Dodgers pitching staff lacking an ace

Dodgers pitching staff lacking an ace

LOS ANGELES -- The Dodgers' offensive woes have been well chronicled this year, but what's also lacking is a pitching staff ace.

For good reason, the assumption was that Brad Penny, coming off two All-Star appearances and a 16-4 record last year, would assume the role from Derek Lowe. Joe Torre thought so when he made Penny the Opening Day starter and Penny initially responded, throwing 6 2/3 scoreless innings in Game 1 and running up a 5-2 mark through his first May start.

Then the shoulder tightened up and the wheels gradually came off. On Monday, the club was awaiting test results on Penny's right shoulder. He's 5-9 with a 5.88 ERA and instead of leading the rotation, it's doubtful he'll even remain in it.

But nobody else has stepped up either. Each member of the current starting rotation has a losing record. The only time in Los Angeles Dodgers history that the five pitchers with the most starts each finished with a losing record was 1992, when the club placed last with 99 losses.

While the lack of offensive production has made winning tough, Hideo Nomo and Kevin Brown had winning records in 2003 when the Dodgers scored the fewest runs in the league.

Among the candidates to take charge are Lowe, a World Series hero; Hiroki Kuroda, an ace in Japan still finding his way in the Major Leagues and Chad Billingsley, anointed by Torre over the weekend as a potential team leader and the scheduled starter Tuesday night, when the Dodgers open a three-game series in Cincinnati trying to halt a five-game losing streak.

While the Dodgers are paying nearly $50 million in salary to starting pitchers (including the disabled Jason Schmidt and released Esteban Loaiza), the most talented of the candidates is rookie and minimum earner Clayton Kershaw. But he's only 20 and as was apparent again on Sunday when he was not allowed to continue after a 47-minute rain delay, he's being handled like fine china.

"The No. 1 priority is to make sure he stays healthy," Torre said.

It's a tough balancing act, especially for a club that is seven games below .500 for the first time in almost two years. But if the Dodgers have another Fernando Valenzuela or Ramon Martinez on their hands in Kershaw, they'll eventually need to loosen the reins to find out.

Like Kershaw, Valenzuela was 20 when he moved into the rotation to stay Opening Day of 1981, when he won the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year award. Martinez was 21 when he moved into the rotation in 1989 and was a 20-game winner at the age of 22 in 1990. That also makes Martinez the Dodgers' last 20-game winner.

The presence of Kershaw and Billingsley in the same rotation is a rarity for the Dodgers, because both are first-round Draft picks. The last time the Dodgers had two of their first-round Draft picks in the same rotation was in 1979 -- Bob Welch and Rick Sutcliffe. Both went on to win Cy Young Awards, but neither while pitching for the Dodgers.

If Penny is disabled, he'll probably be replaced in the rotation by left-hander Eric Stults.

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.