GLENDALE – The stories of the five pitchers who will toe the hill in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ starting rotation to begin the 2023 MLB season are vast.
Julio Urias enters his first season as the ace of the rotation. Clayton Kershaw adds a 16th season to his Hall of Fame resume. Noah Syndergaard looks for a career resurgence on a one-year deal. Dustin May is back for his first full season since Tommy John Surgery. Tony Gonsolin, tabbed for the fifth spot, will begin the season on the injured list.
LA’s rotation has been a staple of its recent run of dominance, but key arms like Max Scherzer, Trevor Bauer, Tyler Anderson and Andrew Heaney have departed the organization in the past two offseasons. To add to the losses, last year’s ace Walker Buehler will miss the majority, if not all of 2023, following Tommy John surgery.
The good thing for the Dodgers is this rotation, apart from Syndergaard, is no stranger to Chavez Ravine, all having some experience with the organization.
Here’s where each starter stands heading into the six-month grind:
For the first time in his career, Julio Urias will be the Opening Day starter for the Dodgers after spending six seasons in the rotation battling injuries while developing his young arm after making his MLB debut at 19 years old.
In 2020, Urias emerged as a legitimate threat in the rotation and closed out the Dodgers’ World Series win with a save in Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Rays. Urias returned with a vengeance in 2021 to lead MLB in wins with 20, and last season he finished third in Cy Young voting after posting a 2.16 ERA.
That all leads to Thursday, with Urias earning the first start of the season on a staff that still includes Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw understands the work Urias has put in to get to this point and is proud of his longtime teammate.
“I’m excited for Julio to get to do it,” Kershaw said. “He deserves it. It is a special thing to get to do it. I think it should be whoever pitched the best the year before and he did that.”
There’s nothing left for Clayton Kershaw to prove.
The 16-year veteran boasts plenty of feathers in his cap – a World Series title, three Cy Young awards, nine All-Star game appearances and the 2014 National League MVP, to name a few. His ERA reached north of 3.00 only twice since 2008.
Kershaw could retire now with his spot already reserved in Cooperstown. So what keeps the Dodger legend coming back for more?
“I said this before, but I wouldn’t have come back if I wasn’t excited about playing,” Kershaw said. “I’m excited about our team, I’m excited about the chance to win. I think we do have a legit chance to do both of those things.”
A lot changes over the span of 16 years. Considering he entered the league at the age of 20, Kershaw, now 35, remains one of the best after posting a 2.28 ERA in 2022.
In 2023, the former Dodgers ace is ready to go not only mentally, but physically.
“Physically, I feel great. Pitching, it’s never gonna be exactly how you want it,” Kershaw said. “Obviously there’s some things I want to get better at, but if it started today I’d be good with it.”
Dodger Stadium has played host to some historic and memorable moments for Kershaw, from no-hitting the Rockies in 2014 to reaching three World Series in four seasons and facing Shohei Ohtani and Aaron Judge back to back to start last season’s All-Star Game.
Understanding his career has an end date helps Kershaw appreciate every second playing in front of the Dodger faithful.
“So for me personally I’m excited for Opening Day at Dodger Stadium, can’t take that for granted, man, you just never know. I say the same thing about playoffs, I say the same thing about getting to stand on that mound,” Kershaw said. “I think I’ve done a little bit better of a job as I’ve gotten a little older to understand that. At the end of the day, all those feelings, excitement, anxiety, wanna pitch good, all that stuff, it really doesn’t change and I hope it doesn’t.”
It’s tough to teach an old dog new tricks, and the introduction of the pitch clock to Major League Baseball has dealt the lefty another obstacle to face this season. He was called for a pitch clock violation during his start against the Cleveland Guardians on March 21, and just like everyone, Kershaw knows he must adjust.
“Yeah, I mean I’m plenty fast just normally. I just have to not look at it. I find myself staring at it and like thinking about it more than I probably need to or should,” Kershaw said. “I think as you get going, I don’t think it affects me pitching. I just find myself looking at it more than I probably should.”
