Front Office’s Faith in Dodgers Bullpen is About to be Severely Tested

Arizona Diamondbacks v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game One
Kenley Jansen mirrors Dodger fans’ collective emotions

 

August 11, 2018

With the Dodgers’ biggest need at the 2018 trade deadline generally thought to be bullpen help, Andrew Friedman and company instead doubled down on offense, with major acquisitions Manny Machado and Brian Dozier coming aboard to create a lineup with virtually no holes and an already deep bench becoming a bottomless pit. The only bullpen arm acquired was John Axford, a former closer who is currently far from a reliable key inning type of guy. The moves, or lack thereof, seemed to indicate a faith in the Dodgers current group of relievers either rounding into form or returning to health.

At the time, though not ideal, you could at least talk yourself into the logic, as the bullpen had been pitching relatively well since July and some of the key names were at various stages of returning from the DL. The thing about that plan, however, is that it hinged on having an elite closer in Kenley Jansen there at the end of games to shut the door. Remove Jansen from the equation, and well, an already shaky bridge suddenly becomes a shaky bridge to nowhere.

With the recent news that Jansen is going to be sidelined indefinitely due to an irregular heartbeat, that has suddenly become a reality. Nothing has come easy for the 2018 Dodgers, and now with Jansen out, a bullpen that was arguably already a nightly adventure is about to be severely tested. How the bullpen performs over the next few weeks/month is going to put the front office even further under the microscope for their deadline strategy. Hopefully, they rise to the occasion, but Dodger fans have every right to be wary about whether this group is going to be able to consistently keep the team in games or hold the lead.

But before even worrying about potential performance, Dave Roberts has the task of sorting out how this bullpen will work without it’s best arm. Even with Jansen, this team has not had a no-doubt option emerge to lock down the 8th inning as Brandon Morrow did last year. In the short term it appears Scott Alexander is first up to get save opportunities. The ground ball specialist is arguably the closest thing this team has had to a reliable bridge to Jansen, so its not hard to see the logic here. But even Alexander has had his ups and downs this season, including a demotion to AAA early in the year. You’d rather see him out there in key situations than most anyone else, but that doesn’t mean you have 100% confidence that he’s going to shut it down.

Aside from Alexander, who else will the Dodgers turn to for key late inning situations? I’m going to resist the easy Pedro Baez joke here, and the answer actually is looking more an more like that help may come from the starting rotation. With the team currently employing 6 starters, and Hyun-Jin Ryu returning sooner than later, some of those arms are going to be shifted to the bullpen. If reports are to be believed, first up is likely to be Kenta Maeda. I have mixed feelings about this.

Maeda of course excelled out of the bullpen for the Dodgers last year late in the season and through the playoffs. Roberts knows that he can get the job done. At the same time, Maeda has arguably earned his spot in the Dodgers rotation. Some shaky results lately might be further argument for his move, but overall Maeda has had a career year for the team as a starter, especially in the strikeout department. Having already exceeded his career high in strikeouts at 179, and upping his K/9 to an impressive 10.73, Maeda has been a quality option for the rotation this year. And then there’s the ethical question in regards to his bonus money, which is mostly tied up in number of starts. Maeda recently reached the 20 start bonus of his contract, and has further bonuses set to trigger at 25 and 30 starts respectively.

Despite all that, while I strongly feel Maeda has earned his spot in this rotation, with Alex Wood and Ryu set to return in the coming weeks, if someone has to go to the pen, why not choose the guy who you know can get the job done? Maeda’s strong postseason out of the pen and his ability to strike batters out make him a great choice to pitch in relief. If this is the situation we’re in, go with the guy with a proven track record. I get it, I really do, and its probably the best option based on the current makeup of the roster, but I can’t help but feel for Maeda in the situation as well.

The next best option would probably be either Alex Wood or Ross Stripling, who have had success out of the bullpen themselves in the past. But with Jansen out, out of those three Maeda is the clear choice to give you that key strikeout. And of course, as with any starter moving to the pen, he can give you multiple innings as needed. Hell, I could even see him picking up some saves when the matchups warrant it over Alexander.

My feelings about Ryu are the same as they were down the stretch last season. He basically gets a free pass to the rotation as its been established that he’s not an ideal bullpen arm as he has difficulty warming and ramping up quickly. I understand that, but here’s my take on things: If Ryu isn’t one of your best 5 starters, and he can’t pitch in relief, well, tough luck. The decision shouldn’t be based solely on the fact that he has a hard time coming out of the bullpen. If other guys, like Maeda and Stripling, have earned their spots ahead of him, that’s just the nature of professional sports.

I don’t say any of this out of dislike for Ryu. I like the guy, I’ve been rooting for him to get back on track after his career was sidelined for so long with injuries; I just don’t like handing anything to anybody. Hopefully Ryu will come back and pitch effectively, and it won’t matter. That’s the best scenario for everyone.

So let’s say Maeda goes to the pen. That’s a reliable arm added without needed to dig outside the organization. I wouldn’t count on any reinforcements coming at the waiver deadline, though I’m sure they’ll be looking, as they don’t have the luxury tax space to add anything significant (which is another debate entirely). So who else can this team rely on to give us quality innings out of the bullpen?

Forget Pedro Baez. As much as I like to joke about Dave Roberts’ infatuation with Petey, I highly doubt we’ll see him in any high leverage innings after Thursday’s performance. What we’re left with is a lot of hoping and praying. Hope that J.T. Chargois and Dylan Floro can maintain some consistency. Hope that Caleb Ferguson can avoid the big innings and be a reliable long reliever. Hope that John Axford can recapture even some of his former glory. Hope that Pat Venditte can be more than just a gimmick. Hope that Zac Rosscup’s debut was just an anomaly. Hope that Eric Goeddel and Daniel Hudson can reel in the flashes they’ve shown as solid arms. Hope that Tony Cingrani, Josh Fields and Yimi Garcia return from the DL as their best selves. Hope that Julio Urias is fast-tracked back to be a reliever down the stretch.

Probably most importantly, hope that this offense can get on track and outslug opponents to the point where the bullpen doesn’t even matter. That’s how the team was constructed at the deadline, and they will live or die by those bats.

That’s obviously, a lot of hope. Really, the best you can hope for is that at least a few of those things come to pass, and its enough to keep the bullpen afloat in Jansen’s absence.

Kenley Jansen’s health is of course, the most important thing here. He came back fairly quickly from a similar instance a few years back (coincidentally or not occurring in Colorado as well). However its important not to rush him back. An irregular heartbeat goes beyond baseball. So if it means keeping him out longer, they have to do it. Having a healthy Kenley Jansen by the time the postseason rolls around is bigger than any of this. Just as long as the current bullpen doesn’t do anything to torpedo their chances at actually making the playoffs.

Really, just pray for a lot of dingers.

 

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