and Triple-A several times, he has a history of coming up from the minors, pitching really well when he first arrives, then gradually slipping back into mediocrity from there. He is hoping his recent sessions with Dana Sinclair, a sports psychologist employed by the Dodgers, will help him overcome that tendency.
"A lot of it is positive reassurance," Stults said. "You look back at games where you have had success to make your mind aware that you have had success and you're good enough. There is some visualization. A lot of it is getting yourself in the right mindset before you take the mound."
Torre commended Stults for seeking out that assistance.
"The only thing I can say is that he knows ... something has to change in what he does and how he does it," Torre said. "He isn't in a defensive mode. I think he realizes we're all trying to find that key, so to speak."
Haeger, who lives in Michigan, reported to spring training more than a month early, not only to escape the cold but to get a head start on getting himself ready for camp in a season that figures to be a crossroads for his career. He has made four starts in the major leagues, along with 21 relief appearances. But he made a strong impression on the Dodgers after getting called up on Aug. 11 and going 1-1 with a 3.32 ERA in six appearances, three of them starts.
He said he threw three fastballs and one slider against the White Sox, the rest knucklers.
"I look at every year as a new year and you go in with a clean slate, so really, I don't take too much [from last year]," Haeger said. "I feel I have something to prove this year. In my position and with what I do, I feel like I have something to prove every time I go out there on the mound."
The home run Haeger gave up came on a knuckleball.
"I'm not sure the air here is conducive to [that] being his best pitch," Torre said. "We'll have to take that into consideration and see what we see. But I like what we saw when we brought him up last year. He seemed to have a good way about him, and he was composed."
If Monasterios doesn't make the team -- and most Rule 5 picks face long odds of doing so, especially with big market teams like the Dodgers -- he must be placed on waivers and, if he clears, be offered back to Philadelphia. Only if the Phillies decline the offer, another highly unlikely development, would the Dodgers be allowed to send him to the minors.
Torre said the starting pitchers will be on accelerated programs this spring -- stretching to three innings their second time through the rotation rather than going two innings each of their first two outings and then stretching to three the third time -- because camp is slightly shorter this year. Stults' inning was so short that he actually went to the bullpen afterward to throw more pitches.
Ortiz will make his first appearance in Friday's Cactus League opener against the White Sox, coming in after starter Vicente Padilla, and Haeger will follow Ortiz. McDonald will start Saturday's game against the White Sox.
Hiroki Kuroda, Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw and Padilla are the confirmed members of the Dodgers' starting rotation, in no particular order. Torre has tentatively decided on an Opening Day starter, but won't make that decision known to the media or to any of those pitchers until it becomes more concrete.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.