Dodger Details: Daniel Hudson’s comeback, fifth starter spot and more

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PHOENIX —For much of the past two seasons, an exasperated Daniel Hudson had a recurring source of angst.

I can’t believe how good my arm feels, but my knees are just not letting me do it right now.

That, Hudson said, “was definitely the most frustrating part.”

At 37, the Dodgers reliever knows time is of the essence, and he’s missed plenty of it. Hudson’s career as a starter was derailed when he missed two seasons with two Tommy John surgeries, so the knee issues that have shut him down for the better part of the past two seasons are particularly maddening.

First, the torn ACL in his left knee that ended his 2022 and continued to nag him through the following spring. Then, on July 5 last season, as he made his tear-filled return and recorded his first save in 13 months, he felt his right knee give way. A sprained MCL in that knee shut him back down, with Hudson spending the final months of last season preparing for another comeback before time ran out. Hudson was ready to empty what he had left with each knee had the Dodgers advanced to the NLCS last October. Instead, he sat in the visiting clubhouse, unsure of his future.

As he pondered retirement, Hudson gave himself eight weeks to make sure his knees felt better. As much as he yearned to make a run at another season, he wanted to be sure he could. And when he passed that initial test, his decision was set: Hudson would aim for a 15th big-league season.

The right-hander is back in Dodgers camp as a non-roster invitee. His minor-league deal guarantees him little, paying him $2 million if he makes the big-league roster plus up to another $2 million in incentives. Once seen as a key cog in this bullpen, Hudson just trying to land a spot. That he’s back with Los Angeles, he said, fulfills what he told the organization immediately after the first knee injury — that he wanted to retire here.

“There’s just something special about being a Dodger, man,” Hudson said. “I’ve really enjoyed my time here. All the people here, they’ve really taken care of me and my family the last couple years when they didn’t have to. So I felt like I kind of owed it to them. If I was going to give it another shot, I would do it for them.”

Most days, at least, his knees have been cooperating this spring. Hudson’s arm still feels good and he’s clocking in the mid-90s with his fastball. The execution? That’s still to come as he knocks off the rust that comes with missing the better part of two seasons.

The Dodgers remained encouraged by the reliever’s progress. Hudson “will be in our bullpen,” said manager Dave Roberts, though he clarified that doesn’t specifically mean he will be to start the season.

While Hudson has an opt-out on March 15, Roberts said “I don’t think there’s a hard date” to put the right-hander back on the big-league roster. Hudson said he hasn’t had a conversation with the organization about his status as the club prepares to leave for Korea on Thursday.

That stuff will work itself out. But so long as Hudson’s arm feels good and his knees finally cooperate, he’s going to give it a go.

“I feel like I still have a lot to offer on the field,” Hudson said. “Kind of trying to prove that to myself at the same time, because I’ve barely pitched the last two years. Who knows how it’s going to go? But I know there’s something left in there.”

The fifth-starter competition has some clarity after Roberts confirmed that Emmet Sheehan will open the season on the injured list after complaining of a sore shoulder weeks ago. The 24-year-old right-hander has resumed throwing and is out to 150 feet, but the expedited timeline with the club opening the season in just 10 days simply didn’t leave any time for any hiccups.

With the lead contender ruled out, a door has opened for the likes of Gavin Stone, Michael Grove, Ryan Yarbrough and Kyle Hurt.

Stone appears to have the inside track, with the former top prospect showing up to camp with an added 12 pounds of muscle. (“A lot of Chipotle,” Stone said.) He also has a couple extra ticks of fastball velocity to go with it. The club feels it has eradicated the pitch-tipping issues that plagued Stone’s first couple of cameos in the big leagues, with Stone noting that opposing hitters had been able to pick up his trademark changeup by noting how much he wiggled his arm searching for the grip. That, along with Stone getting past a painful blister on his right plant foot that prevented him from pushing off properly in his mechanics, should give the right-hander a sturdier foundation.

Grove understands where his success will come in the majors — a slider that he spammed in his brief taste of bullpen work last season. Throwing one pitch so often, however, doesn’t fit as well into a starter’s mold and does little to correct the woes that Grove has had against left-handed hitters in his career (a .952 OPS). The 27-year-old served in the fifth starter role to begin the season a year ago despite losing the camp battle to Ryan Pepiot, who got injured. Grove’s track record of flexibility could give the Dodgers options.

“I just want to make the team,” Grove said. “A lot of those decisions aren’t up to me anyway so that’s the best mindset I can have.”

Yarbrough is a lock to make the club’s Opening Day roster but will likely be targeted for swingman duty. Hurt, the pitching prospect who made an electric debut last fall, still has some development to go before he’s expected to be tasked with a major role, Roberts said this week.

Another non-roster invitee who has suddenly found himself back on the Dodgers’ big-league radar: reliever Justin Wilson.

The left-handed reliever hasn’t pitched since 2022 after undergoing Tommy John surgery and dealing with a lat injury amid his rehab last summer and flew under the radar when he was inked to a minor-league deal shortly after the Dodgers’ camp opened. Yet, pressed Saturday for an option who has opened his eyes in camp, Roberts turned to Wilson.

“I just know that when he gets out there, I get excited watching him throw,” Roberts said.

When healthy, Wilson has been amongst the game’s most productive relievers, with a 3.41 ERA for his 11-year career with the Pirates, Tigers, Cubs, Yankees, Mets and Reds. That caveat, however, carries weight: His last season with at least 40 appearances and an ERA under 4.00 was in 2019.

For a Dodgers bullpen that will likely carry at least Yarbrough and Alex Vesia as left-handed relief options, Wilson adds depth. Matt Gage lingers as another option on the 40-man roster, with veteran reliever T.J. McFarland also in camp as a non-roster invite.

Blake Treinen underwent an X-ray and a CT scan on Saturday after taking a comebacker off his right midsection during his spring outing. Until those results are in, the Dodgers are calling it a right rib contusion for the reliever, who has made a strong showing after missing most of the past two seasons due to shoulder trouble.

(Photo of Daniel Hudson: Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)

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