'Occupational hazard.' Why pitching injuries are again impacting the Dodgers' deadlines needs

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It took just three days last month for the Dodgers pitching staff to be thrown in flux.

Three days for a seemingly harmless situation to instead devolve into the club’s latest injury-induced roster dilemma.

In mid-June, Yoshinobu Yamamoto was coming off his best outing as a Dodger when he reported shoulder soreness to team personnel.

At first, club officials were confident it was nothing of serious concern.

After all, the Japanese right-hander had just dominated the New York Yankees with the kind of spotless command and premium stuff that convinced the team to sign him for $325 million in the offseason.

Following that season-high 106-pitch outing, it stood to reason the 25-year-old — who was already adjusting to a more frequent pitching schedule than his old one-start-per-week routine in Japan — would feel a little sore.

“It felt very benign,” general manager Brandon Gomes said. “That happens for guys all the time.”

This time, however, it was something more.

Yamamoto suffered a strained rotator cuff, one that forced him to depart his next start early and has kept him off the mound in the two weeks since.

Currently, Yamamoto’s timeline to return remains unclear. And even if he does come back before the end of the season, as the Dodgers have said they are expecting, it’s no guarantee he’ll look like the pitcher who started the season with a 2.92 ERA, or the one who teased flashes of frontline dominance during his last full outing in the Bronx.

For a team well-accustomed to midseason pitching injuries, Yamamoto’s absence served as the latest blow.

“We know that pitcher injuries are an occupational hazard right now,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said earlier this year.

But, in the Dodgers’ case, they’ve become a recurring roadblock in their pursuit of another World Series championship, too.

Yamamoto’s injury hasn’t been the only one to strike the Dodgers pitching staff this year. Emmet Sheehan underwent Tommy John surgery in May. Walker Buehler has been sidetracked in his return from the same procedure. Clayton Kershaw recently halted his rehab assignment amid his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. Dustin May is continuing to work his way back from an elbow surgery he had last summer.

Just like the last three years, when the club was left reeling from midseason losses in its starting rotation, the Dodgers find themselves in need of a frontline addition with this season’s trade deadline just four weeks away.

It’s hardly an ideal position for a team that already spent roughly $1.4 billion in the offseason (including more than $500 million on starting pitching), that has long been wary of inflated deadline trade costs, and that might have few enticing options on this year’s market to pursue.

But it’s beginning to feel like unwanted déjà vu nonetheless, leaving the Dodgers with two common questions they’ve struggled to answer in years past.

Why have they been hit so repeatedly hard by the pitching injury bug?

And when — and at what cost — is the right time to pursue potentially pricey reinforcements?

The former question has haunted the Dodgers repeatedly in recent seasons, putting the team at the forefront of the sport’s growing pitching injury epidemic.

In 2021, there were season-ending elbow injuries to Kershaw and May, plus Trevor Bauer’s placement on administrative leave amid allegations of sexual assault.

In 2022, Buehler underwent his second career Tommy John procedure, while Tony Gonsolin never fully recovered from a forearm strain.

Last season, the team’s personnel setbacks intensified. It started with more injuries to May (elbow surgery), Gonsolin (Tommy John surgery) and Kershaw (shoulder surgery). There was a failed comeback attempt for Buehler. And then, after opening-day starter Julio Urías missed a chunk of the campaign with a hamstring injury, he was arrested last September on suspicion of domestic violence, finishing the final season of his Dodgers career on administrative leave.

In all, the Dodgers have had just four pitchers make at least 25 starts in a season the last three years (Buehler and Urías in 2021, Urías and Tyler Anderson in 2022).

Over the last five years, they’ve had seven MLB pitchers undergo Tommy John surgery, a total that ranks in the top third of the league according to a database compiled by baseball researcher Jon Roegele.

Injuries to their homegrown pitchers have also been particularly frustrating. The 10 starting pitching prospects the club has shepherded to the majors since 2017 (Buehler, May, Gonsolin, Sheehan, Ryan Pepiot, Mitch White, Michael Grove, Bobby Miller, Gavin Stone and Kyle Hurt), have spent more than 45% of their collective service time in L.A. on the injured list — a combined total of nearly 1,700 days lost to a litany of pitching injuries.

“There are a lot of factors that are involved,” Friedman said of the Dodgers’ pitching injury woes, arguing they’re reflective of a larger trend around a sport that has seen — and incentivized — pitchers to push the limits of their bodies in search of higher fastball velocities and breaking ball spin rates.

