The 2019 Los Angeles Dodgers look like a championship team in every way so far. Well…almost every way. It’s no secret their bullpen is starting to resemble those of 2014 or 2015, and yesterday’s game in Tampa Bay only made that clearer.
Kiermaier hits a 3 run home run. It's 8-1 Rays. Our bullpen needs some help.
— Dodgers Nation (@DodgersNation) May 23, 2019
The chorus of fans calling for serious upgrades to the bullpen have only intensified, and rightly so. Despite investing in Red Sox World Series hero Joe Kelly, Baseball Operations President Andrew Friedman is being lambasted for an underwhelming approach to building the relief corps. I believe this is 100% accurate, but all the same, not every move under Friedman’s watch has been a bad one. Thus, I want to take an exhaustive look at the bullpen the past five years, warts and all.
To be clear, this piece is not attributing every single one of these moves to Friedman. Farhan Zaidi was of course GM for many of them, and I don’t know who exactly pulled the trigger on certain moves. My goal is to look at every single relief pitcher acquired in the Friedman Era to accurately gauge just how many worked out and which didn’t.
A warning to readers: there are some truly painful stats, moments and names detailed below. You have been warned.
In December 2014, two months after being courted away from Tampa Bay, Andrew Friedman dramatically overhauled the Dodgers in a way that echoed Whitey Herzog’s 1980 shakeup of the Cardinals. The core of this flurry of moves was a 7-player trade with Miami that gave the Dodgers four of them: lefty pitcher Andrew Heaney (who was quickly dealt to Anaheim for Howie Kendrick), Enrique Hernandez, then-prospect Austin Barnes, and reliever Chris Hatcher.
After a few dismal seasons to start his career with the Marlins, Hatcher had a decent 2014. He did the same in 2015 in his first year in L.A., albeit not enough to warm up to fans in a year where the bullpen was the team’s greatest weakness. Things got way, way worse in 2016, his ERA ballooning from 3.69 the year before to 5.53. He didn’t pitch much better in 2017, and was dealt to Oakland that August.
Today, Hatcher’s name remains synonymous with Dodger relief futility. He was one of Friedman’s first moves, and still one of the worst. At least we got the Rally Banana out of that trade as well!
Every Dodgers season has a reliever whose very name appearing on the scoreboard invokes feelings of dread amongst fans. In 2013, it was Brandon League. In 2014, Chris Perez (and also Brian Wilson). Right now, no one wants to see Joe Kelly hold down the seventh or eighth. In 2015, Jim Johnson was the moniker that meant disaster in the later innings.
Brought to Los Angeles from Atlanta in the three-team trade that also netted Mat Latos, Luis Avilan and Alex Wood, the hope was he’d bring the form that made him an All-Star in 2012. It seemed likely, given he had a 2.25 ERA up to that point with the Braves. He did the exact opposite as a Dodger, though, with more earned runs (21) than innings pitched (18.2). That translated to a bloated 10.13 ERA, as well as an 0-3 record. To no one’s surprise, he was absent from the playoff roster that October.
Coming along with Alex Wood and Jim Johnson from Atlanta in the 2015 trade season, Avilan was one of many relievers to struggle that year with a 5.17 ERA. Fortunately, he improved in 2016, going 3-0 with a 3.20 ERA. He also never allowed a single run in three postseason series appearances, one in 2015 and the other two in 2016. He continued to excel in 2017 with a 2.93 ERA in 61 appearances, but was left off the playoff roster due to injury. Overall, a solid reliever after a rough start to his Dodger career, although he would be traded in another three-team deal in January 2018.
A move so perfunctory I forgot it even happened. Signed for the 2016 season, he pitched 61 games for two wins, one loss, and a 4.69 ERA. Completely mediocre.
An accidental success for the relief corps, Blanton was primarily a starting pitcher for many teams (including the Dodgers) when he came back to Chavez Ravine a second time in 2016 on a one-year deal. Recast as a setup man and in better shape than usual, he was indispensable to locking down the bullpen in a gritty run to a fourth straight NL West title. He posted a 7-2 record and 2.48 ERA in 80 innings, and managed 5 scoreless innings in the NLDS. His NLCS was less fortunate, though, giving up a game-winning grand slam to Miguel Montero in game one as one of two losses credited to him.
There is a case to be made for this being the single worst relief pickup of the Friedman era. Acquired from Houston in August 2016 in exchange for Cuban prospect Yordan Alvarez, it didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. Plus, he posted terrific stats in a Dodger uniform, the best being a squeaky clean 5-0 and 2.84 ERA in 2017.