If the Dodgers want Kershaw to earn his second World Series ring, the San Diego Padres could stand in the way.
San Diego bounced LA from the playoffs last season in the NL Division Series. By May, the Padres’ top four lineup spots will feature a modern-day rendition of “murderers’ row” with outfielder Juan Soto, third baseman Manny Machado, shortstop Xander Bogaerts and outfielder and infielder Fernando Tatis Jr.
The Dodgers have been considered the Padres’ “big brother” for years, and when asked whether the dynamic between the two teams has changed given the postseason loss, Kershaw preferred to keep it brief.
“I’m not really concerned about our relationship status,” Kershaw said jokingly.
If there is one player who knows how to thrive in a big market, it’s Noah Syndergaard.
Syndergaard’s wavy long blonde hair, unique personality and red-hot pitching earned him the nickname “Thor” while he played for the New York Mets. It all started in 2015 when Syndergaard was called up by the Mets for his MLB debut.
He immediately showed promise with a 3.24 ERA to finish fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting and started in Game 3 of the 2015 World Series. Syndergaard followed up his rookie campaign with an All-Star appearance in 2016.
However, the rest of his tenure with the Mets was plagued by injuries, including an elbow injury in 2020 that required Tommy John surgery. Despite playing in 25 games last season for the Los Angeles Angels and Philadelphia Phillies, Syndergaard still did not feel like the same pitcher.
On Dec. 16, Syndergaard signed a one-year, $13 million contract to resurrect his career. Upon joining the Dodgers at spring training, manager Dave Roberts was impressed with one specific aspect of Syndergaard’s game.
“He’s very methodical, as far as this whole process goes, so trying to lock in the mechanics of it and then trusting that the velocity is there and that’s sort of the way it’s played out,” Roberts said. “But the one constant has been his command with his pitchers, that’s been really impressive.”
With Walker Buehler out for the season, Syndergaard should have a comfortable spot in the rotation as he works to return to form.
“I think the eight weeks and two months I was here before spring training, we addressed a lot of issues I was doing last year and I think I’m definitely way better,” Syndergaard said.
Another returning Dodger who may play a major role in the rotation this upcoming season is Dustin May.
Roberts announced that May will start the Dodgers’ second game of the season Friday against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Over the past two seasons, May has played a total of 11 games due to a UCL tear suffered on May 1, 2021, that required Tommy John surgery.
In the six games last season, May posted a 4.50 ERA while finishing with two wins and three losses.
Unlike last season, May is healthy to start the season after fully recovering from his UCL tear. He better understands his body entering his fifth season, which will ultimately help prevent any further injuries.
“It’s been good,” May said. “For me just coming into spring training healthy has been a very big thing, because I mean, this will be my first full season since 2019. So it’s been a very long time, but I’m excited to get started.”
The fifth slot
Tony Gonsolin has the fifth starter role awaiting him once he returns from the injured list. The right-hander’s left ankle sprain means Ryan Pepiot will start the year as the No. 5 pitcher.
Pepiot appeared in nine games for LA last season, including seven starts. In 36.1 innings, he struck out 42 batters while allowing 14 earned runs.
Luckily for the Dodgers, Gonsolin’s return shouldn’t be too far down the line. The expectation is for Gonsolin to return around the end of April, according to reports.
The right-hander took off in 2022, making the All-Star team and turning heads in the Cy Young race. Gonsolin went 16-1 with a 2.10 ERA before a forearm injury in August sidelined him until the postseason.
Buehler had a front row seat to Gonsolin’s wrath last season and expects nothing less from his teammate once he returns.
“Really cool for him to step up, he’s been here a few years now,” Buehler said. “Last year was obviously a huge step forward for him in terms of the bulk. He’s always been really successful, it’s just getting him out there and hopefully he can do it again this year.”