Veteran righthander Chad Billingsley is penciled in as Wednesday’s starter against the Padres in San Diego, and his return from the disabled list means an unexpected roster change and possibly some controversy.
To make room for Billingsley, the Dodgers are expected to option popular rookie catcher Tim Federowicz to the minors. Federowicz, who thought the catching backup duties were his after spring training, has had the weekend to digest the bad news created by a trade that made him expendable.
The pitching-rich Dodgers traded for veteran Ramon Hernandez as an experienced backup to A.J. Ellis in a deal that sent righthander Aaron Harang and cash to the Colorado Rockies. The trade came as a mild surprise for some in and around the Dodger organization who thought Federowicz had shown he is capable of handling two backup catching assignments each week.
The Federowicz supporters see Hernandez as over-the-hill dead weight and the move as robbing young Federowicz of valuable backup experience with the team and, particularly, this pitching staff.
The consolation for Federowicz is that he got to start Sunday along with some kind parting words from manager Don Mattingly.
“We don't want to crush the kid,” said Mattingly. “We think he's going to be really good. It becomes a matter of making sure we have conversations where he knows where he fits, where he's not just out there on an island guessing how we feel about him.”
The only problem is that that 36-year-old Hernandez arrived in the Dodgers clubhouse with a big smile on his face Sunday, sounding like he’s putting his mark on the backup job and that he’s here to stay.
“I'm here just to give Ellis rest,” he told reporters. “I will try to mentor him, try to help him and help the pitchers the best I can. I'll do whatever I can to help the team win.
“It's a great organization and a great city, and there's no better place to be than here.”
The question for Hernandez is can he recapture his old form? Hernandez is a career .264 hitter, whose rookie season with Oakland was 1999 when Federowicz was still playing Little League.
After signing a two-year, $6.4 million contract with the Rockies before the 2012, Hernandez missed two months with a hand injury and wound up losing his starting job to Wilin Rosario. In the 52 games in which he played last year, the Venezuelan-born Hernandez hit a meager .217 with five home runs and found himself headed to the minors this spring before being dealt to the Dodgers.
“This is one of the greatest pitching staffs in the whole Major Leagues,” Hernandez said Sunday. "I want to say this is one of the best teams I've been on my whole career, besides maybe the A's when I was young.”
Meanwhile, Billingsley is returning to the Dodgers fresh from a minor league rehab start on Thursday that wasn’t overly impressive, especially considering it was for Class A Rancho Cucamonga.
Billingsley threw 72 pitches and wasn’t helped out by two errors behind him, nor that the Lake Elsinore Storm stole five bases.
He gave up four runs – three earned – and six hits while walking three, hitting batter and recording only two strikeouts.
The good news was that Billingsley said he experienced no problems from his finger and elbow issues of the recent past. Although Billingsley went into spring training with questions about an elbow injury, it was actually a bruised right index finger suffered during a bunting drill that landed him on the disabled list to start the season.
He had been unable to throw a curve ball for almost two weeks after getting hit by a pitch in spring training, and the Dodgers opted to put him on the disabled list retroactively.
At 28, Billingsley, if healthy, gives the Dodgers such an impressive lineup of starters that it made Harang the odd man out and has put Chris Capuano in the bullpen. Billingsley pitched 149 2/3 innings in 25 starts last season -- posting a 3.55 ERA with128 strikeouts and 45 walks -- before suffering a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.
Instead of surgery, he chose to undergo a strong rehab program and a treatment of platelet-rich plasma injections during the offseason – a treatment popularized when golfer Tiger Woods underwent it for a knee injury several years ago.
Billingsley joins fellow Dodger pitchers Zack Greinke and Scott Elbert among the growing fraternity of professional athletes who have undergone platelet-rich plasma injections in their pitching elbows.
Greinke underwent the treatment last month for inflammation.
Elbert has also had a pair of arthroscopic surgeries on his elbow, most recently Jan. 23. After experiencing more discomfort, he underwent an injection of platelet-rich plasma into his left elbow last month and may not be ready to play until June.
In Billingsley’s case, baseball people are watching, seeing if his rehab and platelet-rich plasma injection treatment are a real alternative to surgery – or if it has only delayed Tommy John surgery if the ligament doesn’t hold up.