Dodgers need to focus on premium relievers at trade deadline

Felipe Vazquez (Via)

We’ve long known bullpens are the most volatile part of a baseball team. It’s hard to have a top bullpen every year. Even teams that throw tons of money at relievers sometimes have that blow up in their collective face.

That brings us to the Dodgers, a team that has — somehow — simultaneously had a good and bad bullpen over the last handful of years. Seriously. From 2013-18, the Dodgers relievers have a 3.60 ERA, 3.61 FIP, 16.6 K-BB% and a 24.2 fWAR. The FIP is the lowest among MLB bullpens in that time, while the K-BB% is second-best. Yet, all anyone seems to remember are the meltdowns in October. And it’s hard not to.

This season, the bullpen woes have been well-documented. The ‘pen isn’t striking out as many hitters as it normally does and is in the middle when it comes to FIP. Yet, the Dodgers own baseball’s best record and are on a 109-win pace — better than their 2017 mark of 104 wins. This tweet from Bill Plunkett after last night’s loss really jumps out at you.

Win-loss record isn’t exactly the greatest way to determine the worth and value of any pitcher (starter or reliever), but two-thirds of their losses in this stretch have been pinned on the struggling bullpen.

In years past, the Dodgers have tried to find the under-the-radar acquisition to fix the bullpen instead of going after the known commodity.

Luis Avilan was the lone bullpen arm acquired for the bullpen in 2015. He was solid as a Dodger, but he didn’t instill a lot of confidence in high-leverage situations.

In 2016, they tried to fill the bullpen voids with guys like Jesse Chavez, Josh Fields and Bud Norris (bet you forgot about this one). None of them were ever considered difference-makers.

In 2017, they went out and got Tony Cingrani, who ended up being great before struggling the last couple seasons with a bum shoulder. Tony Watson was also acquired and he was also good. But the Dodgers had Kenley Jansen and an elite-level Brandon Morrow in the ’17 bullpen, so they weren’t as desperate to add big-time relief arms — especially after landing the best starting pitcher available at the trade deadline in Yu Darvish. This was the closest they came to adding impact relievers in the Andrew Friedman era.

In 2018, they got Dylan Floro, John Axford and Ryan Madson. One has been solid (Floro) but isn’t a difference-maker, one threw 3 2/3 innings before suffering a season-ending injury (Axford) and one struggled mightily in the World Series (Madson). They added these three to a bullpen that saw an improved Pedro Baez, a struggling Jansen, a surprising Caleb Ferguson and a couple smoke-and-mirrors guys in Scott Alexander and Josh Fields. Instead of going after a guy like Ryan Pressly (who has turned into one of the game’s best relievers since the Astros acquired him last July), they opted for the “overthinking it” options. Still, I’m not sure Pressly is the difference between the Dodgers winning four games in the World Series rather than the one they actually did.

This also doesn’t account for starting pitchers like Kenta Maeda and Ross Stripling shifting to the bullpen for the postseason, but Maeda’s impact hasn’t been felt as much as the Dodgers were hoping and Stripling has always seemed like a better option in the starting rotation.

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All this is leading up to this year’s trade deadline. While there are some intriguing internal options (Tony Gonsolin, Maeda, Dustin May, Dennis Santana), this isn’t the time for intrigue. This is the time to use the ample resources the Dodgers have to secure as much of a sure thing as a reliever can be. I mean, short of Max Scherzer truly becoming available (which seems extremely unlikely), the Dodgers should focus their efforts on landing two upper-echelon relievers next month.

We’ll be doing a trade deadline series here soon, and some of the guys I’m eyeing are the likes of Brad Hand, Will Smith and Felipe Vazquez. The Dodgers have had interest in Hand and Vazquez in the past, so it makes sense they’d be in on one or both of those elite lefties. Smith might be the most attainable of the trio because he’s a free agent after the season and Giants’ President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi is probably more willing to deal with a team whose farm system he knows quite well. That’s not to say he’ll be able to fleece the Dodgers for anything, but a trade between the Dodgers and Giants seems more likely now than it has in recent memory.

There promises to be a lot of premium relievers available before July 31, though. Other names could include Alex Colome, Sean Doolittle and Ken Giles (health permitting). There will also be some in the next tier down — Jake Diekman, Sam Dyson, Shane Greene, Watson — but I’m not sure they’d be worth the acquisition cost compared to who the Dodgers could plug in internally.

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Remember, there is no waiver trade deadline this year, so external additions to the team will have to be done in the next 37 days. If they don’t, and they try to outsmart everyone or fix things with internal options, then the front office isn’t doing everything it can to give this team the best chance to win a World Series. There’s no guarantee adding premium relievers will lead to a championship, but the front office hasn’t ever tried it that way.

In some ways, this team feels more complete and better-equipped for October than the ’17 squad. If it just fixes the bullpen with premium talent, then the end of the season could be a lot more enjoyable than it has the last two years.

Seriously though, if you’re willing to invest three years and $25 million in Joe Kelly, you better be willing to invest prospect capital in real premium relievers.

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 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 1-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, Calif.