Daily Distractions: Chad Billingsley’s best-case scenario is still in play.

Chad Billingsley

Dodgers pitcher Chad Billingsley still hasn’t thrown a cut fastball off a mound since having Tommy John surgery last year. (Associated Press photo)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Chad Billingsley sat at his locker at Camelback Ranch on Friday, demonstrating the difference between his slider and his cut fastball with an imaginary baseball.

One pitch involved a twisting motion that began with his fingers and shot up his forearm to his elbow. The other pitch did not — just a flicking motion with his wrist, nothing violent or severe.

Yet he’s been allowed to throw the former pitch, his slider. He still hasn’t thrown the latter, his cut fastball, and isn’t sure when he will. That’s the bad news.

The good news for Billingsley is that he can count on one hand the number of benchmarks still to cross off in his recovery from Tommy John surgery in April 2013. He still hasn’t thrown a cutter off a mound and he still hasn’t faced live hitting or pitched in a game.

Even that will change soon. The plan calls for Billingsley to throw to minor-league hitters at Camelback Ranch sometime next week, around the time the Dodgers play the Arizona Diamondbacks in Sydney, Australia. When he throws “depends on whether I get four or five days’ rest” after his next bullpen session Monday.

Billingsley reported no setbacks one day after throwing a 36-pitch bullpen session Thursday. He hasn’t had any major setbacks yet. The best-case, late-April/early-May return to the majors that Billingsley projected  at the start of camp is still in play.

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Daily Distractions: Chad Billingsley will try to take a big step forward tomorrow.

Chad Billingsley

Dodgers pitcher Chad Billingsley will attempt to throw curveballs off a mound for the first time tomorrow. (Associated Press photo)

When the Dodgers needed to add shortstop Erisbel Arruebarrena to their 40-man roster last week, they faced an important decision. Ultimately, Justin Sellers was designated for assignment to open a roster spot, but the Dodgers could easily have placed Chad Billingsley on the 60-day disabled list instead.

“We’re not prepared yet to set a timetable of 60 days for Chad,” general manager Ned Colletti said at the time.

That could change soon.

Tomorrow, Billingsley is scheduled to throw curveballs off a mound for the first time since having Tommy John surgery last April. The right-hander has been throwing curveballs off flat ground and fastballs off the mound since camp opened. However, the stress on his surgically repaired elbow — specifically, the ulnar collateral ligament that was transplanted from his left forearm — has been relatively light.

The curveball, Billingsley said Wednesday, “puts the most torque on the elbow.” At least one study has produced a different conclusion (specifically, that the fastball and curveball require the same amount of elbow torque), but the fact that he hasn’t attempted to throw the pitch with full force yet makes it a new test.

If he passes the test and emerges pain-free, Billingsley said he’ll be cleared to throw sliders. Adding the slider would give Billingsley the full arsenal he needs to face live batters in a rehab game.

In his last bullpen session Tuesday, Billingsley said his fastball topped out at 87 mph — the fastest he’s thrown the pitch since camp began. His fastball has was topping out around 95 mph prior to the surgery, but comparing games to bullpen sessions is unfair.

“When you’re throwing bullpens it’s hard to go max effort and hit a really high velocity,” Billingsley said. “You’ve got to have adrenaline, the hitter’s presence in the batter’s box.”

Billingsley recently said that, in a best-case scenario, he would be able to start a minor-league game by the end of camp.

We’ll know tomorrow whether or not that scenario is still realistic.

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Daily Distractions: Because it’s never too soon, sizing up the Dodgers’ 2015 rotation.

Zach Lee

Zach Lee will attend his first spring training this weekend. Will he be in the Dodgers’ rotation in 2015? (Associated Press photo)

Today, we look ahead to next fall because, well, why not?

Josh Beckett, Dan Haren and Chad Billingsley — if the Dodgers decline his option — will become free agents after this season. Do the Dodgers have two pitchers in their system who would be ready to fill the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation by 2015?

Maybe. Zach Lee continues to be ranked as a top-100 prospect with middle-of-the-rotation potential. Ross Stripling could be closer than Lee to reaching the majors, depending on who you talk to in the organization. Julio Urias is 17, so probably not. The jury’s still out on the potential of Matt Magill, Seth Rosin and a few others.

The jury’s still out on all of them, actually, since you simply never know how much time a prospect needs to reach his potential. And if the Dodgers’ transactions log over the past two years indicates nothing else, it’s that they prefer proven performance to potential.

So who’s in the next wave of free-agent starters? The list could include Max Scherzer, James Shields, Justin Masterson, Homer Bailey and Jon Lester. Even if Scherzer gets a big extension from the Detroit Tigers, as expected, that’s still a strong class — stronger than this year’s, certainly. All of the Dodgers’ free-agent decisions this year were made with potential 2015 free agents in mind. (That principle applies every winter.)

