In 2014, the bullpen was an unholy mess that cost the Dodgers big in the playoffs, and so major changes were made. Of the seven relievers who had thrown at least 40 innings that year, five — Brian Wilson, Chris Perez, Jamey Wright, Paul Maholm, and Brandon League — not only didn’t return to the Dodgers in 2015, none of them threw a single big-league pitch for anyone. (That goes for Scott Elbert, who barely pitched in the regular season before allowing a big postseason home run, as well.)
In 2015, the bullpen actually got off to a fantastic start, but ultimately ended up being a disappointment. Though they struck out more (26.1% to 22.3%) and walked fewer (7.6% to 9.9%) than they had in 2014, an inflated home run per nine rate (.98 up from .70) and a higher BABIP (.317 from .293) led to pretty similar run prevention (3.91 up from 3.80).
So you might think to yourselves, well, we’re going to see huge changes again. Except, I’m not so sure it’s the same. The 2014 bullpen was easy to turn over because there were so many veterans on short-term deals. The 2015 bullpen, now that J.P. Howell has surprisingly accepted his player option, is largely all under control in 2016.
Think about how easily you could make a seven-man 2016 bullpen right now, with who is available:
CL — Kenley Jansen
LH — Howell
LH — Luis Avilan
RH — Juan Nicasio
RH — Chris Hatcher
RH — Yimi Garcia
RH — Pedro Baez
That doesn’t include additional depth options like Adam Liberatore or Ian Thomas or Carlos Frias, or minor league options we haven’t seen yet. (Or the somewhat surprising decision to decline Joel Peralta‘s option.)
Now, I’m not suggesting the Dodgers simply will return with an identical bullpen and say, “good enough.” Of course not. They’ll splurge on a Darren O’Day (though know it’ll take four years) or make a shocking trade for Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman, or buy low on the disgraced-but-talented Jenrry Mejia or, more likely, come up with someone we’d never expect. They’ll do something, there’s no doubt about that.
But I will say, you don’t have to squint too hard to see this same group being a lot better next year. When Hatcher was healthy and not only throwing fastballs, he was the fantastic reliever we’d expected he’d be. (1.31 ERA and 26/6 K/BB in 20.2 IP after coming off the DL in August, plus four scoreless postseason appearances.) Baez’ first full season is unfortunately remembered more for the Game 1 hit by David Wright than it is the 60/11 (!) K/BB in 50.1 innings. Garcia ran into some homer problems, but his 68/10 (!!) K/BB was even better than Baez.
There will be some amount of change, of course. There has to be. There’s room to improve. Avilan isn’t irreplaceable, though he’s elite at limited batted ball velocity. The young guys with options could be used as depth rather than Opening Day locks. This isn’t the same situation as in 2014, however. This isn’t a random collection of busted old ex-closers. This is a group with some youth and more talent than they’ve sometimes shown. It’s one that needs reinforcements, not explosions.