The Dodgers finally ripped off the Band-Aid, but they still have to treat the festering wound underneath.
After a season of ups and (mostly) downs, former superstar closer Craig Kimbrel was removed from the role on Friday, with manager Dave Roberts announcing a move that had felt inevitable with the veteran right-hander sporting a 4.07 ERA and only 22 saves in 27 opportunities.
Who replaces Kimbrel has suddenly become among the biggest questions facing the Dodgers, with ninth-inning uncertainty vaulting to the top of their postseason checklist.
For now, Roberts said it will be a closer-by-committee situation. Each night, save opportunities will be dictated by matchups and game flow.
For a team that still ranks second in the majors in reliever ERA — even after Kimbrel’s prolonged shortcomings — it will present a myriad of intriguing options to evaluate as October nears.
“I think for us, it’s treating him like we treat all of our guys as far as putting them in the best position to get outs,” Roberts said of Kimbrel and the bullpen at large. “That’s kind of how I’m going to approach every inning.”
After Craig Kimbrel is told he no longer will be the Dodgers closer, Albert Pujols hit homers Nos. 699 and 700 to lead Cardinals in a romp.
Here’s a look at all of the Dodgers’ ninth-inning options (in no particular order).
2022 season: 1.24 ERA, 0.74 WHIP, two saves
Career saves: Three
The most obvious candidate to succeed Kimbrel at closer might seem like Phillips, the journeyman right-hander who has flourished in his first full season with the Dodgers.
However, saving the 28-year-old for ninth innings could come at a cost earlier in games.
In the absence of other key leverage relievers this year, Phillips has emerged as the Dodgers’ top set-up man. Whenever the heart of an opposing order comes to the plate late in a game, Phillips is summoned. Whenever another pitcher gets into a potentially disastrous latter-inning jam, Phillips is summoned.
A few times this year, Phillips has been called upon for save opportunities in the ninth, having occasionally taken over on nights Kimbrel was unavailable for rest reasons.
However, his value in the set-up/fireman role has been — and in the playoffs, almost certainly will continue to be — incalculable.
So, while Roberts said Friday he wouldn’t shy away from ninth innings, and while there likely will be nights when saving Phillips for the final three outs might make the most sense, it’s hard to imagine the Dodgers bypassing him if important junctures arise earlier in games.
2022 season: 2.96 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, three saves
Career saves: Three (plus one in the postseason)
If anyone in the Dodgers bullpen has the kind of raw stuff often associated with ninth-inning dominance, it’s Graterol.
Wielding a triple-digit fastball and steadily improving cutter, the 24-year-old right-hander has been envisioned as a potential future closer ever since the Dodgers acquired him from the Minnesota Twins ahead of the 2020 season.
After bouts of inconsistency, Graterol seemed to finally be hitting a stride before missing almost a month because of an elbow injury, which he finally returned from earlier this week.
While Graterol still doesn’t strike out as many batters as his electric arsenal would suggest (his career-high strikeout rate of 22.4% this year is below the league average), he had started finding other forms of success before his injury.
In 19 appearances between June 8 and Aug. 28, he had a 0.89 ERA, .171 batting average against and 18 strikeouts to no walks.
He also has a promising October track record, with a 2.04 career postseason ERA in 18 outings — including a save to clinch the Dodgers’ wild-card round series against the Milwaukee Brewers in 2020.
2022 season: 2.26 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, one save
Career saves: Two
On nights when a string of left-handed hitters are due up in the ninth, Vesia could present the most enticing option for the Dodgers.
Acquired from the Miami Marlins before the start of last season, Vesia has emerged as the Dodgers’ top southpaw, using a deceptive fastball-slider combination to post the best strikeout rate in the Dodgers bullpen.
Like Phillips, there are times he might be more valuable earlier in games, when a left-on-left matchup would make the most sense.
Yet the fiery 26-year-old certainly has the type of high-energy demeanor that could translate to ninth-inning success.
2022 season: 4.70 ERA, 0.78 WHIP, 0 saves (in eight games)
Career saves: Four
Having missed most of the season because of residual effects from Tommy John surgery, Kahnle finally returned to the Dodgers’ active roster earlier this week — this time, he and the team are hoping for good.
An eight-year veteran who was part of ALCS runs with the New York Yankees in 2017 and 2019 — including getting a two-inning save in the 2017 postseason — Kahnle has the type of experience few others in the Dodgers’ bullpen can match.
Another benefit: He has the weapons to throw to hitters on either side of the plate, thanks to a wicked changeup that this year — albeit in a small sample size — has netted a near 40% whiff rate and just a .056 batting average against.
2022 season: 1.80 ERA, 0.40 WHIP, 0 saves (in five games)
Career saves: 79
A former All-Star closer with the Oakland A’s, Treinen would maybe be the most natural fit to take over in ninth innings for the Dodgers — if only he was healthy.
The right-hander has missed most of the season because of an ailing shoulder that has continued to give him problems. After briefly returning from a partially torn shoulder capsule earlier this month, Treinen was sidelined again by lingering tightness. He already missed one targeted return date this week, and remains no guarantee to be ready for the start of the playoffs.
The Dodgers haven’t abandoned hope he will return — and immediately rediscover the type of dominance that made him perhaps their best reliever in 2021 — but given his season so far, it will be something the team has to first see in order to truly believe.
Outside of those five arms, there are a few other names for the Dodgers to consider.
Right-hander Chris Martin has been summoned for a couple of saves in the last month, and has excelled with the Dodgers in general since being acquired from the Chicago Cubs ahead of the trade deadline — he has a 1.71 ERA in 21 games in Los Angeles. He also has ample playoff experience from his time with the Atlanta Braves the last three seasons.
Left-hander Caleb Ferguson has performed well in his return from Tommy John surgery this year with a 1.97 ERA in 33 games, though he hasn’t flashed the same level of dominance he did before the surgery.
Right-hander Yency Almonte was having a surprise season — 1.15 ERA in 28 games — before going down with an elbow injury in early August. He is currently on a rehab assignment and nearing a return, though it remains to be seen how quickly he will resume pitching in high-leverage roles when he comes back.
Starting pitchers Andrew Heaney and Dustin May could present some outside-the-box alternatives given the Dodgers’ starting rotation surplus and their high strikeout rates this year. However, it’s far likelier they will be asked to pitch bulk innings, either at the beginning of games or in the middle innings out of the bullpen.
Lastly, Kimbrel is still on the team, and Roberts was careful not to outright eliminate the possibility of him getting an opportunity to reclaim his spot in the ninth inning.
Yet, after so much turbulence this season, it appears unlikely that, even with a flawless finish to the regular season, Kimbrel will be able to regain enough stock to be entrusted with save opportunities in the postseason.
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