Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi took a somewhat conservative approach to rebuilding the bullpen from last year’s, and they did so without signing any expensive free agents this offseason like Andrew Miller. At the trade deadline, the front office only added Johnson and Avilan instead of opting to trade for a Craig Kimbrel type. While I dreamed of Aroldis Chapman coming over in a blockbuster deal somehow, once the dust settled I was underwhelmed by the minimal reinforcements for the bullpen. (And it’s shown so far in the first week.)
After big contract fails like Brandon League (although I would argue League was effective in his final season as a Dodger), the new front office instead paid League and Brian Wilson not to pitch for the Dodgers in order to forget some of those expensive Ned Colletti signings.
The moves the front office did make to give a boost to the bullpen, like the offseason trade which brought Joel Peralta and Adam Liberatore from the Tampa Bay Rays, seemed like a move in the right direction at the time. Refocusing the bullpen was an important order of business for the newly appointed front office this past winter. The bullpen was considered to be the weak link, which ultimately hurt the Dodgers in the postseason against the Cardinals.
While Jansen has been for the most part his dominant self this season (although even he has battled some control problems) alongside a reliable J.P. Howell and surprisingly effective Juan Nicasio, the rest of the bullpen has been an inconsistent mess.
With 17 blown saves, which is above the league average, and a 32 IS% (inherited score percentage), the Dodger middle relievers are frequently allowing inherited runners to score leading to blown leads and broken ties. For example, when Howell entered the bottom of the 10th inning in Friday’s 5-4 loss to the Pirates after Johnson loaded up the bases with nobody out, the outcome was not in the Dodgers favor. It was already a tough spot to be in as a reliever, but the outcome was reflective of the high IS% for the Dodger bullpen this year when Howell allowed the walk-off base hit.
Most certainly an additional factor in the Dodger bullpen problems is the lack of consistency in creating a cohesive relief unit. Injuries to Chris Hatcher, Peralta, Jansen and Pedro Baez along with a plethora of transactions shuffling pitchers back and forth between the minors and the Major League team have all affected the continuity and cohesiveness of the relief corps.
Clayton Kershaw recently defended the Dodgers bullpen, and he mentioned that the new guys “have proven track records”. Track records are fine, but the relievers have to go out and prove they can get the job done.
With a more solid rotation after the additions of Mat Latos and Alex Wood, the Dodgers bullpen should also reflect the pitching legacy of the franchise in order to create that proverbial bridge between the starter and the closer.
Some of the solutions to the bullpen woes seem simple enough. The Dodgers could still make a trade this month, but it would just entail more hurdles in August. The Dodgers could also bring Mike Bolsinger into the bullpen or Yimi Garcia to replace the struggling Joel Peralta. Carlos Frias, when healthy, also could be very effective out of the bullpen for the Dodgers as well.
Unfortunately, Clayton Kershaw cannot pitch complete game shutouts every start. In order for the Dodgers to compete late into October, Baez, Johnson, Nicasio will need to give the Dodgers some consistent innings with Howell and Avilan continuing to escape jams.