20 Days of Thinking Blue: How Bad Do the Dodgers Need Chad Billingsley?

The countdown has begun, kids. Opening Night (well, American Opening Night) is fast approaching as the Dodgers take on the Padres down in San Diego on March 30th. Leading up until then, MAMBINO will tackle 20 of the most important–and some not so important–questions that will get you set up for a season of almost unparalleled expectations. Let’s get it going:
 
Chad Billingsley says he feels like a new pitcher…is that a load of crap?
 
Hopefully it’s not. Because the Dodgers may need him.
 
Last season, the team went into the regular season with 8 starting pitchers: Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Josh Beckett, Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly, Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano. All winter, fans and critics noted how great it was to have a surplus of arms and that the team should be able to fill some internal needs by trading one, two or even three pitchers. It was a great situation to be in, even though Ned Colletti still stated his discomfort. With good cause, it turns out.
 
Harang was soon dealt to the Colorado Rockies for back-up catcher Ramon Hernandez (who was cut just weeks later). Lilly was already shelved with shoulder issues that would soon end his career. Greinke was hurt a couple weeks into the regular season when he thought he’d participate in an in-game football hitting drill with San Diego outfielder Carlos Quentin. Zack missed over a month with a broken collar bone. Beckett was ineffective before he had the radical surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome–a procedure in which a rib is removed to alleviate pressure on a clump of nerves in the chest. Capuano too was dogged with a calf strain and other injuries throughout the year and Billingsley only lasted two starts before the team realized that his partially torn UCL would need Tommy John surgery.

I only rehash last season’s injury rundown because the very same situations could resurface this year. Kershaw, Greinke and Ryu are all in their 20s and should be able to last through the rigors of the season, barring a freak injury situation like Greinke’s head-first crash into Mount Quentin. Fourth starter Dan Haren was unstoppable in the second half of the season (3.52 ERA), but could easily be the guy who threw up a horrid first half (5.62 ERA). Fifth starter candidates include Paul Maholm and Josh Beckett, whose injury history is well documented. With risks lingering around their fourth and fifth starters, the Dodgers don’t absolutely need Billingsley to come back perfectly healthy in May or June, but could use the insurance the former All-Star brings.

But as it pertains to the question at the top, I’m not sure if Bills needs to feel like an “new pitcher” in order to be effective. If he’s merely the guy he was before his injury, that’s pretty damn good. In 25 2012 starts, Billingsley threw down a 3.55 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and 128 strikeouts in 149 innings. As I’ve been spouting for years, we all need to become more comfortable with who Chad Billingsley is rather than the player we all want him to be. That being said, I’m doubtful he’ll be able to hit the field in mid-season and pick up where he left things off. Pitchers rarely come back from Tommy John surgery at full strength after just one year, as seen by recent solid but unspectacular returns by Stephen Strasburg and Adam Wainwright (given more time, like John Lackey, more solid performances can occur).

The Dodgers need Billingsley this year, but merely for insurance purposes. He’s got a $14 million dollar option for next year (or a $3 million dollar buy-out) that’s unlikely to be exercised unless he dominates in three or four months this season. It would really behoove both Billingsley and the Dodgers if he comes back at his best this year.

 

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