Clayton Kershaw will start on Opening Day for the eighth straight year. He will become the first Dodger to notch that mark, surpassing Don Drysdale and Don Sutton. There is only one active streak longer than Kershaw’s, which belongs to the Mariners’ ace, Felix Hernandez.
Kershaw comes into the 2018 season off a second-successive injury impacted campaign. While he still threw 175 innings in 2017, the Dodgers’ ace had just 27 starts. In 2016, he had 21 starts, which is the lowest in his career since his rookie campaign in 2008.
Last season he still topped the staff in innings pitched. Kershaw had his worst ERA since 2012 but was still second in the National League Cy Young voting. There has been no better pitcher in baseball than Kershaw in this decade.
Dave Roberts’ tendency to hook pitchers early means that even Kershaw is unlikely to rank in the top three for innings pitched. The question is whether Kershaw can reach 200 innings for only the second time since 2013. Kershaw has averaged 27 starts per season over those four years.
The Dodgers need at least that average from their ace again. Their rotation, although relatively deep, is lacking another reliable workhorse. Yu Darvish has not returned to Los Angeles, leaving Alex Wood and Rich Hill as the two and three starters. Wood had a remarkable 2017 – including finishing ninth in Cy Young voting – and Hill struck out more batters per nine than Kershaw, but neither are guarantees.
Wood had the best year of his career, yet he still only started 25 games. Hill’s 135.2 innings were the most he’s thrown since 2007. Some of this is due to the way that the Dodgers rotated their starters, but it also shows the uncertainty behind Kershaw.
Kenta Maeda, Hyun-Jin Ryu and highly-rated prospect Walker Buehler will all start regularly, too. ZiPs projects them to combine for 4.9 WAR. That does include a surprisingly low projection of 49 IP for Buehler, however, who we could see starting major league games within the first few weeks of the season.
While the Dodgers are also projected to have the second-best runs against per game in 2018 (4.1), there is still cause for concern. Other than Kershaw, the starting pitchers available to Roberts are tough to predict. There is a very good chance that Wood and Hill are both give up more runs and throw fewer innings than they did last season, for instance.
The three-time Cy Young winner has every chance of adding a fourth award this season. His test, though, is no longer of his undoubtable ability, but his durability.
Regression is expected from the Dodgers’ rotation and line-up. Take Kershaw off that roster for a month or so – just as they did in August last year – and the 104-win team of 2017 could quickly be looking over their shoulders in the National League West.
The Dodgers’ long-running enormous wage bill has forced them to tighten the purse strings for this season. It has heightened their reliance on Kershaw at a time when he is less reliable. A trade for a starter – like Chris Archer, perhaps – might be necessary if they are to be realistic contenders for the World Series in 2018.