In the linked piece, FanGraphs.com’s Dave Cameron concludes that Scherzer, Lester and Bailey are the most likely to re-sign long-term extensions. That potentially leaves Shields and Masterson as the cream of the 2015 crop. Depending on their health and performance in 2014, they would almost certainly be the best fourth starters in baseball if they joined the Dodgers.

Cameron predicts that Shields could command a five- or six-year contract “and probably close to the $25 million AAV that many of the better pitchers have attained recently.” Shields turned 32 in December. Despite his career WAR of 28.0 in eight seasons, that’s still quite a bit of risk to take on.

But so is giving the job to a prospect.

Taken together, who do you like in the group to fill out the 2015 rotation?

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Daily Distractions: Cut fastball could fast-track Ross Stripling to Los Angeles.

Ross Stripling

Dodgers pitching prospect Ross Stripling didn’t throw a cut fastball in college at Texas A&M, but it led to plenty of success at Double-A Chattanooga. (Texas A&M photo)

If Ross Stripling appears in a major-league game with the Dodgers this season, the 25-year-old will inevitably draw comparisons to all-time saves leader Mariano Rivera.

But hey, the kid started it when he began describing how he embraced the cut fastball, the pitch that defined Rivera’s 19-year career.

“I throw from such a high arm slot, and these balls have such smaller laces than college balls, they’ll just move on their own,” Stripling said earlier this month at the Dodgers’ winter development camp.

“If I just switch the ball a little bit in my fingers” — he turned the ball 30 degrees from a two-seam fastball grip — “it would cut on its own. I struggled to not cut the ball. I wanted to throw the ball where I wanted. They were like, ‘Maybe you should go with it.’ Then you hear the story that Mariano Rivera learned his cutter that way — not that I’m trying to compare myself to Mariano Rivera — but similar fashion. It was natural, then I just tried to fine-tune.”

Stripling posted a 2.78 earned-run average following his promotion to Double-A Chattanooga. Even more impressive was Stripling’s 4.37 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 94 Double-A innings. Continuing the theme of unfair comparisons, not even Clayton Kershaw‘s K:BB ratio was that high at Double-A.

The 25-year-old’s talent is still raw. He still isn’t on the Dodgers’ 40-man roster, though a roster spot is rarely given to second-year professionals in the off-season since there is no risk of losing them through the Rule 5 draft. Stripling never called his own pitches, and never watched video of his performance, before 2013. He’s also got a four-pitch repertoire that he’s still mastering; he added the cutter last year to a fastball, changeup and curveball that served him well in college.

Stripling was a fifth-round draft pick by the Dodgers out of Texas A&M in 2012. In college, Stripling was teammates with Michael Wacha, the St. Louis Cardinals pitcher who was named MVP of the National League Championship Series after beating the Dodgers twice in the Cardinals’ six-game series victory.

Like Stripling, Wacha had all his pitches called for him from the dugout in college. That didn’t stop him from reaching the majors after only 26 minor-league appearances.

“His fastball is so strong, so demanding, that he can just throw that when he wants,” Stripling said of Wacha. “His changeup is kind of the same way,” Stripling said.

Much of the inertia pushing the Dodgers toward signing Masahiro Tanaka is money. That is to say: They have the money, so why not make a run? A lesser factor, not to be discounted, is the fact that Stephen Fife and Matt Magill were starting games by the end of April.

If the Dodgers don’t land Tanaka, it means that Stripling — along with Fife, Magill, Zach Lee and maybe swingman Seth Rosin — all move up the organizational depth chart. And we might get to see that cutter sooner rather than later.

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Daily Distractions: Dodgers’ Chad Billingsley, Matt Kemp making progress in surgery rehab.

Chad Billingsley

Chad Billingsley is able to throw from 120 feet at 75 to 80 percent effort, his agent said Monday. (Associated Press photo)

The agent for Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp and pitcher Chad Billingsley said Monday that both players will be able to participate in spring training activities from the start of camp.

Dave Stewart, the former Dodgers pitcher who now represents both players, said that the road back will be slower for Billingsley, who underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in April.

“I think (the Dodgers) will be conservative,” Stewart said, “but (Billingsley) will be starting with everybody else in spring training.”

Stewart said that Billingsley believes he’ll be able to pitch in games starting in April. The 29-year-old right-hander underwent the ligament replacement procedure April 24; the Dodgers didn’t announce a specific timetable for Billingsley’s recovery at the time, only that pitchers typically return to competition in 12 months.

For now, Stewart said that Billingsley is throwing from 120 feet at 75 to 80 percent, and hopes to start throwing off a mound in January.

Kemp is already at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Arizona, recuperating from October surgeries on his left ankle and left shoulder. Kemp had arthroscopic surgery Oct. 24 to remove several spurs and a loose body, and do a microfracture on the talus bone in his left foot. He’s expected to be in a walking boot “for another couple weeks,” Stewart said.

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