So the Dodgers bullpen has been a dumpster fire for about a month and a half now. That’s incredibly worrying for any team, but especially for Dodgers fans who watched the bullpen serve as one of the primary reasons for the team’s playoff failure in 2014. Understandably then, it’s all people want to talk about now, so it’s worth taking a look at what the Dodgers could have done, what they can do moving forward, and if there’s any hope at all for the unit in 2015.
On SB Nation recently, Grant Brisbee wondered if the Dodgers missed their window to upgrade the bullpen and questioned the strategy employed by the team in the off-season and at the trading deadline. This isn’t about replying to him or anything of the sort, but Grant does bring up the most frequent criticisms of the Dodgers strategy I hear on social media and in the comments, and he goes about framing the critiques in a more intelligent way than others do.
So let’s look at them.
1) Should they have thrown money at the problem in the off-season?
With hindsight, yes, I’d love to have Andrew Miller or David Robertson, and this was a year where both of the top-two free agent options for the bullpen have worked out. But when you look at the guys who follow, you start to understand why teams don’t drop huge money, multi-year deals on relievers. Of the other relievers who signed multi-year deals, Luke Gregerson, Zach Duke, Luke Hochevar, and Sergio Romo all hover around the mid-3 ERA range or worse (which is what the Dodgers bullpen consists of now), and Koji Uehara and Jason Grilli have suffered season-ending injuries. That leaves Pat Neshek, who is performing well but has a mid-3 FIP, and Francisco Rodriguez, who was coming off a 4.5 FIP and likely would’ve been panned for off-the-field reasons anyway.
Regardless, the point is that relief pitching is so volatile that you can always look back at the free agent crop and question how you didn’t see the guy with a 5 ERA last year becoming a setup man … but you can also frequently end up wondering how you didn’t see the sub-2 ERA guy walking six batters an inning all of a sudden. For a majority of multi-year deals for big-time relievers, it just ends poorly, and then you’re either stuck with them for the rest of the contract (hi Brandon League) or you have to continue running them out there in hopes they get right at some point (hi Brian Wilson) or some combination of both.
So if that’s not the answer then how do you construct quality bullpens? Well, this isn’t the most popular view, but the truth is that most of the great bullpens are piecemealed together through one-year upside signings, trading for developing players still under team control, or the farm system (failed starters or touted relievers). The Dodgers tried to do exactly that, and it seemingly worked for an extended period but has supposedly blown up now. In any case, the point is that throwing money at free agent relievers could obviously work, but from what we understand about the history of these contracts, doing that has a much better chance of blowing up in your face and leaving you stuck with roster problems for years to come.
2) Should the Dodgers have parted with prospects at the deadline for bullpen help? And are the Dodgers too clingy with their prospects?
Yes, they should’ve parted with prospects for bullpen help … and they sorta did. Whether they’re too clingy with their prospects? Debatable.
The Dodgers did in fact deal for bullpen help, it just hasn’t worked out thus far. Luis Avilan, a career 2.76 ERA and 3.44 FIP pitcher, has basically met expectations as a solid middle reliever who induces a remarkable amount of weak contact. However, Jim Johnson, the supposedly superior reliever and clear upgrade, has been an unmitigated disaster (29.45 ERA/10.19 FIP). Say what you want about “knowing” this would happen with Johnson, but there was almost nothing to indicate things would go this way. Johnson in 2015 with the Braves (2.25 ERA/3.20 FIP) had essentially replicated his 2011-13 numbers (2.70 ERA/3.30 FIP) during which he was one of the most successful closers in baseball, as his strikeout rate, walk rate, and velocity all bounced back. There was always some risk because Johnson is dependent on ground-ball contact, but anybody saying they knew his walk rate would triple, 66.7% of his fly balls would go for homers, and he’d be stuck with a .692 BABIP as a Dodger should be picking out lottery numbers instead of watching baseball.
As far as prospect clinging goes, oddly enough, Johnson imploding is sort of the whole point about why trading unproven prospects for proven veterans is far from a sure thing, especially in the realm of relievers. I’ve written before about non-top prospects being overrated, and I agree that prospect hugging is too common among segments of fans and certain sabr types, but the assumption held by the majority that veterans are guarantees and prospects all bust is also anything but true.
