In the fifth inning of the All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday, a chant arose from the outfield pavilions.
It was directed at outfielder Juan Soto, the Washington Nationals star who is suddenly and famously on the trading block and could be headed to you-know-where.
“Fu-ture Dodger!” fans chanted. “Fu-ture Dodger!”
Right sentiment. Right time. Wrong player.
At that same moment, standing on the mound was a skilled veteran who is far more important to the Dodgers, yet who was being completely ignored.
His name is Luis Castillo, he pitches for the Cincinnati Reds, and he could quietly fill the Dodgers’ biggest hole in these final two weeks before the trade deadline.
They need a starting pitcher a lot more than they need a starting outfielder. They need October outs more than they need October runs. They need somebody who can go deep in a playoff game more than somebody who can go deep on a fastball.
The Dodgers can win a championship without someone like Juan Soto, but they can’t win one without someone like Luis Castillo, and thus they need to have their priorities straight.
Castillo first, Soto second, and all the public begging in the world isn’t going to change that.
The Dodgers won’t say it, but they seemingly agree. Just listen to manager Dave Roberts on Thursday before his pitching staff blew a five-run lead against the San Francisco Giants only to be saved by Trayce Thompson‘s triple and Mookie Betts’ homer in a 9-6 victory.
When I asked Roberts if his team had enough starting pitching to win a championship, he smiled.
“You know I’m going to say yes,” he said.
But … well … then he stopped smiling.
“I do know where you’re going in the sense that you do have to have innings and you have to have starters to win multiple seven-game series,” he said. “You’ve got to have guys that can go deeper in games.”
The Dodgers aren’t assured of having enough of those guys to survive three October series. While the Dodgers starters are baseball’s best — leading with a 2.77 ERA and a .214 batting-average-against — too many question marks loom behind those exclamation points.
Clayton Kershaw is the reborn ace having a magical season, but he’s always one twinge from doom. He’s 34, yet on a pace to throw his most innings in three years.
Julio Urias was supposed to become more consistent this year, but he’s still dogged by the occasional shelling, and few will forget his 10.50 ERA in two appearances in last year’s National League Championship Series loss to the Atlanta Braves.
Tony Gonsolin has been the league’s first-half surprise with an 11-0 record and 2.02 ERA, but he’s already surpassed his previous high for innings pitched and he’s been awful in the postseason with a 9.45 ERA. He remains unproven in big moments, witness the three runs allowed in one inning as he took the loss in the All-Star Game.
“I do think Tony is mentally tough, so I don’t think that will faze him,” said Roberts of the mammoth home runs against Gonsolin by the New York Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton and the Minnesota Twins’ Byron Buxton. “Yeah, I would love to have gone scoreless and he just throws 10 pitches but that wasn’t to be. But I don’t think that will affect him going forward.”
Then there is Tyler Anderson, who is sort of the same story with a surprise 10-1 record and 2.96 ERA but little postseason pedigree. He has appeared in just two career playoff games.
Certainly, the rotation will be much improved if postseason ace Walker Buehler returns from an elbow injury and brilliant young Dustin May returns from elbow surgery. But even though both are expected back in September, the Dodgers can’t reasonably include them in their plans for October.
“Two guys coming off significant injuries, I don’t think anyone can bank [on] it,” said Roberts of their return. “But that’s sort of our hope, I guess.”
They must do more than hope. They must fortify. More than anything, they must remember.
Last season’s inspirational postseason wins against the St. Louis Cardinals and Giants were trashed by a starting pitching meltdown in the NLCS against the Braves. With Kershaw injured and Urias baffled by his erratic usage, they basically had Max Scherzer, Buehler and the bullpen.
Scherzer tapped out, Buehler was burned out, and the Braves won the series against a Dodgers team that used Corey Knebel and Joe Kelly as starters.
Granted, the Dodgers bosses mishandled the entire mess, and the five-game Giants series exhausted the Dodgers before they ever set foot in Atlanta, but the team never recovered from not having enough starting pitching.
That can’t be an excuse this year. They can see it coming. They know what awaits. They have the prospects to fatten their rotation, so they must use them. These are the same kids — the Diego Cartayas of the world — that everyone is touting as currency in a deal for Juan Soto.
Again, right idea, wrong player.
Luis Castillo is a 29-year-old right-hander who has a career 3.62 ERA in six seasons for the horrific Cincinnati Reds. If nothing else, the guy knows how to pitch through adversity.
This season is his best, a 2.77 ERA in 13 starts with 82 strikeouts in 78 innings. He will probably be traded because the Reds are rebuilding, and he is coveted throughout baseball, but few teams can offer young talent like the Dodgers.
Here’s guessing they have their eyes and computers and radar guns on Castillo, and they will be more likely to chase him down before pursuing Soto.
“Our guys are always trying to find ways to get better,” said Roberts of the front office. “So if there’s an opportunity to get us better on the starting pitching front, we’ll act on it.”
Roberts emphasized his confidence in his current starting staff, and proclaimed he was ready to make the stretch run with them.
“What we have in the room, I believe in every one of those guys,” he said.
It is one thing to believe, and another thing to know, and the Dodgers know.
Juan Soto is nice. Luis Castillo is a necessity.