However, this trade would ultimately fail when it mattered most. In the 2017 World Series, facing the team that dealt him, Fields was roughed up in a crucial spot. After Kenley Jansen’s blown save in the ninth (among a litany of other heart-stopping moments), the action proceeded into the tenth. Fields, a flyball pitcher, unsurprisingly surrendered back-to-back home runs to Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa, failing to record an out. While I am of the opinion that the game is Jansen’s fault, Fields’ home runs were undeniably costly when the dust settled.
After a strong 2018, Fields was DFA’d earlier this year and picked up by Milwaukee. Meanwhile, Alvarez is absolutely tearing up the minors for Houston. Basically, Los Angeles traded an elite prospect for two home runs that helped cost them the World Series. That is a bitter pill to swallow.
A journeyman pitcher acquired in August 2016, this right hander pitched as well as you’d expect. He won one game and posted a 4.57 ERA in 23 games. Moving on.
Akin to Joe Blanton in 2016, Morrow was a reclamation project starter who ended up being their go-to setup man in 2017. Percolating his way up from the minors out of necessity, he became a relief ace in 45 games with a 6-0 record, 50 strikeouts and a 2.06 ERA. He dominated almost all of the playoffs too, his only downside coming in his brutal stretch in game 5 of the World Series. (Which, it quickly became known, he shouldn’t have been pitching in at all.) In the process, he became just the second pitcher in history to pitch all 7 games of a World Series.
Despite clamoring from many fans (myself included) that he stay, the FO let him leave for the Cubs via free agency that offseason. Given how oft-injured he’s been in the North Side, that ended up being the right move. Plus, it ensured his time in the Dodgers bullpen remained an unqualified success.
One of the best pickups of Friedman’s tenure, and one of lasting (if limited by injury) value. After several years in Cincinnati, Cingrani was flipped to Los Angeles in August 2017 to provide another left-handed option. His 5.40 with the Reds was supplanted by a 2.79 one as a Dodger. He was equally stellar in the postseason, allowing just one earned run across all three rounds.
2018 proved a frustrating step back, posting solid numbers but missing a lot of time due to a shoulder injury. Even then, he enjoyed his finest moment when he contributed to a combined no-hitter against the Padres in Mexico on May 4. He was shut down to start 2019 when the shoulder injury reemerged. Fortunately, he is pitching well in his current rehab assignment, and will soon return to a bullpen that desperately needs help.
An outstanding trade all around. Watson, an All-Star lefty with Pittsburgh, was acquired at the non-waiver deadline in 2017 and promptly excelled with a 2-1 record and a 2.70 ERA. He pitched in all 3 rounds of the postseason, and was the winning pitcher in games 4 and 6 of the World Series.
With such superior pitching both regular and postseason, and left-handed value, Watson seemed like a perfect choice to retain for 2018. Yet he was allowed to depart to San Francisco via free agency. Even for the sake of the luxury tax, it’s become increasingly apparent letting him walk was a big mistake. But his time in Los Angeles in 2017 was masterful.
A transient waivers claim in 2018, Goeddel managed a 3.38 ERA in 26 games. But his action was limited be an elbow injury that led to him being shut down for good in August. He was DFA’d and released that November.
Famous for being a rare “switch-pitcher” who can throw with both arms, Venditte was signed on a minor league deal for the 2018 season. In limited action (14 IP in 15 games), he was terrific, with a 2.57 ERA. But that was it for his time in L.A. being DFA’d later in the offseason.
With Brandon Morrow leaving for the Cubs and Tony Watson signing with the Giants, the front office sought to fill the gaps of both free agents with Scott Alexander. A left-handed ground ball specialist, Alexander wasn’t as elite as the aforementioned two but nonetheless solid in 2018. He went 2-1 with a 3.68 ERA, and induced many key ground ball outs.
However, Alexander also didn’t exactly wow in the postseason last year. He was left off the NLCS roster in favor of Julio Urias, and likely only made it on the World Series one due to injury concern over Caleb Ferguson. He didn’t do anything to justify the move, nearly losing game 3 and issuing a walk in the seventh inning of game 4 that facilitated Boston’s heartbreaking comeback.
So far in 2019, he’s been the same. His hot start has regressed, with a particularly underwhelming effort this past series in Tampa Bay. Right he now he sits at 2-1 and 3.38, almost identical to his 2018 final line. Altogether he’s been a good, not necessarily great, acquisition.
Another 2018 waivers claim, Chargois was solid that year at 2-4 and a 3.34 ERA in 39 games. However, he has an ERA of 10.80 in just 2 games so far this year, and it’s unlikely we’ll see much of him anytime soon.
