Pitching roles key in Dodgers' NLDS decisions

Pitching roles key in Dodgers' NLDS decisions

LOS ANGELES -- The National League West champion Dodgers will spend the final week of the regular season holding tryouts for postseason roster spots, although in fact they've been doing that for the past month.

Dress for October: Get NL West champs gear

Maybe it's that preoccupation of preparing for October that made clinching so difficult in September, the unintended consequences of taking the collective eye off the ball while winnowing a deep roster.

Nonetheless, the Dodgers have a shortstop with a bad elbow, a suddenly shaky bullpen and an offense scuffling for runs. Until it plays otherwise, this isn't the best team ever, or even the one that ran up a 21-game lead.

No doubt the actual construction of the Dodgers' first-round roster will be influenced by which team emerges as the Wild Card opponent, and there are still four teams alive. But here are five important decisions they face.

How They Got There: Dodgers

1. Walker Buehler, ready or not?
From his first Spring Training bullpen session attended by execs as far as the eye could see, it seemed predetermined that Buehler would be fast-tracked to a postseason role. Think of Julio Urias (remember him?) a year ago, or as Andrew Friedman did with September callup David Price in 2008 and what Tom Lasorda did when Bob Welch had his classic confrontation with Reggie Jackson in 1978. You get the picture. The problem is, while the 100-mph gun readings are really cool, and he's not afraid to use the breaking ball, Buehler has an 8.53 ERA, and that's after a scoreless outing brought it down from 12-plus. Slumps by Pedro Baez and Ross Stripling, however, makes the Dodgers' No. 1 prospect intriguing out of necessity, even though there's no way to know what you'll get.

2. Who keeps Kenley Jansen company, RH division?
Buckle up for the sixth and seventh innings, as Baez and Stripling have gone off-form at the worst possible time. Even if Jansen duplicates his workhorse four- or five-out save performance of last October, and even if Brandon Morrow has become the setup man, the Dodgers can't count on any starter to go deep other than Clayton Kershaw, sometimes. That's why Kenta Maeda has been moved to the bullpen, as his willingness to try it has countered his lack of experience doing it. Josh Fields is a more natural option whose recent use has been reduced in hopes of freshening his arm. But the uncertainty has Buehler and even Brandon McCarthy in tryout mode.

3. Who keeps Jansen company, LH division?
Tony Cingrani has become one of the most timely acquisitions this management has made. That leaves Tony Watson and Luis Avilan, who are similar in style. A playoff that includes the Rockies, and Coors Field, might find the Dodgers carrying all three lefties. If they go with only two, somebody that has been heavily used down the stretch gets cut.

4. Bench surprise
In a best-of-five series, needing four starting pitchers max, an extra bench player is the way the club went last year. Considering Corey Seager's elbow, maybe it's middle infielder Charlie Culberson, who made last year's NL Division Series roster. To free up Austin Barnes to pinch-hit, maybe it's third catcher Kyle Farmer, who's had a recent crash course in first base to provide added flexibility. A year ago, Barnes made the roster as a third catcher to free up Carlos Ruiz for pinch-hitting. Andre Ethier figures to be the main lefty bat off the bench, as he was last postseason, but since the Franklin Gutierrez experiment failed there hasn't been a dedicated right-handed bat on the bench.

Ethier's game-tying roundtripper

5. Adrian Gonzalez/Andre Ethier
This decision between two veterans with back injuries made itself. Ethier has returned to show a live bat and body, Gonzalez has not. Barring a terrible injury, there won't be room for both. Based on recent playing time and clubhouse vibe, Ethier wins the nod rather easily, as he did a year ago after returning from a broken leg to go 2-for-6 with a homer in the postseason.

Ken Gurnick has covered the Dodgers for MLB.com since 2001. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.