The Turning Point for Last Season’s Dodgers’ Bullpen, and Looking Forward

The 2014 Los Angeles Dodgers had, when healthy, a dominating starting rotation, and a reliable, shut-down closer in Kenley Jansen. Their major weakness on the field, as opposed to in the dugout, was the rest of the bullpen, which, when depending on the likes of Brian Wilson, Brandon League, Chris Perez, Carlos Frias, Pedro Baez, and others was a massive failure. Much has been made of that, and while no top tier set up reliever has been acquired, new veteran additions to the bullpen have included Joel Peralta and Juan Nicasio. The end of the season was not pretty, with again the Dodgers’ early elimination from a post season that many had expected to extend much longer and produce far more success. All this could have had a very different result, were it not for the May, 2014 injury to the guy who had been groomed for the set-up spot and potentially a closer role, hard-throwing right hander Chris Withrow.

After finishing the 2013 season with excellent numbers, including a 2.60 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 34-2.3 innings, Withrow began 2014 in a similar manner, compiling a 0.95 ERA and striking out 25 in 19 innings over his first 18 appearances, and appeared to have become the set-up eighth inning reliever the team so desperately needed. But, in mid-May he injured in right elbow, and on May 17, he allowed five runs, all earned, in 1-2/3 innings. He pitched one more time, on May 20, and pitched
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well, but he was then done for the season, and likely for the first half, at least, of 2015, following Tommy John surgery.

Hopefully Withrow will have a full recovery, and be able to re-take that set up role, but the likelihood of that happening before the All-Star break, if at all in 2015, is slim. So, with basically the same brigade of Wilson, League, et al likely returning in 2015, at least one major addition is vital. Hope was, that could have been Andrew Miller, but while the experts say the Dodgers have been discussing trading Zach Greinke and have been in the Jon Lester sweepstakes, lefty reliever Andrew Miller, perhaps the prize of the current free agent group, was snapped up by the New York yankees.

There are a few pretty good possibilities still out there who could, maybe, handle the set up role on a pennant contender, such as the best team that money can buy, and maybe the Dodgers will sign one of these fellows who could make a difference in 2015, maybe someone like other current free agents Pat Neshek, Luke Gregerson, Casey Janssen, David Robertson, Sergio Romo, or Francisco Rodriguez. Rodriguez, Janssen, Robertson, and likely Romo are all certainly looking for spots where they would be the closer, but last year the Dodgers were more than willing to pay the likes of Wilson $10 Million to be a set up guy and with their recent history of free spending, signing the best set up guy they can find

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should not be governed by saving a couple of bucks. But, moving a successful closer to the set up spot has not always worked well, and with a couple of guys like Neshek and Gregerson possibly available, that should be where the team is aiming. Robertson, who had a great year closing in NY last season, had some excellent prior years setting up for Mariano Rivera, but would he accept such a demotion, even if it carried a substantial pay raise?

Here’s an idea that has frequently worked in the past – take a kook at John Smoltz’ lifetime stats to see a great example – how about moving Dan Haren to the bullpen and the set up role? Smoltz was the same age, 34, when he moved to the bullpen as Haren is now. Nicasio has had more experience as a starter in the majors than as a reliever, and he could step in to a starting spot in place of Haren.

Food for thought.

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