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Now is the time for Billingsley to return to starting rotation

June 18, 2007|Bill Shaikin

Grady Little did not care to elaborate.

The subject was Jason Schmidt. The answers were terse.

Would Schmidt make his next start?

"We're not sure," Little said Sunday.

Are the Dodgers planning on Schmidt flying with the team to Toronto today?

"At this moment," Little said.

Little is a good man in an impossible position. Schmidt simply cannot get major league hitters out consistently right now, and the Dodgers' manager should not have to dance around the subject.

The Dodgers have a pennant to win and a $47-million investment in Schmidt to protect. The best way to accomplish both objectives would be to put Schmidt on the disabled list and insert Chad Billingsley in the starting rotation.

The velocity on Schmidt's fastball has disappeared, falling back into the mid-80s. He has all but shelved his curve and slider. He averages almost two runners on base each inning. He might get routed, or he might not, but he throws so many pitches that he has completed five innings twice in six starts.

"Something is still not right," Schmidt said after Saturday's loss to the Angels. "Everything is not quite there."

The numbers testify to that -- one victory, a 6.31 earned-run average and a sub-90 fastball in spring training, in April, and after seven weeks of rest and rehabilitation for an inflamed shoulder.

"It is what it's been since the beginning of the year," he said.

So it is time for something new.

On Sunday, Little said, "We're evaluating him." He wouldn't say what the Dodgers were evaluating -- Schmidt's fastball, a trainer's report, the options to replace him in the rotation. Stan Conte, the Dodgers' head trainer, sent word through spokesman Josh Rawitch that there would be "no medical update" on Sunday.

Perhaps there will be soon. This isn't about getting Schmidt back to throwing 95 mph. Those days are gone forever, no matter what his salary, and they were gone before the Dodgers signed him. This is about getting him back to 90.

If the Dodgers order another round of tests, but they cannot pinpoint the cause of Schmidt's declining velocity, doctors could recommend exploratory surgery -- and the sooner he undergoes the operation, the sooner he could return. If he would first prefer to try pitching without his fastball, he could strengthen his shoulder and then consent to a full 30-day rehabilitation assignment, rather than come back again after one minor league start.

The Dodgers ought not to trade for a starter to replace Schmidt. They need to save their assets to trade for a big bat, and Billingsley could be something special.

He arrived amid fanfare last summer, the top prospect in a farm system overflowing with talent. In his last eight starts, he went 5-1 with a 2.36 ERA. But he struck out 59 and walked 58 on the season, so erratic the Dodgers removed him from the rotation during the pennant stretch.

"I was pressing," Billingsley said.

"I was giving the hitters too much credit. I wasn't trusting my ability. It was my first year up. But I thought I did fairly well, except for pitch count."

The Dodgers stashed him in the bullpen this spring, and he has prospered, to the point where they entrust him with the seventh inning, setting up Jonathan Broxton and Takashi Saito.

Billingsley put his head down, did not whine about wanting to start and just threw strikes. In the early innings, he watched from the bullpen, learning about hitters and how the Dodgers pitched them.

"He's pretty quiet down there," reliever Joe Beimel said. "He just kind of soaks everything in."

In the late innings, he cranked up his arm and dominated. In his last 25 innings, he has 30 strikeouts, seven walks and a 1.07 ERA.

Relievers tend to streamline their repertoire, eliminating their third and fourth pitches. As a starter-in-waiting, Billingsley has not.

"I could go out there and just throw fastballs and curves, because they're my best pitches," he said. "If I don't go out there and throw my changeup at all, I'm not going to have it."

The Dodgers could return Mark Hendrickson or Brett Tomko to the rotation, but they don't need another five-inning pitcher at a time Randy Wolf appears to be turning into one.

Billingsley has not thrown more than 53 pitches this season. He said he could give the Dodgers 70 in a first start and build from there. That could be good enough for Little, should the Dodgers replace Schmidt.

"Whoever we put in there, we won't be asking a lot from him the first game or two," Little said.

On the one hand, Billingsley has pitched so well in relief that the Dodgers might be reluctant to change his role now. On the other hand, this could be his time to blossom in the rotation.

"He'll be one of the future fixtures here, as a starter," pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "We'll get everybody's head together and see if we feel this is the right time."

It is.

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