The Los Angeles Dodgers announced today that right-handed starting pitcher Chad Billingsley will be going back on the DL with a season-ending elbow injury. This time, it will require Tommy John surgery, which is likely to keep Billingsley out for 12 months.

Given Billingsley‘s injury history and an apparent insistence on coming back from those maladies too early in the process, this was bound to happen. It’s still a shame to see a promising pitcher go down, and it causes a big problem for the Dodgers pitching staff.

Coming into the regular season, the Dodgers boasted one of the strongest pitching staffs in baseball, running eight starters deep. While Clayton Kershaw, Josh Beckett and Hyun-Jin Ryu are still intact, Zack Greinke hit the DL and Aaron Harang has been traded away.

Furthermore, southpaws Chris Capuano (started a game over the weekend before getting pulled and placed on the DL with a leg injury) and Ted Lilly (starting tomorrow; his first game back from an injury) are always on the brink of injury.

So what was once a team with eight options for the starting rotation, suddenly finds itself with three viable pitchers, surrounded by whomever they pull up from Triple-A and—for now—Lilly.

This offseason saw the Dodgers strengthen an already well-constructed team that many felt should win the NL West. Even with the defending champion Giants, upstart Rockies and always-dangerous Arizona Diamondbacks lurking, many experts picked Los Angeles to wear the division crown in 2013.

Though the pitching was nice, much of the reason for optimism is in the team’s offense. And once Hanley Ramirez returns and the lineup starts to click, the offense will be the reason why the Dodgers stay in contention.

Having guys who throw in a pitcher-friendly park under one of the best pitching coaches in the game means the rotation will likely continue to perform, but the team will ride its bats in the long run.

Last season, the Dodgers made due with a far worse group of starters and finished as one of the better staffs (by ERA) in the National League. It helps to have a Cy Young favorite as the ace of the rotation, but pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and manager Don Mattingly were even able to squeeze a mid-3.00’s ERA out of Harang in the fifth spot in 2012.

As far as changing the NL West picture, there’s no debating that an injury to a regular starting pitcher is detrimental to any team’s chances. And when he’s on, Billingsley can be absolutely dominant. So the Dodgers likely won’t find a replacement of his caliber in their farm system or in a trade, but they can lean on the knowledge that they’ve been here before.

When Greinke returns, they will still have a dangerous 1-2 punch at the top, followed by what looks to be a sturdy 3-4 in Beckett and Ryu. It’s not as good overall as the group you’ll find in San Francisco or Arizona, but it’s closer than many will think initially.

And again, the strength of this team going forward lies with the offense. If a team boasting Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez, Ramirez, and Andre Ethier can’t stay in the playoff race, it won’t matter how well the pitchers are doing.

That being said, the elbow injury will close the gap between the Dodgers and their NL West counterparts. No matter how you look at it, you can’t replace that production in a fifth starter. But the fact that he was the fifth starter is something for Dodgers fans to hang their hats on.

As it stands now, the Giants are (and will be, until proven otherwise) the team to beat in the division. The Dodgers will have to contend with them, and Arizona, and Colorado, and the pesky Padres (who have four of their five wins this year against the Dodgers) if they want to win the West, regardless.

Losing Billingsley definitely doesn’t help the cause, but it may not be as crippling as advertised. When clicking on all cylinders–whether it’s Billingsley, Lilly, Stephen Fife, or an unknown trade acquisition holding down the last spot in the rotation–this team will be tough to beat. 

The NL West division title is a little bit more difficult to attain now, but it’s still well within the Dodgers reach. When all is said and done, losing someone like Greinke is much more perilous for their chances this year.

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