The Los Angeles Dodgers are going into the 2015 season with a $273M payroll and high hopes for their first World Series appearance since 1988. They have the lineup and the starting rotation to keep hold of the top post in the National League West, but one issue that remains unsettled heading into Monday’s Opening Day is the bullpen.
The bullpen was their biggest issue and ultimately their downfall in the 2014 postseason. Heading into the offseason there was one role that seemed to be cemented in stone, the closer. But then, on the eve of camp, the Dodgers received troublesome news. Their closer, Kenley Jansen, needed foot surgery and he would be lost for three to four months
The Dodgers have spent the past six weeks searching for a bullpen that cannot only open the season, but also lead them to the fall classic. This winter, they acquired Juan Nicasio, Joel Peralta, and Chris Hatcher to help fill the void in the later innings of games. However, no pitcher has separated themselves from the pack this spring leaving a lot of uncertainty for Dodgers manager Don Mattingly on Opening Day.
“We’ll just play it out,” Mattingly said. “You’ll have to stay tuned. It’s a fluid situation.”
If Mattingly wanted a veteran bullpen guy with the experience and mental make-up to handle the high-pressure situations of the later innings, he’s out of luck. Veterans J.P. Howell (8.22 ERA), Nicasio (6.75 ERA), Hatcher (6.48 ERA), and Peralta (4.32 ERA) have struggled this spring.
Dustin McGowan was another veteran the Dodgers brought in for relief, he throws hard like Nicasio, but his 6.75 spring ERA got him bounced off the roster. Veteran starter Chad Gaudin was a reasonable candidate as a non-roster invitee, but a recurrence of nerve discomfort has him shut down for now.
Former Seattle Mariners closer, Brandon League, resurrected his career last season and could have fit nicely into Jansen’s spot, but the former All-Star is out for the next two months as he goes through a rehabilitation program
for shoulder discomfort. League opted for rest and rehab over surgery, which still could be revisited when League returns to the team in June. He will open the season on the 60-day disabled list.
Young guns Yimi Garcia (0.87 ERA), Pedro Baez (5.40 ERA), Adam Liberatore (0.00 ERA), and Paco Rodriguez (0.00 ERA) could be options for Mattingly as well, but spring training is a lot different from the ramped up intensity of a major league game. Baez found that out the hard way when he gave up a grand slam to Albert Pujols on Friday night in the Angels 6-0 victory over the Dodgers in Anaheim.
The Dodgers recently acquired veterans Sergio Santos (4.66 ERA), David Aardsma (2.00 ERA) and David Huff (1.50 ERA) to try and stop the bleeding, but if Santos’ start on Thursday night against the Angels was any indication of things to come, there is still not a setup man or closer in the house.
“I just don’t think it’s that important,” said new Dodgers General Manager Farhan Zaidi of who will be the team’s 8th and 9th inning guys. “That plays itself out over the course of the season.”
Zaidi’s sentiments are no surprise to those familiar with the former Oakland A’s assistant. A product of Billy Beane’s “Money Ball” system that uses advanced analytics to determine roster and bullpen situations, Zaidi, would prove to be more of a proponent of a closer by committee the way the Athletics and last season’s World Series Champions the San Francisco Giants do.
“We want mentality,” Mattingly said about the bullpen situation. “Bullpens are changing for sure. We don’t want ‘Oh it’s only the sixth inning. I get to chill.’ We don’t want that anymore. That’s how failure happens. From the fifth on, be ready to pitch. You’ve got the next inning.”
Without a set closer, the bullpen looks like a mess. Mattingly plans to use a situational approach to start the season and will probably have to use an abundance of left-handers as they have performed best this spring. Normally, a bullpen will have no more than two or three lefty pitchers, but the Dodgers expect to have four with Howell, Rodriguez, Huff and Liberatore.
“I’m OK with seven lefties if they get outs,” joked Mattingly.
The unresolved situation could prove to be the Dodgers Achilles heel again this season, but with 162 games to allow the cream to rise to the top, it could be a blessing to be without defined bullpen roles rather than a curse. Only time will tell.