The candidates to build the bridge to Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen include an All-Star starting pitcher, a left-handed 22-year-old rookie and a former phenom recovering from shoulder surgery. The list includes pitchers in the team’s starting rotation, pitchers on the mend at Camelback Ranch and some who are even actually pitching in relief right now.
“It’s two months away still,” Ross Stripling said. “Crazy things can happen. But if it ended right now, we’d have some serious decisions to make.”
Stripling is the All-Star starter who might relieve in October. Caleb Ferguson is the latest rookie prodigy. Julio Urias played that role, to much greater fanfare, in 2016; he may return in September out of the bullpen. And then there are Kenta Maeda, Josh Fields, Dylan Floro, J.T. Chargois and a host of others.
When the Dodgers effectively stood pat with pitchers at the trade deadline, choosing to expend assets acquiring hitters like Manny Machado and Brian Dozier, they placed their trust in their depth. Their goals are two-fold: The team needs to outlast Arizona and Colorado to collect a sixth consecutive National League West title. And they need to establish a bullpen capable of disarming playoff lineups in October.
For now, as the Dodgers (62-51) prepare for a two-game series in Oakland starting Tuesday, the pieces have not yet been assembled. Stripling is expected to start this weekend in Colorado as he returns from a minor toe injury. Urias is still rehabbing. The team will test Ferguson in higher-leverage spots moving forward, to see if he can adjust to the assignment.
“There are guys who get you through a season,” manager Dave Roberts said. “And there’s also guys who get you over the finish line.”
As a unit, the Dodgers bullpen appears less formidable than previous vintages. The group entered Monday ranked 13th in the major leagues in earned-run average (3.85), 10th in strikeout rate (9.38 per nine innings), 10th in strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.75 to 1) and 23rd in home run rate (1.13 per nine innings).
During last year’s postseason, Roberts trusted five relievers: Jansen, Maeda, Brandon Morrow, Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani. Jansen has rebounded from a rocky April, but has still seen his strikeout rate dip and his walk rate rise. Maeda is in the rotation. Morrow signed with the Cubs and Watson left for the Giants. Beset by shoulder irritation, Cingrani hasn’t pitched since June 6.
“We draw comfort from the fact that we have a lot of really interesting, high-upside candidates,” president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “Some who are currently in the bullpen, some who are currently in our starting rotation, and some who are coming back from injury. With that, we feel like we have enough good candidates in house to fill out a good, eight-man bullpen.”
The trade market featured a bevy of relievers, but few of them represented a significant upgrade to Dodgers officials. The Yankees won the bidding for former Orioles All-Star Zach Britton, who had dealt with injuries the previous two seasons. The Astros chose to add suspended pitcher Roberto Osuna, who on Sunday finished a 75-game suspension for alleged assault. The price on Reds closer Raisel Iglesias was considered exorbitant, according to people familiar with the situation.
So the Dodgers added only one arm at the deadline: John Axford, a 35-year-old who has pitched for eight different teams since 2013. Axford gave up six runs and collected one out in his Dodgers debut on Saturday. He described it as the worst outing of his career.
The Dodgers were intrigued by the ability of Axford, a right-hander, to get left-handed hitters out. The team lacks a lefty specialist to pair with Alexander. Ferguson has had better success against right-handed hitters than left-handers, but the team is intrigued by his potential. He has struck out 27 batters while walking only two with a 1.29 ERA in nine relief appearances.
“You don’t really know how someone’s stuff will translate in a shorter burst, and also how well they will bounce back,” Friedman said. “But Ferg has done everything we’ve asked and more out of that role. He’s putting himself in a position to be someone we lean on quite a bit in the last third of the season, and hopefully in October.”
The last time Urias pitched in a big-league game was May 20, 2017. He underwent surgery later in the summer to repair a torn anterior capsule in his left shoulder. The Dodgers had insisted Urias, 21, would be able to contribute in 2018. He has made two appearances in the class-A Arizona League, recording five outs both times.
Over the weekend, Roberts indicated the team planned to build up Urias’ arm to three or four innings before bringing him back to the majors. He is unlikely to arrive before the rosters expand on Sept. 1.
“But there are real scenarios where he comes up in September and helps us down the stretch. And then is potentially a viable option in October.”
Stripling could be, too. He became an All-Star by sharpening his curveball and attacking hitters with a four-pitch mix. He has the weapons necessary to thrive in a relief role, if necessary. Until then, he will slip in and out of the rotation.
The Dodgers appear set to use Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill as the two front anchors of their playoff rotation, with Walker Buehler and Alex Wood probably lined up behind them. During the regular season, the fifth spot will be split between Stripling, Maeda and Hyun-Jin Ryu, who returns from the disabled list this month.
“It’s one of those things where we’re just trying to win the division first,” Wood said. “And then we’ll figure it out from there.”