Dave Roberts has crafted a preferred euphemism for the challenges inherent to managing the Dodgers. Too many useful contributors to fit on a 25-man roster? Too many quality pitchers for a five-man rotation? Too many talented hitters to squeeze into one lineup?
All fall under the same banner for Roberts: “High-class problems.”
Over this weekend at Coors Field, which finished with a 4-3 loss to the Rockies, a simpler but more sinister issue arose: not enough competent relievers.
“This is an actual, everyday problem,” Roberts said. “A blue-collar problem.”
The organization moved to solve it in the hours before Sunday’s game by shifting Kenta Maeda and Ross Stripling to the bullpen to compensate for the absence of closer Kenley Jansen. Stripling will be available on Tuesday, Maeda on Wednesday. They will be replaced in the starting rotation by Alex Wood and Hyun-Jin Ryu, both of whom will be activated from the disabled list this week.
Neither Maeda nor Stripling could intervene on Sunday. With the score tied in the ninth, Roberts asked right-handed pitcher Dylan Floro to drag the game into extra innings. Floro did not comply. He gave up a leadoff single, which Yasiel Puig misplayed to let the runner reach second base. After Roberts ordered intentional walks of two left-handed hitters, Floro walked Rockies catcher Chris Iannetta with the bases loaded to end this woeful road trip.
Scratching to stay level with Arizona in the National League West, the Dodgers went 2-4 on this visit to Oakland and Colorado. A reliever bore responsibility for all four losses. The Dodgers ended the trip closer to third place than first, trailing the Diamondbacks by a full game while leading the Rockies by only a half game.
“It’s a big blow,” said Rich Hill, who gave up three runs in six innings on Sunday. “You have to regroup.”
When the Dodgers effectively stood pat on relievers at the trade deadline, adding only veteran journeyman John Axford, they bet on the depth and versatility of their internal options. The calculus did not include the sudden disappearance of Jansen. After Jansen experienced a recurrence of his heart condition on Thursday, chaos reigned in the bullpen.
This weekend was a fiasco for the relievers. Pedro Baez imploded on Thursday. Zac Rosscup did likewise on Friday. Saturday featured a unique debacle, in which Roberts removed Scott Alexander in a ninth-inning save situation to play matchup ball with J.T. Chargois. Chargois failed to put away the right-handed hitters he faced, and gave up a walkoff homer to a left-handed hitter.
As the Dodgers reeled from the defeats, they expedited the conversion of starters into relievers. The team planned to stage this process in September. But with the division in doubt, urgency won out. Roberts broke the news to Stripling (8-3, 2.62 earned-run average) on Saturday night and Maeda (7-7, 3.80 ERA) on Sunday morning. The manager praised both players for their “unselfishness.”
Stripling expected to piggyback Wood’s outing on Tuesday. Maeda could play the same role behind Ryu on Wednesday. Stripling was unsure what his subsequent assignment would be.
“The waiting game part of it kind of stinks, as far as not knowing exactly when you’ll throw beyond that,” Stripling said. “But we had a meeting with the seven starters, and they said ‘This kind of stuff is going to happen, so hang with us, and we’ll communicate the best we can,’ which is what they did.”
Stripling could return to the rotation later in the season. He made an All-Star team as a starting pitcher this season and completed a quality start of six innings and one run allowed at Coors Field on Thursday. The team could shift Wood into relief, if it views Stripling as a better option as a starter in October.
“Our hope is to get Ross back in the starting rotation,” Roberts said. “He’s earned it.”
Maeda is a different story. The Dodgers prospered with Maeda in relief in the playoffs last year. He figured to reprise that role this October. His presence in the bullpen at this juncture is a necessity. Roberts lacks faith in almost all his relievers. Even Alexander, the most reliable of the bunch, wasn’t trusted to save the game on Saturday.
Maeda could operate as either a multi-inning option or the closer. The team believes Maeda can bounce back on consecutive days if his appearances are limited to one inning at a time. In a conversation with reporters after the game, Maeda lacked interest in discussing his success as a reliever in the 2017 playoffs.
“I don’t see being in the bullpen as a bad thing, per se,” Maeda said through his interpreter, Will Ireton. “But I’ve emphasized a lot that I am a starter and I want to start.”
In the bullpen, Maeda will miss the chance to make money. His contract offers millions in incentives based on starts. He earned $1 million by making his 20th start on Friday. He can make another $1.5 million for 25 starts and an additional $1.5 million for 30. Neither milestone appears likely.
Maeda will earn $250,000 when he completes one more inning, which would give him 110 on the season. Similar bonuses await him at each 10-inning marker up to 190.
The Dodgers have a solid relationship with Maeda’s agents at Wasserman, who also represent Kenley Jansen, Chase Utley, Yu Darvish and Brandon Morrow. The two sides could restructure the language in Maeda’s contract to include performance bonuses related to relief appearances. Adam Katz, Maeda’s agent, declined comment when contacted on Sunday morning.
Armed with a revamped changeup, Maeda has struck out a career-best 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings. But he has been increasingly hittable in the past few weeks. In his last four starts, he posted a 6.45 earned-run average.