MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers-Workout

There was a time, not too terribly long ago, that Josh Beckett was one of the best pitchers in baseball. Full stop. He was an incredibly sought-after high school pitcher in Texas, selected with the second overall pick of the 1999 amateur draft by the Florida Marlins.

Beckett raced to the big leagues, famously leading his Marlins to the 2003 World Series title with some unbelievable playoff performances. Traded to Boston after the 2005 season, Beckett performed nearly the same feat, leading the Red Sox to the 2007 World Series. He was named MVP of the 2003 World Series and of the 2007 ALCS, where Boston outlasted Cleveland in a seven game series, with Beckett turning in two dominant starts.

That Josh Becket, the one who sat at 95 mph with his fastball and used a devastating curveball and cutter to retire both righties and lefties, is gone. In his place is a question mark. The Josh Beckett ready to compete for the Dodgers fifth starter job before striking out in the free agent world is a far cry from the big game stud of a decade ago.

The Dodgers could certainly use tangible contributions from Josh Beckett in 2014. Is there a chance they the big righty produces for the Dodgers during the upcoming season?

In a word – maybe! As stated above, the hard-throwing strikeout artist of old is gone. Beckett’s velocity dipped as it does for nearly all power pitchers. For Beckett, the fastball slippage is slightly more pronounced as well as catastrophic. Where he once averaged 94-96 miles per hour with his fastball, now Beckett sits around 90-92.

Becket's velo and movement 2008-2011

Becket’s velo and movement 2008-2011

Beckett velo and movement, 2012-2013

Beckett velo and movement, 2012-2013

Some pitchers can learn to live at lower velocities and can learn to adapt their repertoire as they age. And Beckett did experience a decent stretch of starts in the middle of the 2012 season, before being shipped to Los Angeles as part of the immense salary dump for the Red Sox, one that set them up for their 2013 World Series championship.

After a solid ten-outing run, Beckett left a July 31st start early and wasn’t really the same for the rest of the season. With the Dodgers in 2013, his velocity ticked back up slightly but his results left a lot to be desired, allowing 50 hits and 30 runs in a mere eight starts.

Fast-forward to 2014 and one thing looks very different for Josh Beckett – his health. Beckett underwent thoracic outlet surgery last July to remove a rib and release pressure on his nerves, the source of numbness in his pitching hand.

It is not an easy or routine surgery, as Chris Carpenter can testify. But Becket threw his first bullpen at Dodgers camp yesterday and claims he feels great. The Dodgers have both Beckett and Paul Maholm competing for the fifth starter spot this spring, which began early due to the Dodgers early season trip to Australia.

How much can the Dodgers expect from Beckett in 2014? It is important that his shoulder is healthy but back, ankle, and elbow woes all cost Beckett time over the past few seasons. Perhaps these problems are related but Becket does have a lot to prove.

If he’s healthy and his control is no longer a concern, the Dodgers have a lot of upside out of their fifth starter spot. Upside they might not need, thanks to the two frontline pitchers that already head their rotation. Bringing in Maholm was smart choice, as the Dodgers started 2013 with “too many pitchers” and still managed to let Stephen Fife start 10 times.

Is hoping for the 2012 version of Josh Beckett too much to ask? That guy was pretty good. Hardly a Cy Young contender but Beckett performed at a league-average level for 28 starts, something I’m sure the Dodgers would take in a heartbeat.

It can be very difficult to separate what Josh Beckett was from Josh Beckett is now and will be in the future. Watching a bunch of Beckett starts and highlights from the last few seasons, it appears his biggest challenge was keeping the ball down in the zone, rather than missing his spots side to side.

There were more than a few occasion of Beckett appearing to hit his spot but the ball staying up and then getting hit hard. Is this is a function of “touch”, the kind of feel a numbing of the fingers prevents? It can’t help. Or this inability to stay on top of the ball stems from deeper physical issues. Only Beckett knows.

Additionally (and supported by the pitch charts above), some of his pitches appeared much flatter than in previous years. Less movement and less velocity is a tough game to play. How much of this comes back to finger pressure and the health of his right arm? Again, only Josh Beckett knows for sure.

And if he knows, he isn’t saying. Beckett told that he feels great, throwing harder with less effort compared to last season. The big right-hander notes he can use his right hand to steer his vehicle and wake up without pain.

With only one season left on his contract and a grotesquely swollen payroll, the Dodgers focus is winning and winning alone. Beckett might feel he owes the club after his injury-shortened 2013 season but they don’t owe him much more than his $15.8 million salary. If they believe Paul Maholm gives them a better chance to win, you better believe it will be Maholm taking the ball every fifth day.

You don’t put a $220 million team on the field in pursuit of cute comeback stories. The Dodgers patience with Beckett will last only as long as his effectiveness. If he does produce, the Dodgers are even farther ahead of the pack in the National League than we already thought. The perfect lottery ticket for a team that needs only steady performance at the back of their rotation.