The Dodgers and The Notion of Going Partially “All-In”

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The 9th inning has been…problematic since losing Kenley Jansen

 

August 15, 2018

The Dodgers dropped their 4th straight game tonight since losing Kenley Jansen in a painfully familiar manner, with the loss also marking the 4th straight game decided in the 9th inning. Things are…not fun right now. It feels like the lowest point of the season since losing 7 consecutive games to the Reds and Marlins, leaving the team at 16-26 and Dodger fans scratching their heads. Yesterday’s loss probably hurts the most after watching Clayton Kershaw deliver the type of performance we used to take for granted, yet now haven’t seen in nearly a year. These losses ring exceptionally loud coming off the heels of the loss of Jansen due to heart problems, as well as the team’s trade deadline actions, as it puts the spotlight on the Dodger bullpen yet again.

Now, I’m not here to cry that the sky is falling after 4 losses in a row, as the hot take writes itself when you consider the circumstances. Things often happen thanks to one of my favorite catchphrases…because baseball. It’s easy to look at Jansen going down and the bullpen immediately taking the loss in the 9th inning four days in a row and write a reactionary piece making a one to one connection between the two. It would also be ignorant to totally dismiss the correlation.

However, what I want to talk about today goes back to the Dodgers’ trade deadline strategy, and brings up something I briefly alluded to in my previous post. Can there be varying degrees of “going all-in”?

Going back to before the Manny Machado trade, the Dodgers had a very good lineup with few holes, and a deep rotation that was finally starting to get healthy and deliver results. Asking around the baseball world, and Dodger fans, as to what the team’s biggest need would be, and the answer was pretty clear to most; the Dodgers needed and were likely to focus on bullpen help when it came to any additions to the roster. Machado rumors were swirling, sure, but it wasn’t ridiculous to question how much the team really needed Manny. Now, to be fair, it was around this time the bullpen had been putting together a pretty good run, with a sparkly July ERA for people to point at as evidence the pen could turn things around. But even if blindly looking at ERA, comparing it to the previous 3 months clearly had July standing out as an outlier when it came to bullpen success. There was though, at least, reason for optimism.

Of course, any discussion about potential Dodger trade targets also had to include discussion about the luxury tax, and the team’s stated goal to stay under it for 2018, in order to reset the penalty and allow for future spending flexibility. Despite the big budget status of the franchise, it was an understandable goal. Then the Manny Machado trade changed everything. The hot take after acquiring him from Baltimore was now that the Dodgers were going “all-in” to win the World Series. They didn’t care how good the lineup already was, they were going to put it over the top with the addition of one of baseball’s top bats.

Then, on deadline day, the team doubled down on offense by finally acquiring long-time future Dodger Brian Dozier. Now, with Logan Forsythe out the door in the Dozier trade and second base no longer a black hole in the lineup, the Dodgers had formed a powerhouse offense with arguably the strongest 1-8 in either league. And with Forsythe and Dozier matching up in salary, this was all accomplished without compromising the luxury tax plan. The lone addition to the bullpen was former closer John Axford, sporting a mid 4 ERA in Toronto and years removed from being an elite option. Despite that, the consensus was clear; The Los Angeles Dodgers were now going all-in to deliver a World Series title in 2018.

Were they, though? To answer my previous question, there are no degrees of “all-in.” A term like that is an absolute; you’re either all-in, or you’re not. This is the maddening part about the 2018 Dodgers. They are simultaneously trying to go all-in, while also ignoring the most glaring need on the roster.

To borrow from the analogy that the phrase all-in comes from in the first place; you can’t call all-in while also holding one of your chips. However, that is exactly what the Dodger front office has attempted to do, with the splash additions of Machado and Dozier in a baffling contradiction to their plans as they desperately try to hold onto that prize chip (the luxury tax reset).

If the team was truly trying to leave all the chips on the table in an effort to go all-in (even I’m getting tired of typing that) on that elusive World Series title, how does it make any sense to ignore the team’s biggest need in the name of the luxury tax when your team has the financial might that the Dodgers do?

Look, I get why the team wants to reset the tax, I even support it. It makes sound sense for the future of the franchise. But once the team had decided to go for it, placing an artificial restriction on how far you can go to improve the team starts to sound silly. Once they decided to do everything they could to win it all this year, the luxury tax plan should have gone out the window. When you stop and think about how dominant this team could be with another shutdown arm or two or three in the bullpen, it’s not hard to wonder if the team could potentially end up blowing a once in a lifetime chance to win a championship with exciting rentals like Machado and Dozier. Why possibly waste the opportunity they afford you? Let’s not forgot, both are free agents after the season and there is no guarantee either are coming back. Why wouldn’t you do everything in your power to ensure that every aspect of this team is championship caliber?

Banking on the current crop of relievers to deliver results and get healthy came with a pretty big condition; it was all based around the assumption that Jansen would be there to shut the door at the end of games. Sure, you’re never banking on your elite closer suddenly being unavailable due to random heart irregularities, but its also not the first time it has happened, and its not as if the bridge to Jansen was in any way close to a sure bet. It was actually a massive, worrying question mark. Plus, injuries happen in baseball, especially when it comes to pitching. The Dodgers know that as much as anybody. Why not protect yourself from that possibility in any way you can? And now, with their lone addition to the pen on the DL with a fracture, its back to that same bunch, even when factoring in the potential boost Kenta Maeda and Ross Stripling could give the bullpen.

Look, we don’t know what potential deals the Dodgers may have just not been able to pull off, and we’ll never know. Most of the big bullpen arms had already moved by the deadline, and who knows if they targeted some guys that other teams just flat out wanted to hang onto. Trades take two teams to tango (check out that amazing alliteration).  However the team has been fairly transparent in their attempts to reset the luxury tax, so if you do the math, its hard not to connect the dots between the lack of bigger additions to the pen and where they sit it terms of said tax (the short version: they are very, very close to that line).

Now, getting back to the recent losses. Its not all on the pen. This team was constructed to out-hit, out-slug, and out-score opponents to the point where any bullpen deficiencies were basically a moot point. And to be fair, the offense hasn’t exactly been close to doing that during the losing streak. This team shouldn’t be getting shut down by a guy who was 1-3 with a 7.43 ERA and 7 dingers allowed in his last 5 starts. Step right up, Andrew Suarez. If the offense was doing their job, we probably aren’t talking about four straight losses. Though the debate I’m bringing up today would certainly still be viable.

We don’t know what the waiver deadline may bring. The front office is certainly probably feeling pressure to look at some arms after the last 4 days. With the non existent luxury tax space though, its not as if anyone big would be on the way anyway. I wouldn’t expect the team to suddenly ditch the plan after sticking to it for this long. At the end of the day, we have to hope that the offense can live up to it’s potential, and the bullpen limits the harm enough to carry this team to the finish line.

You can’t help but wonder “what if” with this team though. To dream about what they could be if they had acquired the bullpen help that they needed. And if they fall short of the World Series, or even miss the playoffs altogether in this tight, 3 team race for the division, those questions are going to be magnified tenfold.

That’s what is so baffling about the 2018 Dodgers. You can’t go partially all-in. Yet here they are, trying to have their cake and eat it too. So, I’m going to end this post the same way I ended the last one.

Pray for dingers.

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