In the aftermath of the Dodgers taking two of three in San Diego this past weekend, the greatest topic of concern for the team’s troubled bullpen is Kenley Jansen. While it’s likely the walk-off grand slam he surrendered on Sunday can be chalked up to pitching a third consecutive day, there is cause for worry about his home run totals and velocity.
Like it or not, Jansen is the Dodgers’ closer for 2019, whatever that may entail. However, there isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) a similar level of certainty for Joe Kelly. The team’s biggest FA bullpen investment since Brandon League continues to disappoint on a similar level, and things only got worse in San Diego, coughing up a three-run lead on Saturday. Going into Tuesday’s game against Atlanta, his regular season stats include eyesores like -0.9 WAR and a 10.13 ERA.
Given the amount of money invested in Kelly, there’s no point in clamoring for him to be released. Still, he has exhausted many fans’ patience (mine included), and using him in high-leverage spots has become inexcusable. Some believe he should be given more leeway to get in a groove based on his October track record, but there’s a good chance he’s simply a classic playoff fluke in the vein of Bucky Dent, Billy Hatcher and Pat Borders. That is, someone who is incredible in one small October sample size, and never replicates it in their regular season play.
Help is in AA
In my view, the perfect replacement for Kelly right now is Dustin May. The 21-year-old righty has been turning heads this year with his play in spring training and the minors with AA Tulsa. His April for the Drillers was spectacular, culminating with seven strikeouts in five innings on the 29th. That ability to strike out so many batters in relatively few innings could translate to working in relief.
Given May is a starter, it might not seem ideal to have him in the bullpen as his MLB debut. However, the case of Caleb Ferguson provides a good model. Groomed as a starting pitcher, Ferguson was quickly shifted to the bullpen after his debut in 2018 and has flourished in that capacity since. Plus, relief work is an ideal way of limiting a young starter’s innings, as is the case with Julio Urias right now. And he’s showing it can work perfectly.
— Sports Notes? (@TheSportsNotes) May 7, 2019
The most practical replacement for Kelly might lie more in veteran lefty Tony Cingrani, who just got off to a good start in his rehab assignment with Rancho Cucamonga. Moreover, Kelly’s struggles (as well as the lack of true reliability in the pen aside from Dylan Floro) likely necessitates Andrew Friedman going all-in on a top reliever this July. But there’s no harm in letting May have a shot right now. Best case scenario, he does an excellent job cutting his teeth in relief like Ferguson. Worst case, it’s clear he should strictly be a starter, and is sent back down.
There’s no harm in giving it a try. On the other hand, there is *only* harm in giving Kelly crucial spots that belong in more capable hands.