Dodgers bullpen remains unsettled three days before opener
Sometimes things go exactly as hoped, and sometimes they just zigzag all over. Left behind is a puzzle with very uncertain pieces.
Of all the issues the Dodgers faced this off-season, closer was one they figured was covered. Then on the eve of camp, Kenley Jansen was unexpectedly lost for up to 12 weeks after having foot surgery.
The Dodgers had six weeks of camp and ample replacement candidates, and the hope was that one would separate himself from the pack and win the interim closer’s job.
But with the Dodgers opening the season Monday, they remain very much a team without a closer. They remain a team without a designated eighth-inning guy. And even a team without a set bullpen.
That’s a lot of uncertainty for a team with championship aspirations. Don Mattingly is a manager who strongly prefers to use players in set roles, but with the opener three days away he has no announced bullpen plan.
“We’ll just play it out,” Mattingly said. “You have to stay tuned. It’s fluid.”
For the most part, the Dodgers’ veteran relievers have struggled this spring while several young arms have been impressive. Impressive in a spring training game, of course, and impressive playing in a major league stadium in front of 40,000 people are not always the same thing.
Though none has had a particularly strong spring, veterans J.P. Howell (8.22 earned-run average), Joel Peralta (4.32) and Chris Hatcher (6.48) are expected to make the 25-man roster and, it’s assumed, so will Juan Nicasio (6.75), who is out of options. Paco Rodriguez has not allowed a run in 11 appearances and appears to have won a spot.
And then there are young arms Yimi Garcia (0.87 ERA, 15 strikeouts in 10 1/3 innings), Adam Liberatore (no runs in 11 games) and Pedro Baez (5.40), who in this tight competition might have pitched himself off the team Friday when he surrendered a grand slam to Albert Pujols in the fifth inning of the Angels’ 6-0 Freeway Series victory over the Dodgers at Angel Stadium.
Plus, there are veterans Sergio Santos (4.66), David Aardsma (2.00) and David Huff (1.50) to battle for two spots.
But is there a closer in the house?
“I just don’t think it’s that important,” said General Manager Farhan Zaidi. “That plays itself out over the course of the season.”
Some had hoped Santos, a former Chicago White Sox closer, would step up and win the spot but he’s been told he will not make the opening-day roster, according to a person familiar with the situation. He will be sent to triple-A Oklahoma City but can opt out of his contract by May 1 if he’s still not on the 25-man roster.
Mattingly said that without a set closer, the ninth inning will become situational. And his bullpen will probably have two left-handers (Howell, Rodriguez) and possibly three (Huff or Liberatore).
“I’m OK with seven lefties if they get outs,” Mattingly said.
Howell said no one in the bullpen is concerned about who closes; they want to pitch regardless of the inning.
“We want that mentality,” he said. “We don’t want, ‘Oh, it’s only the sixth. I get to chill.’ We don’t want that anymore. That’s how failure happens. That’s how tentativeness becomes more prevalent. We need that to be done. From the fifth on, be ready to pitch. You’ve got next inning.”
Mattingly said Scott Van Slyke was in left field Friday night in place of Carl Crawford because left-hander Andrew Heaney started for the Angels. And something of a semi-regular platoon might be in the works.
“It could be,” Mattingly said. “Van Slyke’s gonna play. There are going to be times he’ll play out there [in left], there will be times he’ll be able to give Adrian [Gonzalez] a day [at first base]. But Carl hit lefties pretty good last year so I can’t say that I want to just flat out do it.”
Crawford batted .321 against left-handers in 2014, with a .381 on-base and .500 slugging percentage.
Right-hander Scott Baker agreed to a minor-league deal with the Dodgers, according to a source familiar with the situation. The deal wasn’t announced because he still has to pass a physical. He offers yet more veteran starting depth in the minors. Baker, 33, was in camp with the Yankees but was released Sunday. He had a 7.81 ERA in 10 1/3 innings, with 10 strikeouts and no walks. . . . Yasiel Puig and Howie Kendrick were back in the lineup after Thursday’s outfield collision. . . . Andre Ethier reported no problems after playing Thursday for the first time since getting hit on his right elbow by a pitch Tuesday.
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