The Friedman-led front office has gained a reputation for dumpster diving for middling relief hands. While this is certainly the case for quite a few pickups, that cannot be said of this one. Originally claimed off waivers in August 2017, only to be released two weeks later after a rough minor league stint, he was traded back to the Dodgers in July 2018 by Cincinnati.
That certainly sounds like the setup of another bland reliever who comes and goes. But Floro has been elite in Los Angeles, with a 1.63 ERA in the second half of 2018 and a 0.00 ERA for a good chunk of 2019’s first half. The 2019 bullpen is one in dire need of improvement, but Dylan Floro is one of its few saving graces.
The most hilarious name on this list. A former Oakland Athletic, Neal was signed signed on a minor league contract. He pitched one inning in April 2018, giving up one run, and was soon traded to Cincinnati. But he was then traded back to L.A. in the Dylan Floro deal that July. He middled around Oklahoma City for the rest of the year, and then declared free agency that October. He now pitches in South Korea.
Yet another mid-2018 waivers claim, Rosscup actually struck out 20 batters in just 11.1 innings and even threw an immaculate inning. But his ERA was still 4.76, failing to make a playoff roster. Like many others, it was DFA and release by year’s end.
This would have been a spectacular addition to a World Series-bound team had it been made in, say, 2011. But when John Axford was plucked away from Toronto at the non-waiver deadline last year, it was anything but electric. He pitched just 3.2 innings in 5 games, and was knocked around enough to post a 17.18 ERA. Hideous.
With the second-most playoff games pitched all-time and two World Series rings, Madson sounded like a decisive move on paper when he was claimed from Washington in August 2018. However, he proved to be just another washed up choice from the scrap heap. He had a 6.48 ERA in just 9 games pitched, but still made the playoff roster due to experience. He seemed to vindicate it with clutch heroics in the NLDS and NLCS, even being the pitcher of record in game 7 of the latter.
But the sudden good will engendered by those efforts was obliterated by his historically abysmal World Series. Madson allowed all 7 of his inherited runners to score in the Fall Classic, the most decisive coming on a 3-run home run by Mitch Moreland in game 4 that keyed Boston’s comeback win. It’s hard not to imagine what might have been had the FO acquired a true relief ace that could have shut down those situations.
Going into this past offseason, the front office clearly stated they wanted to avoid the dangerous practice of giving enormous contracts to relief pitchers. Given the prevalence of those deals at the end of the Colletti Era, it was the right philosophy to adopt.
Which made it all the more surprising when the Dodgers suddenly gave a 3-year deal worth as much as $33 million to Joe Kelly. Despite unimpressive regular season numbers, Kelly was pristine in October 2018, and L.A. chose to gamble on that small sample size being indicative of his true talent.
So far…not even close. Kelly has been roughed up time and again so far in 2019, his ERA even eclipsing the 10.00 at one point. He is admittedly still a work in progress, and given the money invested in him he won’t be let go of anytime soon. Still, the fact that Friedman saw fit to throw three years at him rather than Adam Ottavino or even Tony Watson the offseason prior is baffling, to put it nicely.
Broken down pitcher by pitcher, Andrew Friedman’s front office has a decidedly mixed track record when it comes to building the pen. On the upside, there have been a few surprise stars and reclamation projects that have excelled. But there are just a few more middling flameouts and outright disasters. Maybe that’s to be expected, as bullpens are fickle beasts, and putting them together (especially with big signings) doesn’t always pan out the way it should on paper.
Of course, building a championship bullpen isn’t a matter of a handful of good acquisitions over a few years. With the trade on the horizon and the Dodgers off to an uncharacteristically dominant start, Friedman is now at a crossroads. Especially after breaking the mantra of no big contracts for the pen with Kelly, there are no excuses for lowballing it this summer. The pressure is on to finally assemble a shutdown bullpen front to back.
Friedman and his analytical front office have been successful in almost every facet of constructing the Dodgers franchise the past five years, with consecutive NL pennants after they had been away from the October spotlight for almost three decades. But this year, the necessity of winning the World Series is undeniable. Especially if the Dodgers face the punishing offense of the Houston Astros or Minnesota Twins, they will need a deep bullpen of relief aces to withstand it.
Even with some great pickups here and there, the team has never really assembled an all-around elite bullpen (although there is an argument to be made for the 2017 one as an exception) the past four-and-a-half seasons. With their nonpareil starting pitching, they don’t need to lean on the pen in October like the 2014 Royals or 2018 Brewers. But even the best starting effort can be wasted by being one reliever short, as game 4 of the 2018 World Series made painfully clear.