The Los Angeles Dodgers have the best record in baseball. Halfway through the season they are the MLB version of Superman, and relief pitching is their kryptonite.
In a perfect world, Dodgers President of Baseball Operations, Andrew Friedman, would wave his magic wand and quickly accumulate a bevy of elite bullpen arms that rivals that of the Astros, Yankees, and Athletics. But unfortunately, constructing a bullpen is a lot like investing in Bitcoin: it's extremely volatile.
"Every year, going into the year, the bullpen performance is what keeps me up at night," Friedman admitted before the 2019 season began. "And it's funny because the years that I've had the most confidence is probably the years where we've struggled the most, and the years where I've been the most afraid are the years where we've been the best."
To Friedman's point, building a bullpen is an arduous task. Much like the MLB playoffs themselves, the construction of a bullpen is a crapshoot for a multitude of reasons.
Firstly, the data and research on relief pitching is still in its infancy. Baseball analytics has a plethora of data on starting pitching and position players, but when it comes to relief pitching, it's hard to decipher.
Sure, the statistics and numbers are there, but the impact of throwing ten pitches one day, thirty the next day, and then the outcome if said pitcher were to throw a third day is difficult to predict. How often or how little a reliever is used in consecutive days, and how that effects their pitching performance is still a surprise to front offices across the league.
Outside of elite closers, relief pitchers are usually failed starting pitchers. Of the hundreds of relief pitchers in baseball, most started out as starting pitchers in high school, college, and in the minor leagues. At some point, they were converted into relievers and their dreams of becoming a dominant starting pitcher were dashed.
Unlike a starting pitcher who has ample time to warm up before a start, going through his routine like horses on a carousel, a relief pitcher typically has just minutes to get ready to enter a game. This adds another incidental finding when trying to determine through data how reliable a relief pitcher will be.
When it comes to the Dodgers, Friedman and the front office have struck gold on some surprising former starters liker Joe Blanton and Brandon Morrow, but have gone down in flames when signing free agent relievers with a proven track record like Sergio Romo and Joe Kelly.
"We're comfortable being aggressive," Friedman said of his strategy when it comes to acquiring relievers for the bullpen. "We're not comfortable being stupid."
Kelly was unstoppable against the Dodgers in the Fall Classic last season; throwing six shutout innings while appearing in every single game of the series. Overall, Kelly was terrific in the 2018 postseason, allowing just one earned run in 11 and 1/3 innings of relief.
That dominant stretch was all the Dodgers needed to see this offseason when they signed Kelly to a three-year, $25 million contract. The 31-year-old Los Angeles native was the first free agent the front office signed last winter, and bolstering the bullpen was the top priority on Friedman's checklist.
Unfortunately for the Dodgers, Kelly has struggled in his first year with the Dodgers. At the end of May, he posted an 8.45 ERA. By the end of June, he had lowered it to 6.31, but mostly in mop-up duty.
"He's just going through a rough time right now," said closer Kenley Jansen who also hasn't looked like himself this season either. "People can doubt him and say all the stuff they can say, but we believe in him. I believe him. I'm sure Doc and Andrew and everybody believes in him. He's a champion. A true champion. What he did last year against us -- he's a true champion. It's a long season, man. All we need him to do is figure it out at the right time. And that right time is closer to the end of the season."
However, Kelly is not the only reliever struggling this season.
Dylan Floro has a 4.45 ERA and has allowed seven runs in his last three appearances.
Yimi Garcia had a 5.09 ERA entering June, and Scott Alexander was just below 4.00 before he went on the disabled list last month.
Even Jansen, a three-time All-Star, hasn't looked like himself. After blowing two saves against the Red Sox in the World Series last season, Jansen already has three blown saves in 26 chances this season.
Yes, the Dodgers are a juggernaut. That much is certain. Their offense is among the top three in the league. They have an MVP candidate in Cody Bellinger, and their starting rotation is the second best in all of baseball. They have three different All-Stars in their rotation who each could be the ace of any other team in the league.
Their defense is the best in the game, recording the most defensive runs saved in the entire league, but despite all those stats, their bullpen has been inconsistent and unreliable.
The Dodgers bullpen currently ranks ninth in the league. That's not bad, but it's been on the rise the last few weeks. Two weeks earlier it was 14th, and after May it was among the worst in the league.
The Dodgers have the fewest losses in the league at 29. However, 19 of those losses are the responsibility of relievers.
The Dodgers are not alone in their bullpen woes. Many other World Series contenders have bullpen issues as well. The Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins, and Chicago Cubs all are below Los Angeles in bullpen ERA.
The Cubs addressed their bullpen struggles by signing the best free agent reliever available in former closer Craig Kimbrel. The Dodgers were one of a handful of teams who were also vying for Kimbrel's services, which begs the question:
What are the Dodgers going to do to at the trade deadline to bolster their bullpen?
If you've read this far, then this is the part you've been waiting for.
Sources have told NBC LA, that they expect the Dodgers to acquire at least one reliever, if not two. As they do every year at the trade deadline, their list is long, thorough, and contains multiple options/plans.
According to sources, the Dodgers have reached out to opposing teams and had introductory calls regarding all the following players. However, I caution with this: these are just some of the players we've heard about. The actual list of names and teams they've contacted is likely much longer than what we've been told.
Scott Barlow and Jake Diekman – Kansas City Royals
Barlow is a 25-year-old right-hander who spent six seasons in the Dodgers farm system before he was signed by the Royals in 2017. Barlow has struggled this season, posting a 6.19 ERA in 30 games with Kansas City.
