Column: Will Dodgers’ bullpen doom title hopes? ‘We’re going to figure it out’
A drumbeat of unease follows Dodgers relievers wherever they tread. Most games, the noise burbles in the background, obscured by the team’s propulsive offense and smothering starting pitching. On some nights, it sounds like a roar. The relievers understand its meaning. On a team on pace for more than 100 wins, they are the weak link.
“We all, including myself, need to step up to another level,” closer Kenley Jansen said. “Because we can see how elite this team is this year.”
It would be presumptive to crown the Dodgers in June as champions of the National League West for a seventh consecutive season. Yet it is difficult to envision the sort of calamities required to create an actual race with the Arizona Diamondbacks or the Colorado Rockies. The Dodgers understand they belong in October, when their bullpen will undergo the stress tests they failed in the World Series the past two seasons.
Coasting in the division, the Dodgers face a more unbending opponent in the form of a calendar. The front office has less than two months before the July 31 trade deadline to add talent from outside the organization. And the coaching staff has three and a half months to revive the relievers on the roster, the group that had posted a 4.41 earned-run average heading into Friday’s games, which ranked 18th in baseball.
Jansen has been effective, if prone to home runs. The duo of Ross Stripling and Julio Urias offers length. Pedro Baez has rebounded from a shaky April. The rest of the group is worrisome. The signing of Joe Kelly has proved disastrous. Dylan Floro has a 7.45 ERA since April. Left-handers Scott Alexander and Caleb Ferguson have struggled, with Alexander placed on the injured list with a sore forearm this week.
“We’ve got to get Alexander healthy,” manager Dave Roberts said. “We’ve got Ferguson back. And I think that the thing that we’re all talking about is we’ve got to get Joe Kelly back on track.”
The bullpen is unlikely to prevent the Dodgers from reaching the postseason. But it causes enough worry to occupy the thoughts of the front office. Andrew Friedman, the team’s president of baseball operations, outlined a two-pronged approach for the weeks ahead. He was explicit about his interest in finding external upgrades.
“We are viewing this from a very practical standpoint, that the production in our ‘pen has not been good enough,” Friedman said. “And so all of our collective focus is on how to help each guy perform at or above their established watermarks.
“And all the while, be navigating the trade market, and seeing what’s potentially available, either sooner or mid-to-late July. They’re not mutually exclusive. So our focus is on those parallel tracks.”
The relief market usually teems with options. There are always mediocre teams who employ talented relievers. The American League Central overflows with choices this year. If the Cleveland Indians elect to sell, closer Brad Hand could be available. Both Chicago White Sox closer Alex Colome and Detroit Tigers closer Shane Greene could be moved.
Another option resides on the roster of the Dodgers’ main rival. San Francisco Giants closer Will Smith entered the weekend with a 2.03 ERA while striking out 12.8 batters every nine innings. The traditional frostiness between the Dodgers and Giants might be thawed this summer, given Friedman’s relationship with Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, who was the Dodgers’ general manager from 2015 to 2018.
A left-handed pitcher such as Hand or Smith would be ideal, given the inconsistency of Alexander and the regression of Ferguson. But the Dodgers may not need to get hung up on specifics. Any upgrade will do.
“We need a dude,” one Dodgers official lamented last month.
Added one National League talent evaluator: “When you have a bad bullpen, it’s absolutely demoralizing. I have no idea how the Dodgers get away with it.”
The team compensates by excelling in other phases of the game. The Dodgers create leads large enough to breathe easy in the later frames. But they may not have that luxury in October.
More troubling than the group’s collective ERA is its inability to miss bats. The bullpen entered Friday ranked 25th in the majors with 8.69 strikeouts per nine innings. Jansen has done his part, with 37 strikeouts through his first 26 2/3 innings, but the rest of the unit has been more hittable.
Bullpen coach Mark Prior pointed to a conundrum. The bullpen is third in the game in least walks allowed. The relievers fill up the zone with strikes, Prior said. That can become a problem.
“It’s a good thing, but it’s also a bad thing that we’re in the zone maybe too much, too late in counts,” Prior said. “When we’re getting to two strikes, we’re not expanding with our secondary [pitches] like we need to, and we’re living too close to the zone.”
Prior noted a sequence with Floro against Angels star Mike Trout in Monday’s loss at Angel Stadium. Floro pulled ahead in the count, then allowed a 1-2 slider to sweep over the plate. Trout tied the score with a home run; Kelly combusted an inning later to hand the Angels the game.
“We’ve definitely got to get some expansion,” Prior said. “We were really good at it last year. But we just haven’t dialed it in enough on that.”
A shaky bullpen does not foretell doom in the postseason. The Chicago Cubs won a title in 2016 when manager Joe Maddon trusted few relievers besides closer Aroldis Chapman. The Boston Red Sox triumphed in 2018 despite a series of stumbles from closer Craig Kimbrel.
In between, the Houston Astros downed the Dodgers in 2017 despite the hierarchy of their relief corps collapsing in the American League Championship Series. Manager A.J. Hinch lost faith in closer Ken Giles and chose to improvise on a nightly basis. He later viewed the freedom as an asset.
“It turned out to be a strength for us,” Hinch told The Times last year. “Because then I could do whatever I wanted, and there were no ramifications with stress on the pitchers. I literally could do all hands on deck from the very beginning of the series.”
Even without upgrades, the Dodgers might have enough pitching assets available to assemble a reliable bullpen. Kenta Maeda is likely to join the group in October. Both Stripling and Urias could blossom in their roles as multi-inning firemen. Baez could repeat his breakout performance from last autumn.
Until then, the drumbeat will continue. The bullpen looms as the shaky pillar of this Dodgers roster, capable of capsizing the goal which has eluded them since 1988.
“We want this bad,” Jansen said. “We all want this bad, just like [the fans] do, we want this bad too. It’s not fun losing in the World Series back to back years. It’s miserable. We’re pissed off. We want it bad. We’re going to figure it out. We have good potential.”
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