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As far as roster improvement goes for the Dodgers this winter, much of the emphasis has been put on rumors surrounding Brian Dozier and the options at second base, however, according to recent rumblings, Los Angeles may be looking for some outside help for the bullpen to bridge the gap to All-Star closer Kenley Jansen.
Nobody’s anywhere near a panic point just yet, though. Many fans will remember the beginning of the 2016 season, when the relief corps was nothing short of a nightmare. Besides Jansen, relievers Chris Hatcher and Pedro Baez were believed to be the best late-inning options, as the Dodgers’ bullpen struggled for nearly a month to establish some sort of identity. Yet once the management crew was able to develop critical player data regarding matchups, righty Joe Blanton quickly settled into the chief setup role, and along with the emergence of Louis Coleman and Adam Liberatore, the Dodgers’ crew eventually proved to be among the best in baseball.
Needless to say, there were some ups and downs. Coleman and Liberatore suffered significant injuries, perhaps from over-usage, and were never the same upon returning from the disabled list. Hatcher went on the shelf in July with a strained oblique and never came back at all. On the plus side, Ross Stripling evolved into a very dependable long man. Grant Dayton emerged from Triple-A Oklahoma City and showed tremendous value. Jesse Chavez and Josh Fields, who were both acquired right before the trade deadline, also made key contributions down the stretch run of the regular season. Josh Ravin returned from a half-year suspension to flaunt his triple-digit heater, showing fans that the Dodgers have a surprising amount of depth in the pen heading into 2017.
But while both Hatcher and Ravin have flashed signs of potential, neither have yet to exhibit indications of effectiveness for an extended period of time. Baez has been steady, but has often been victimized by the long ball at the most inopportune times. Early in-house options to serve as primary setup men probably dwindle down to Luis Avilan, Dayton, Fields and Liberatore, although the Dodgers will almost certainly use a similar approach to last year when they found success by mixing and matching based on matchups alone. Many will say that Jansen can be leaned upon heavily late in games, but there’s just no possible way he can make four and five-out saves all season long.
The youngsters will surely need to shoulder heavier loads, as Chavez and middle man Casey Fien are both gone. Coleman likely will not return after being non-tendered, while J.P. Howell and Blanton still remain unsigned. This crew of five was responsible for a whopping 230.0 relief innings pitched during the 2016 regular season.
As far as minor league depth goes, hard-throwing righty Jacob Rhame was recently added to the 40-man roster, and with the ability to crank up his four-seam to the 98-99 MPH range, will begin the season as the primary closer at Oklahoma City. Only a tick away is Josh Sborz and Jordan Sheffield, who have unlimited potential and the abilities to climb the ladder to the fringes of the big league roster. And although he’s being groomed as a starter on the lower levels of the farm, Yadier Alvarez is in the back of many fans’ minds as a right-handed clone of Aroldis Chapman just a few years down the road.
There are a few potentially solid options on the free agent market, most specifically Blanton and veteran Neftali Feliz. The righty Feliz had a somewhat productive 2016 campaign, posting a 4-2 record and logging a 3.52 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and a 10.2 K/9 while appearing in 62 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Still, the biggest risks in signing either Feliz or Blanton is the fact that both are presumably holding out for multi-year contracts.
And it probably wouldn’t hurt to take a look at Greg Holland. The right-handed Holland was arguably one of the most dominant relievers in baseball before Tommy John surgery ended his campaign in October of 2015, causing him to miss all of last season. Once known for his tremendously nasty slider, Holland was voted to the AL All-Star squad in 2013 and 2014, in addition to garnering votes for the AL Cy Young Award and the American League MVP. Over those two seasons, he saved 93 games, recorded a 1.32 ERA over 129-1/3 innings of work, and fanned 193 batters. Holland was so good that he kept Wade Davis limited to seventh and eighth inning duties during his time with the Royals.
The risk with Holland, like Blanton and Feliz, is that he too is seeking a multi-year deal, despite not being battle-tested after surgery and topping out at only 89 MPH with his fastball at his most recent showcase.
As Feliz is in all likelihood the most attractive option, it won’t be the end of the world by any means if the Dodgers don’t pull in a piece from the outside. While an upgrade would indeed provide the club with more constructive alternatives early on, there may be just enough relief depth in the system to get by until the July trade deadline, barring any unforeseen epidemic of injuries.