The Dodgers’ 8-7 comeback win over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sunday was euphoric in a special way, and feels like the kind that sets the tone for a special season. Cody Bellinger continued to show MVP potential, A.J. Pollock proved everyone (myself included) wrong yet again, and the offense showed versatility and relentlessness all around. The “emergency” rotation sans Hill and Kershaw has been elite, Walker Buehler’s rough first outing aside.
However, we shouldn’t let the exhilarating comeback mask the circumstances that made it possible in the first place. I’m not talking about Buehler’s performance, which can be chalked up to the fact that this is basically his Spring Training. I am talking about the bullpen issues his brief start revealed when Pedro Baez came in and quickly surrendered the lead.
This of course comes after Joe Kelly blew two leads on Friday night, ultimately costing the team a four-game sweep against the Diamondbacks, and another 2-0 lead on Monday night against the Giants, where he took the loss.
Baez and Kelly are the veritable seventh/eighth inning options to build a bridge to Kenley Jansen, and while this is only four games out of 162, this is not an ideal start for those two.
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I, along with many others, have chastised the Dodgers owners and FO for their obsession with the luxury tax. So far, I am happily eating my crow as the offense is fine without Bryce Harper and the rotation is sound without Corey Kluber. But perhaps the best measure of their borderline excessive restraint is avoiding common sense bullpen moves. The first example was the offseason following the 2017 World Series, in which they let left-handed specialist Tony Watson (winner of two of the three games they won against Houston) leave for San Francisco, where he’s continued to flourish. (Granted, the decision to let Brandon Morrow walk, unpopular at the time, was vindicated.)
The Kelly signing this past offseason could be considered penance for that, but it’s still a bit of a gamble. Plus, it only draws more attention to the fact that his fellow 2018 champion Craig Kimbrel remains a free agent. It’s one thing to avoid a potential albatross of a contract, or a trade that could deplete the farm system. But when you have a porous bullpen fresh off an epic World Series game four meltdown, is looking iffy to start the year, and one of the best relievers of this era inexplicably is still on the market, it’s a no-brainer. The Dodgers, by every measure, must sign Craig Kimbrel ASAP.
Great! But we need Kimbrel.
— Marshall Garvey (@MarshallGarvey) April 1, 2019
The luxury tax is not an excuse to pass on Kimbrel, especially given the Dodgers brass offered Bryce Harper a record-setting AAV in their five-year proposal. The rationale of not giving relievers extended contracts is also irrelevant after the team shelled out three years and $25 million (plus incentives) to a Kelly whose regular season play has yet to match his October one.
Even if it’s early in the season, the bullpen still has question marks. Pedro Baez could very well be regressing to his pre-2018 form. Tony Cingrani, brilliant when healthy, is looking like damaged goods as his left shoulder injury from last season persists. Brock Stewart, already an odd man out before the season began, looks even more out of place after his performance so far. Kelly’s double meltdown that set up the longest regular season game in Dodger Stadium history is cause for concern.
The biggest conceivable issue is acquiring one elite closer when the team already has a highly paid one in Jansen. But the team has flirted with this scenario before back during the 2017 trade season, when Los Angeles was in talks with Baltimore to trade for another top closer, Zach Britton, to convert into a setup man for their World Series run. Furthermore, having another closer around could create good competition for Kenley as he seeks to bounce back from his difficult 2018 season.
But the true dealbreaker in whether or not Kimbrel should be signed is something many fans tend to forget: Jansen can opt out after this season. Even if he returns to his old form and notches the final out of a championship this year, the reality of him potentially leaving still looms. If that happens, and Kelly doesn’t dial it up enough to be trusted as a closer, L.A. could be in a difficult situation for 2020. For this year, some may argue that Kimbrel won’t accept anything but closing, but considering the inexcusable fact that he’s unsigned after Opening Day, he doesn’t have much of a choice at this point.
Finally, signing Kimbrel would be perfectly in step with the team’s philosophy since Andrew Friedman took the reins in 2014. That philosophy, as has been reiterated almost to the point of parody, is depth. Rather than go all-in on big acquisitions, the key instead is to be two-deep or more at every conceivable position. By giving themselves endless options, the team stays supple and competitive, weathering injuries and other adversities with an annual level of certitude most teams could only dream of. So why not have multiple elite closing options in the bullpen?
The 2019 Dodgers look thus far like a monstrously good team, and one that will only get better as the season goes on. The offense could end up being the best of both leagues. The rotation will get by, and come together once Buehler gets in a groove and Kershaw returns. But ignoring bullpen issues will only hurt them in the long run, chiefly when it counts in October. We don’t need another Marwin Gonzalez, Mitch Moreland or Steve Pearce moment to add to our gallery of pain.
Signing Kimbrel could very well make this a complete team on all fronts right from the get go. The money is there, and so is the urgent need for the present and possibly the future. It would be foolish to let this opportunity pass by.