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Dodgers stick to strategy as other teams sign elite relief pitchers

The market for relief pitchers overheated on Wednesday at baseball’s winter meetings, but the atmosphere outside the Dodgers suites at the Swan and Dolphin Resort stayed calm. The executives gathered inside a pair of rooms. Manager Dave Roberts’ luggage rested in the hallway. A tray of food featured picked-over french fries and sandwiches.

Inside one of the suites, general manager Farhan Zaidi indicated it was unlikely the Dodgers would make an acquisition before this junket ends on Thursday. By next week, he suggested, “we have some things in the works that could materialize” in the team’s quest to improve a 104-win World Series participant. Until then, they would watch as middle relievers signed elsewhere.

“To some degree, the relief market’s beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Zaidi said. “Different teams are looking for different things.”

The Dodgers have identified the bullpen as their primary area of need. Yet the best known targets had begun to disappear: Brandon Morrow signed a two-year, $21 million deal with the Chicago Cubs. Colorado inked Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw on a pair of three-year, $27 million contracts. Tommy Hunter took a two-year, $18 million deal with Philadelphia and Anthony Swarzak took a two-year, $14 million deal with the New York Mets.

The passivity displayed by the Dodgers reflected both organizational philosophy and payroll inflexibility. Wary of further violations of baseball’s luxury tax, the Dodgers do not want to make significant financial commitments without being able to offload contracts for players like Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy and Adrian Gonzalez. The rest of the industry does not appear willing to accommodate the Dodgers in that pursuit, and Gonzalez’s full no-trade clause further complications the situation.

Given the circumstances, the Dodgers are committed to reprising the strategies deployed by president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman in both Los Angeles and Tampa Bay, searching for undervalued assets who can aid the bullpen. The strategy netted Morrow in 2017 and Joe Blanton in 2016. The team allowed both players to leave in free agency, thus restarting the cycle.

“Throughout my career, this has been something that is front and center when the winter starts, trying to find really intriguing, upside plays in the bullpen,” Friedman said. “We’ve had a lot of success over the years. That being said, it doesn’t instill any more confidence in it as you’re staring at it in the winter.”

After giving closer Kenley Jansen a five-year, $80 million contract last winter, the Dodgers solidified the foundation of their bullpen. His presence creates a safety net as they search through less reliable pools of players. The Dodgers look at struggling starters who might improve in a relief role, or underappreciated relievers who might benefit from adjustments to their sequencing and pitch selection.

The former idea allowed Kenta Maeda to star as a reliever in the 2017 postseason. The latter idea led to success with both Josh Fields and Tony Cingrani in recent years.

“I do think the reliever market is probably the place where being diligent and really rolling up your sleeves and just doing your due diligence, you can create value there,” Zaidi said.

The approach has been successful thus far. As a relief unit, the Dodgers led the National League in collective earned-run average in each of the past two seasons. In 2017, the group also ranked first in fielding-independent pitching ERA, strikeout-to-walk ratio and walks plus hits per inning.

In order to replicate that success, the Dodgers are unlikely t0 make a move this week. They have seen the benefits of searching for hidden gems in January and February.

“Throughout my career, this has been something that is front and center when the winter starts, trying to find really intriguing, upside plays in the bullpen,” Friedman said. “We’ve had a lot of success over the years. That being said, it doesn’t instill any more confidence in it as you’re staring at it in the winter.”

BETTER SHAPE FOR JOC?

The Dodgers have talked to outfielder Joc Pederson about improving his conditioning in order to regain his explosiveness in the field and on the bases, Zaidi said.

Pederson, 25, stole 61 bases during his final two seasons in the minors. He has stolen 14 during his three full major league seasons.

He lost his spot in the majors last August and received a demotion to triple-A Oklahoma City. After his replacement, Curtis Granderson, foundered, Pederson played his way back onto the playoff roster and shined during the postseason. Pederson hit three home runs during the World Series and batted .333.

“He is working really hard this offseason,” Zaidi said. “I think he feels like the next stage for him is gaining more consistency. He has as much ability as anyone on our team. And he’s shown that in stretches. It’s just going to be a matter of conditioning and consistency. He knows what he needs to do. I think he’s in as good a frame of mind as he’s been for the last three years.”

Pederson is expected to compete for at-bats in both left field and center field, joining a group that includes Chris Taylor and Andrew Toles. By the start of the playoffs, the Dodgers considered Taylor, a converted infielder, as a more reliable center fielder than Pederson. The team hopes Pederson can shorten that gap in 2018.

“I’m not going to get into detail about it, but we talk to all of our players about offseason goals,” Zaidi said.

andy.mccullough@latimes.com

Twitter: @McCulloughTimes

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