Diekman is left-hander who the Dodgers targeted last season when he was with the Texas Rangers. The 32-year-old was ultimately traded to the Diamondbacks at the deadline and signed a one-year deal with the Royals in the offseason. Diekman is 0-5 with a 4.89 ERA this season, but the Dodgers are hoping a pennant race can help reinvigorate him to his previous level.
Felipe Vazquez and Keone Kela – Pittsburgh Pirates
Since Vazquez was traded to the Pirates at the deadline in 2016, he has been of the best relievers in the game. The Dodgers have long coveted Vazquez, and his acquisition would immediately give them the best one-two punch in the backend of the bullpen.
However, Vazquez is under a team-friendly contract until the 2023 season, and would easily be the top reliever available should the Pirates decide to trade him. Presumably, in order to trade for Vazquez it would cost the Dodgers No. 1 prospect Kerbert Ruiz, and more. With the Pirates sitting at .500 and just three games out of first place in a vaunted NL Central, it's doubtful they'd be willing to part with their All-Star closer.
Similarly to when the Dodgers acquired left-hander Tony Watson at the deadline from the Pirates in 2017, if the front office can't pry Vazquez from the Bucs, Kela could be a more agreeable Plan B.
The Dodgers were interested in Kela at the trade deadline last season before the Pirates swept in and stole him from the Rangers. After a stellar season in 2018, Kela has struggled in 2019, posting a 4.63 ERA in just 14 games.
Kela has been on the injured list with shoulder discomfort since May 8, but is expected back after the All-Star break. His shoulder injury could mean one of two things for the Dodgers: it could dissuade them from trading for him, or it could allow them to buy him at a discounted price.
Ken Giles and Sam Gavigallo – Toronto Blue Jays
The Dodgers know Giles well after facing him in the 2017 World Series when he was the closer for the Houston Astros. For whatever reason, Giles struggled in Houston, but has been sensational so far in Canada.
After back-to-back years in Houston hovering around a 5.00 ERA, Giles has an astonishing 1.24 ERA in 29 games with the Blue Jays. Los Angeles traded with Toronto last season for reliever John Axford, and with the Blue Jays in the midst of a rebuild, he could be the most rumored reliever at the trade deadline.
Sam Gaviglio is a right-handed reliever out of Oregon State. He's young and under team control. He hasn't been great with Toronto this year, sporting a 4-1 record with a 4.42 ERA, but he has a high ceiling, and could be a nice complimentary piece if the Dodgers are able to acquire him with Giles.
Brad Hand – Cleveland Indians
Like Vazquez, Hand is another elite reliever the Dodgers have been coveting for years. After two unsuccessful attempts to acquire him from the Padres, Hand was traded to the Indians at the deadline last season for top prospect Francisco Mejia.
The Indians and Dodgers discussed a multitude of trade scenarios in the offseason, so both teams are familiar with each other's players and prospects. However, Cleveland is currently within striking distance of the Minnesota Twins for the top spot in the AL Central, and are presently the second wild card team. It's possible they decide to become sellers at the deadline, but with Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, and possibly Carlos Carrasco all returning at some point in the second half, it's more than likely they become buyers.
Seth Lugo – New York Mets
Lugo is another reliever the Dodgers were interested in at the trade deadline last season. The hard-throwing right-hander is under team control until 2023, and recently returned from injury. He's currently 4-2 with a 3.51 ERA in 31 games, and has been a solid reliever over the span of his four-year career.
Let's face it; the Mets are a mess, and currently the second-worst team in the National League. If new general manager Brodie Van Wagenen decides to blow the whole thing up, Lugo could definitely be a deadline deal for the Dodgers or another team in need of bullpen help.
Nick Anderson – Miami Marlins
Many of you might be asking: who exactly is Nick Anderson? But, if you haven't heard the name yet, you soon will. Anderson is easily one of the better relievers in the game, and the fact that he's flying under the radar, only bodes well for his value.
Anderson has one of the lowest FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) in the league, and one of the highest strikeout rates in all of MLB. It's no surprise the Dodgers are interested in Anderson. They had multiple talks with the Marlins for their relievers last season, and this season Anderson is easily among the Fish's best.
The hard-throwing right-hander has a fastball clocked at 96MPH, but his best pitch is his slider. Anderson's 4.33 ERA this season is deceiving. He had two bad outings in May, allowing five runs on May 4 and three runs on May 17. Outside of those two blips, he's been lights out.
Hansel Robles – Anaheim Angels
Despite the Angels struggles this season their bullpen has been a bright spot, and Robles is the team's biggest bulb. Robles has recorded a 2.95 ERA to go with three wins and no losses. The veteran reliever spent the first 10 years of his career with the New York Mets, but has finally come into his own with the Halos.
The Dodgers were interested in a couple of Angels' relievers at the trade deadline last season, and they likely will be again with Robles topping the list.
Will Smith – San Francisco Giants
The rival Giants and Dodgers have only completed three trades since both clubs moved west in 1958. It's been over a dozen years since the last trade with the Giants, so perhaps it's time to keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
Former Dodgers' general manager Farhan Zaidi is now the President of Baseball Operations for San Francisco, so his familiarity with the Dodgers front office and organization could bode well for both clubs at the deadline.
Smith is at the top of the Dodgers' wish list as the left-hander was just selected to his first All-Star appearance. The Giants' closer has a 2.16 ERA and has converted all 21 of his save opportunities this season.
Zaidi knows the Dodgers farm system well and will certainly have a handful of prospects in mind should the teams delve deeper into trade talks. Regardless, the nest few weeks are sure to be sizzling as the rumors heat up.