Dodgers believe they can find answers to bullpen questions
If you are one of those convinced the Dodgers effectively slaughtered their chances of ending their 31-year championship drought when they didn’t acquire a dominant reliever to strengthen their weakness before Wednesday’s trade deadline, Andrew Friedman is here for a history lesson.
“I think narratives are always an interesting thing, and the narrative going into the 2017 playoffs was that the Astros didn’t have a bullpen strong enough to win the World Series,” said Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations. “Going into the 2018 playoffs, the narrative was the Red Sox didn’t have a bullpen strong enough to win a World Series.”
Both those teams, if you need reminding, beat Friedman’s Dodgers in the World Series. They cruised to 100-plus victories and a division title before overcoming their perceived deficiencies utilizing pitchers and methods not feasible during the regular season. In 2017, Houston used starters Brad Peacock, Charlie Morton and Collin McHugh as bullpen reinforcements. In 2018, Boston advanced the model and turned to starters Chris Sale, Nathan Eovaldi, David Price and Rick Porcello as relievers at various points.
“There are obviously a lot of different ways to win a game, and [the] bullpen is probably the most emotional because it happens in the latter part of a game,” Friedman said. “But last year our issues were in the batter’s box. It wasn’t with our bullpen. And we feel like our starting pitching is elite, our position players are elite, and our bullpen has a chance to be well above average. And that’s what we’re going to work towards to put them in position to be able to be helpful in our pursuit to win a championship.”
The Dodgers have bounced starters between the two roles and used other pitchers strictly as relievers for the postseason in recent years. It will happen again — should they not blow their 16-game division lead entering Saturday — this October. But the Dodgers’ blueprint for bullpen construction this postseason contains more layers. Ultimately, the bullpen probably will look very different from its current iteration. Questions abound.
Will prospects Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin land in the bullpen in October? Where does Julio Urias fit? Will Rich Hill return in time? If he does, will he have time to build up as a starter or will he become a reliever in the playoffs? Will Joe Kelly, who boasts a 1.80 ERA in his last 20 appearances, remain reliable and become the force he became for the Red Sox last October after battling inconsistency? Can Kenley Jansen find a pitch mix to reverse his regression?
Walker Buehler posts one of the best games of his Dodgers career, striking out 15 over a complete game in a 4-1 victory over the San Diego Padres.
“We got time,” Friedman said.
The Dodgers’ bullpen hasn’t been bad in relation to the competition. The unit’s 4.11 ERA ranks eighth in the majors. Since June 1, its 3.47 ERA stands in third. Relievers have allowed 55 inherited runners to score, good for 10th.
But they’ve also logged just 352 1/3 innings — the 28th most in baseball — and are tied for sixth in blown saves with 19. At the back end, Jansen isn’t the shutdown closer he was two years ago. He owns a career-worst 3.59 ERA and 1.031 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) as he works on incorporating his slider and two-seam fastball to complement his once-untouchable cutter with greater frequency.
Compare the relief corps with the club’s top-tier offense and starting rotation and the department is their clear flaw, one that went without a splashy addition last week.
“The thing about our club is we know that internally we have what it takes to win a championship, and that’s never been debated,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.
And yet the front office tried acquiring a top-level reliever for the back end of the bullpen. The Dodgers’ unwillingness to trade Gavin Lux, their top prospect, prevented them from meeting teams’ price points and pulling off a trade.
“We got into a little bit of a rut where guys weren’t executing or optimizing their pitch selection for how to attack that hitter,” Friedman said. “But I think it got cleaned up and for the most part, the other guys that we are looking at as strong contenders into October I think are in a good place right now. But that’s something that we have two months to continue to evaluate.”
The evaluation begins with May and Gonsolin, the organization’s top two pitching prospects. They were summoned from Oklahoma City to fill holes in the starting rotation, but they are options to pitch out of the bullpen come October.
May made his major league debut Friday. The lanky 21-year-old right-hander displayed the stuff, topped by a 98-mph sinker, over 5 2/3 innings that has fueled his hasty rise. Gonsolin, 25, has two appearances — a start and a relief outing — on his resume. Last week, he recorded a four-inning save at Coors Field, relying on a lethal fastball and split-change combination. In theory, both would have their stuff play up in short stints.
Friedman said one other minor leaguer, Victor Gonzalez, could pitch his way into the postseason bullpen. A 23-year-old left-hander, Gonzalez has been dominant since recently moving to the bullpen. Featuring a fastball that sits between 94 and 96 mph, the native of Mexico has given up one earned run in 15 2/3 innings as a reliever between double-A Tulsa and triple-A Oklahoma City. He has held left-handed hitters to a .138 batting average and .417 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 91 plate appearances this season.
The Dodgers addressed their need for an effective left-handed reliever Wednesday when they acquired Adam Kolarek from the Tampa Bay Rays. Then there’s Urias. The Dodgers have carefully handled the 22-year-old left-hander, limiting him to outings of multiple innings with ample rest in between two years removed from major shoulder surgery. The unusual program has kept him healthy and effective so far. But he will be unleashed in one form or another — either as a reliever or starter — down the stretch. Last year, he pitched out of the bullpen in the National League Championship Series and World Series. His role could depend on Hill’s status.
Adam Kolarek says he was surprised the Tampa Bay Rays traded him, but the reliever is eager to be a valuable contributor to the Dodgers’ bullpen.
“Right now, we see him in the ’pen,” Roberts said. “But that could change here in a couple weeks.”
Ross Stripling and Kenta Maeda are other options for the rotation should Hill not be ready for a starter’s load. Pedro Baez and Kelly are virtual locks for the postseason bullpen. Yimi Garcia, J.T. Chargois, Dylan Floro and Casey Sadler are options to fill it out.
The Dodgers have more than enough candidates. They’ll spend the next two months figuring out how to deploy them. They’ll find out in October whether they’re good enough.
“We’ll try to put guys in the best position to succeed,” Friedman said. “And then wake up before the playoffs, if we’re fortunate enough to qualify, and put together the best, most dynamic staff we can.”
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