“But the point is,” Friedman added, “it’s too much.”

So much so that, in the Dodgers’ eyes, the question of pitching injuries is no longer an if, but a when.

“[It’s] not if you’re gonna have pitcher injuries,” Friedman said. “It’s about having enough talent, appreciating injuries are going to happen, and trying to have enough depth to withstand the injuries when they happen.”

In the wake of Yamamoto’s shoulder issue this year, the Dodgers could be forced into another patchwork starting pitching plan.

They do have one established ace in Tyler Glasnow, who has thus far managed to shake his own injury-prone reputation by going 8-5 with a 3.23 ERA in 17 uninterrupted starts.

They have a potential emerging star in Stone, the rookie right-hander flashing frontline stuff with increasing consistency en route to a 9-2 record and 2.73 ERA.

They should also possess enough depth to get through the rest of the regular season. James Paxton, Landon Knack and Miller are currently filling out the rest of the rotation. Yamamoto, Buehler, May and Kershaw could all return at some point later this summer. Top minor-league prospects like Hurt, River Ryan and Justin Wrobleski could contribute during the stretch run.

Still, come October, a rotation that was designed to feature two co-aces in Glasnow and Yamamoto is instead in danger of being short on critical frontline firepower.

And while the Dodgers could opt to trust their depth, and rely on the totality of their pitching staff to help them navigate a postseason campaign, they will also approach the trade deadline in an uncomfortably familiar spot: needing one more top arm to round out their roster.

Acquiring one could come at an inflated cost.

The last time the Dodgers made a big deadline splash for pitching help, it almost worked.

In 2021, the team acted boldly in the wake of losing Bauer, May and Kershaw, swinging a deadline day trade for three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer in a blockbuster deal with the Washington Nationals.

Scherzer nearly helped the Dodgers, then the defending World Series champions, get back to the Fall Classic — until he was scratched from their season-ending Game 6 loss in that year’s National League Championship Series because of arm fatigue.

Three years later, that remains the closest the Dodgers have come to capturing another elusive title.

In other recent postseason failures, their lack of top starting pitching has been a common pitfall.

In 2022, the team never managed to replace Buehler after he had his surgery.

Last year, a low-profile deal for Lance Lynn did little to salvage a staff that was again missing Buehler and May, and leaning heavily on Kershaw’s compromised shoulder.

This season, the Dodgers are back in a similar situation, again mulling over expensive deadline pitching targets.

That dynamic already appears to be impacting their interest in White Sox lefty Garrett Crochet.

In 18 outings this year, the 25-year-old Crochet is 6-6 with a 3.02 ERA. He leads the AL with 141 strikeouts. And, with his upper-90s mph fastball and imposing 6-foot-6 frame, he represents one of the few frontline-caliber options available on this year’s trade market (though, he could face innings restrictions over the remainder of the year, having already almost doubled his previous career-high workload).

In what is shaping up to be a seller’s market, the White Sox are reportedly driving a hard bargain.

Crochet has two seasons of team control remaining after this year, which has caused his price to skyrocket. For comparison, the White Sox received three of the San Diego Padres’ top-10 prospects in a trade earlier this year for fellow top pitcher Dylan Cease — and Cease had only one year of team control left after this.

That hasn’t scared off the Dodgers completely. USA Today reported the team had one recent offer for Crochet rejected by the White Sox.

However, the sides aren’t currently believed to be close to a deal, a person with knowledge of the situation who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly said.

And for a Dodgers club that, under Friedman, has typically been wary of overpaying (in their view, at least) for players at the deadline, lining up a deal for a player the caliber of Crochet could prove to be a longshot.

There are other alternatives for the team to consider. Jack Flaherty, a Dodgers trade target in years past, is a pending free agent having a strong year for the Detroit Tigers. Anderson, the former Dodgers starter, is having a resurgent season with the Angels (though also had another year left on his contract).

In time, more names might surface as potential options, as more teams drop out of contention and start looking to sell off players.

For now, though, the Dodgers are experiencing injury woes for a fourth consecutive season, left with pitching needs that only a deadline addition might fix.

And in the next four weeks, they’ll have to chart their course for the rest of the regular season; having to decide whether to pull the trigger on a major deal, or roll the dice with the thinning depth and talent their current staff has left.

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