“It’s not that far off,” said Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly last night after his latest rough outing. “It probably looks worse than what it really is.”
Kelly was referring to his own situation when he chatted with reporters (including Pedro Moura of The Athletic, Twitter link). But he probably could have spoken in similar terms of the Dodgers bullpen as a whole.
The results haven’t been great; I won’t argue with you there. But the Dodgers actually sit in the middle of the pack as a unit by measure of both ERA and fielding independent pitching. There have been blown saves, but not a dramatic number in comparison to some other clubs.
In many respects, it’s not even worth thinking too hard about how this relief unit looks right now. The Dodgers are blitzing an otherwise mediocre division. At 45-21, the team is easily the class of the entire National League to this point. The relief corps hasn’t been bad enough to jeopardize a seemingly inevitable march to a division crown.
President of baseball operations Andrew Friedman certainly isn’t blind to the issues that do exist, as Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register recently covered. But he’s also focused primarily on the end goal: “It’s about feeling like we’ve got four to five ’pen arms in October that we trust and can help us,” says Friedman. “That’s what you need.”
So, can the Dodgers get to that desired handful of trustworthy hurlers? (And maybe settle upon two or three nice complimentary specialists to fill out a postseason roster?) Beyond acknowledging the potential for outside additions, Friedman says he still believes in the players currently populating the major-league roster. He also cites “other guys that are knocking on the door for an audition at some point.”
Kenley Jansen remains the rock. He’s not what he was, but it’d be foolish to say he’s washed up when he’s carrying 12.5 K/9 against 1.7 BB/9. Pedro Baez has his warts but keeps getting results; he’s through 28 1/3 innings this year with a 3.18 ERA. The numbers aren’t as promising this year as last for Dylan Floro, as he hasn’t continued to suppress home runs, but he’s still managing a 3.13 ERA in 23 frames.
That trio constitutes something of a core, but it’s not the most intimidating of late-inning bunches. And the rest of the arms come with yet more questions. Yimi Garcia and Scott Alexander are among the team’s most-used other hurlers. The former has been torched by the long ball and may be at risk if he can’t find a groove. The latter is exhibiting declining swinging-strike and groundball numbers, but remains at least an interesting change-of-pace arm.
Alexander is the sort of hurler that Friedman seems to be thinking of when he refers to having “enough diversified looks” in the current unit. But what is it that gives the veteran baseball exec confidence that it’s “more about augmenting than tearing down” when it comes to structuring his bullpen?
The sheer volume of possibilities is part of what inspires confidence. It starts with the current or future excess rotation pieces. Ross Stripling has seen a bit of a velo fall-off this year, and has been better in the rotation than the pen, but is an excellent swingman to have around. Lefty Julio Urias has boosted his velocity and swinging-strike rates are up in a relief role. (His future remains clouded by an ongoing domestic violence investigation, though he won’t face prosecution unless he fails to meet the conditions set by authorities.) Veteran Kenta Maeda has been a flexible piece for the Dodgers in years past and will be useful in some capacity come October.
There are multiple swing-and-miss guys amassed at Triple-A, including 40-man members JT Chargois (30 strikeouts in 24 innings) and Josh Sborz (34 strikeouts in 26 innings) as well as experienced former big leaguers Kevin Quackenbush (43 strikeouts in 30 1/3 innings) and Justin Grimm (41 strikeouts in 26 innings). There are a host of other plausible arms bouncing around in the upper reaches of the Dodgers farm. In addition to several hurlers with 40-man spots who’ve already had some prior MLB opportunities, the Dodgers have some untested prospects nearing readiness. Tony Gonsolin, Mitchell White, and Dustin May are among them.
So did we leave anyone out? Oh, right, Kelly …
The Dodgers clearly targeted him over the offseason, drawn to his big velocity and promising peripherals. Kelly has boosted his strikeout rate to 11 per nine and run up his groundball rate to 55.4%, but he is coughing up 1.69 HR/9 on a 28.6% HR/FB rate. Opposing hitters carry a .377 BABIP and Kelly’s strand rate sits at just 56.9%. There’s cause to believe regression is coming, but he’s also being tuned up for a 49.2% hard-hit rate.
If Kelly can get things on track in the next several weeks, the Dodgers will have added confidence in their ability to trot out five strong arms late in the year. Regardless, the late-inning group looks in need of supplementation. But that’s not much of a concern for an organization that has so much talent on and around the MLB roster. Friedman will have plenty of options on the trade market. With a huge division lead providing breathing room, the veteran exec sees a path to getting the unit he desires when the time comes: “We’ll operate on dual tracks of doing everything we can to get our existing guys better while canvassing the market.”