An early look at the Dodgers’ possible opening day bullpen

Josh Ravin (Photo: Dustin Nosler)

With Sergio Romo in the fold, the Dodgers’ bullpen is, suddenly, looking a little packed. Even after “losing” Jesse Chavez to Anaheim and J.P. Howell to Toronto and probably choosing not to re-sign Joe Blanton, the Dodgers have a lot of relief options.

The Dodgers will probably carry 12 or 13 pitchers for the majority of the season. Early on, they might be able to get away with four starters, but they’ll probably carry five (especially if they’re all healthy). This also means they’ll carry seven or eight relievers. For argument’s sake, let’s settle on seven.

So, this is going to come down to a numbers game, and those numbers include salary, MLB experience and options. Here are the locks (barring injury) for the Dodgers’ opening day bullpen:

Luis Avilan
Grant Dayton
Kenley Jansen
Sergio Romo

Avilan is out of options, so the Dodgers won’t risk losing him on waivers. Dayton is the second-best reliever in the ‘pen behind Jansen, and Romo is making $3 million (plus incentives), so he has a spot. These are all pretty obvious.

Here are guys with options who might be on the outside looking in:

Pedro Baez
Josh Fields
Adam Liberatore
Vidal Nuno
Josh Ravin

Baez is the most talented reliever behind Jansen, but he’s also an enigma with two options remaining. Still, he’d have to pitch incredibly poorly in spring training to start the 2017 season in Triple-A. Fields has one option year remaining despite being 31 years old,and he could be ticketed for Oklahoma City because of it. Liberatore has two options left and is coming off a strong campaign. He did have elbow surgery in September, but has since said he’s 100 percent. Nuno was acquired for Carlos Ruiz and gives the Dodgers another left-handed option, but he’s clearly the fourth-best southpaw reliever on the 40-man roster at this point. Ravin has one option left and is a sleeper in this year’s bullpen. He has elite velocity, but his command isn’t great and his slider is inconsistent. Oh, and he was suspended for 80 games last season for using performance-enhancing drugs. While that doesn’t have much bearing on his 2017 season, it’s a bit of a black eye on his record.

Here are guys without options or without clearly defined roles:

Chris Hatcher
Brock Stewart
Ross Stripling
Julio Urias
Alex Wood

Hatcher has no options and the Dodgers chose to tender him a contract, so they think he can turn things around. I’m not sure the offseason and spring training are going to be enough to prove one way or another whether he’s back, so it’ll be interesting to see how they handle him. The next four are all capable of starting or relieving. Stewart would be better served starting in OKC than relieving in LA. Stripling could be the 2017 version of Blanton — or, at least what Blanton was supposed to be. Urias is the most talented pitcher not named Clayton Kershaw, but if Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir make it through spring training (as well as the rest of the rotation), he might very well begin the season in OKC. Dave Roberts said Wood will work as a starter in Spring Training, but he has bullpen experience and could find himself there if the five veteran starters open the season healthy (Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda being the other two). And this is a guy who could be a 3-win or better pitcher in the rotation, but none of the other rotation guys translate well to the bullpen.

Finally, here are the non-roster invitees/minor-leaguers who could force their way into the conversation:

Steve Geltz
Brandon Morrow
Trevor Oaks
Jacob Rhame

Yaisel Sierra

Geltz has ability but has not fared well in his 104 1/3 MLB innings (4.23 ERA, 5.36 FIP). Morrow is the guy I’m watching. He has a world of talent, but he’s almost never healthy. If he pitches well in March and doesn’t make the squad, he might be picked up by another team when the Dodgers try to get him to OKC. Rhame might be the best true relief prospect the Dodgers have after Dayton, but his odds of breaking camp with the team are slim. Oaks is an extreme longshot, but he has something none of the other relievers named above have: A high ground-ball rate. Sierra’s stuff ticked up when he moved to the bullpen late in the season. His velocity spiked and his slider was more consistent, but he needs more seasoning in the minors.

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Taking all this into consideration, here’s how the bullpen might shape up. Before we get there, keep in mind it’s Feb. 7 and the season doesn’t start for two months, so a lot can (and will) change by that time.

  • Avilan
  • Baez
  • Dayton
  • Hatcher
  • Jansen
  • Romo
  • Wood

This could, realistically, be the opening day bullpen. I’m (probably foolishly) assuming McCarthy and Kazmir will be healthy to be the No. 4/5 and 5/4 starters behind Kershaw, Hill and Maeda. Wood certainly won’t begin the season in the minors, so he gets bumped to the bullpen. I’m also assuming Hatcher will be good to go on April 3, but he could also be the first one to go (i.e., designated for assignment) if he doesn’t perform well enough. If there is an injury to any of the five starters, Wood moves into the rotation and a guy like Fields, Liberatore or Ravin would be first up to take the bullpen spot.

Aside from Jansen, no one really projects to have a defined role (i.e., no “true” setup man), so expect Roberts to play the matchups from the seventh inning on. Jansen will still be called upon, in most situations, to close out the game, but he could see some 4- or 5-out save opportunities. Dayton and Romo will likely be the primary guys to get outs in the seventh and eighth, depending on matchups and previous usage. Baez and Fields could also see those opportunities, but they project to be more likes sixth- and seventh-inning guys. Hatcher should pitch in lower-leverage situations until he proves he can handle more responsibility, and Wood can either be a long man or a situational guy. He’s quite flexible in that regard.

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This is a good problem to have — too many relievers for not enough spots — and the OKC bullpen is going to be pretty good for most of the season. This is how smart teams use depth, and the fact the Dodgers could have guys like Fields, Liberatore, Ravin, Nuno, Stewart, Stripling and Urias (or extended Spring Training, to save innings) pitching in OKC to open the season is a luxury. All those guys should absolutely be on a 25-man roster to open 2017, but this is a numbers game, and unfortunately for them their numbers don’t add up.

About Dustin Nosler

Dustin Nosler
Dustin Nosler began writing about the Dodgers in July 2009 at his blog, Feelin' Kinda Blue. He co-hosts a weekly podcast with Jared Massey called Dugout Blues. He does contracts and depth charts for FanGraphs and is a contributor/editor at The Hardball Times. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in digital media. While at CSUS, he worked for the student-run newspaper The State Hornet for three years, culminating with a one-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, California, and has yet to be shot.