Column: One blowout win can’t mask Dodgers’ very real issues with their bullpen and defense

Dodgers reliever Garrett Cleavinger reacts after giving up a home run to Milwaukee's Travis Shaw.
Dodgers reliever Garrett Cleavinger reacts after giving up a home run to Milwaukee’s Travis Shaw during the third inning of a 6-5 loss in 11 innings to the Brewers on Saturday.
(Morry Gash / Associated Press)

The 1927 New York Yankees never lost 10 times in a 13-game stretch. Neither did the 1975 Cincinnati Reds.

Any talk of these Dodgers being the best team ever can be put on hold until next year or sometime after that.

Never mind their 16-4 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday, which was only their fourth win in 14 games. The Dodgers have major league problems.


And if they don’t solve them in the coming months, there won’t be a second consecutive World Series championship.

There won’t be a parade.

AJ Pollock drove in eight runs and Matt Beaty drove in seven as the Dodgers smothered the Milwaukee Brewers, 16-4, to salvage the finale of the series.

May 2, 2021

Abusing a pitcher making his major league debut, the way they did Brewers starter Alec Bettinger in their series finale at American Family Field, didn’t change any of that.

Their bullpen is still unreliable, their bench is short on weapons, their defense is shaky and their offense is reverting to the feast-or-famine approach it displayed before they acquired Mookie Betts.

The offense will come around when Betts and Corey Seager resume hitting. But the other areas? Those could require outside help.

Long term, the most obvious problem is in the bullpen.

Kenley Jansen remains the team’s closer but is basically doing the job on a part-time basis. Significantly more effective with a lightened workload, Jansen hasn’t pitched on consecutive days since he imploded in Oakland in the first week of the season.

Jansen’s limited availability handcuffs manager Dave Roberts now but will do so even more in October.


Reclamation project Corey Knebel was the team’s best reliever until he was injured again, this time with a right lat strain that has him on the 60-day injured list. David Price’s return to the bullpen has produced mixed results and landed the former Cy Young Award winner on the 10-day IL. Fireballer Brusdar Graterol and long man Tony Gonsolin are also sidelined.

The Dodgers camouflaged their bullpen shortcomings last year by deploying Julio Urías as both a starter and reliever in the postseason. That might not be an option this year, as Urías is shouldering considerably more responsibility in the regular season. He’s on track to make 30-plus starts.

The starter who looks most capable of contributing as a reliever, Dustin May, was taken out of a game Saturday with what looked like a serious arm injury.

Highlights from the Dodgers’ 16-4 win over the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday.

If the issues in the bullpen were predictable, the weakness of the bench is something of a surprise, considering president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman’s ability to find value on the margins of rosters. Zach McKinstry looked like a real player before he went down with a side muscle injury and Matt Beaty has been productive through his first 30-some plate appearances, but the bench is otherwise populated with automatic outs.

The return of a sidelined Cody Bellinger is unlikely to benefit the team’s pinch-hitting corps, as it will move Chris Taylor from the outfield to second base and .190-hitting Gavin Lux from second base to the bench, if not the team’s alternate site where reserves are working out.

The Dodgers have also been one of the worst defensive teams in baseball, as they rank near the bottom in several metrics. Seager has looked particularly limited at shortstop. He has never been a Gold Glove contender, but the Dodgers had made him an adequate defender in previous seasons by positioning him where opposing hitters are likely to bat the ball.

Asked whether Seager’s range has diminished or the Dodgers aren’t stationing him in the right places, Roberts replied: “I know that the numbers, as far as runs saved and whatever, are down. I don’t think that it’s a small sample size. I know Corey expects to be better. He will be. I don’t think it’s positioning. I don’t think it’s focus on getting jumps on the baseball. I think he’s a plus-defender at shortstop. He’s shown it.

“I think there’s some things that have happened, dropping the ball, these are just kind of outliers that have happened in this perfect storm the last couple of weeks.”

Ironically, the team’s greatest weakness during its recent slump is the most fixable.

“Our offense has struggled for sure,” outfielder AJ Pollock said.

Starting pitcher Dustin May left in the second inning with an arm injury, and the Dodgers lost 6-5 to the host Milwaukee Brewers in 11 innings Saturday.

May 1, 2021

The team’s 3-10 downturn coincided with slumps by its two best hitters: Betts batted .234 over that period and Seager .192.

Betts missed close to a week last month with a back injury. He has batted .217 since then, though he smacked a home run Saturday and was robbed of a couple of hits by Brewers third baseman Pablo Reyes on Sunday.

Asked after the game Saturday whether his back problems affected his swing, Betts replied, “Today was probably the best day so far.”

That wasn’t a no.

So long as Betts recovers physically and Seager rediscovers his offensive rhythm, the Dodgers will score runs again, even if they aren’t facing a rookie who hadn’t pitched in an official game in two years. That, combined with the best rotation in the majors, should be enough for them to win another division title.

Except success here is defined by a World Series championship, and realizing this larger ambition will require them to focus on the small details — their relief pitching, their pinch-hitting, their defense. They have five months to figure them out.