Then there’s the argument that prospects and free agency value don’t have meaning to the Dodgers because they’re so rich and can always buy players if they don’t have prospects to develop. But in today’s market, that seems like an especially odd take. It assumes both that superstars in their primes are hitting the open market and that the payroll of the team is actually literally unlimited. The problem is that in today’s cash flush environment, stars aren’t reaching the open market, and thus the best way to acquire superstars is to develop your very own Mike Trout or Carlos Correa and then back up the Brink’s truck for them while the player is still financially insecure so they don’t leave until they’re already approaching the downswing of their careers. The view of prospects as relatively disposal seems especially odd given that teams are currently being carried by guys like Trout and Correa, or that the Giants themselves now have a great offense built on the strength of the best infield in baseball, all of whom are homegrown. It’s not about being cost efficient, it’s about finding the best players, and a lot of those elite players nowadays are increasingly hard to simply buy.
In terms of the payroll, if the payroll was literally unlimited and thus risk was a completely meaningless factor, they would’ve thrown all the money at Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, AND James Shields … because why not? Of course, that type of payroll doesn’t exist in reality, so I’m not sure why a team that already has like $100 million in dead money on their payroll would not care about having some level of efficiency. The payroll is $300 million, yes, but how much of it is useful at this point when so much is being spent on carryovers from the new ownership trying to pave over Ned Colletti‘s past mistakes with money? Should the Dodgers really be out begging for more potential dead weight they have to roster, causing everybody to wonder why a $300 million team isn’t the best in the game in future years as well? Pass. Then again, I suppose they could’ve gone out and made it rain on Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, which would have guaranteed a World Series or something.
Going back to the bullpen, my feeling is that if the Dodgers could’ve got Aroldis Chapman or Craig Kimbrel without trading any of their prospects in the top 100 or so, then alright, I’m all for that. But if not, I don’t see the point in dealing for the Joakim Soria types of the world — especially since they just got Johnson and Avilan for depth in that solid-average reliever area — given that there’s good odds the Dodgers had better waiting in their minors and we’re still likely talking about just 20-30 innings.
3) Can the Dodgers make moves to improve the bullpen this year?
I wouldn’t bank on it.
Even if a team like the White Sox felt it necessary to shed Robertson and his contract, there’s every indication that at least the Giants would be interested, if not to block the Dodgers than for their own bullpen with their closer struggling mightily at the moment. Unfortunately, the Dodgers are not the worst team in baseball as many people inform me they are, so they aren’t that far up the waiver claim tree.
While I would love it if they could acquire an elite reliever in a waiver deal, if not, I don’t see much reason to get middling relievers now any more than I would’ve two weeks ago.
4) Can this bullpen turn it around this year?
I wouldn’t say that they have instilled a ton of confidence in me recently, but this bullpen sure as hell does seem to be a better bullpen than they have shown recently.
The Dodgers were a top-five bullpen for the first two months of the season by any metric, and even in June they were still an above-average unit despite the some signs of struggle showing up. Obviously July and August have been disasters thus far, but the hope will be that a ~.370 BABIP against is unsustainable and that the August rebound in strikeout rate and walk rate will help power the bullpen to better and better outings going forward. The unit was elite for a longer time than they’ve been a dumpster fire, and any sign of a rebound has to give one hope that they can get it figured out for the stretch run and the playoffs.
A common refrain I’ve heard is that this bullpen is no better than 2014’s, which sorta blows my mind. Kenley is always Kenley, but worse versions of Howell, Baez, and Frias, combined with Wilson, League, Jamey Wright, and Scott Elbert never inspired confidence at any point last season like this unit did for three months, and the raw stuff isn’t close, so I don’t understand that view. Besides, with Joel Peralta and whatever other cast-offs banished from the pen, the core of the bullpen now has talented arms stockpiled. At this point, it’s just a matter of whether they’re gonna execute the game plans or not.
You almost brace yourself before you say it given all the hang-wringing about the recent implosions, but that looks … pretty good? Not only numbers-wise but talent-wise they have the stuff to back up their April-June performances if they can execute better and have a better run of luck going forward.
In any case, the Dodgers need to hope the metrics tell the actual story more than the raw results do, because that may be the only hope the team has for the rest of 2015.