With all the speculation surrounding which roles certain players will fill in the bullpen for the upcoming campaign, it’s a bit tough to forecast the level of success for the relief crew of the Dodgers moving into the 2017 season.
However, there are four things we know to be relatively true. Kenley Jansen is among the best closers in baseball. President of baseball operations Andrew Friedman has a successful track record of assembling bullpens from the bottom up. Skipper Dave Roberts has already proven that he has the necessary skills to diligently manage his staff in middle-to-late game situations. And Grant Dayton has a fastball that can sometimes be virtually unhittable.
Just exactly where Dayton fits into the 2017 relief scheme remains to be seen, but after a few quick glimpses of brilliance during his debut season last year, his overall ceiling may have risen just a tad higher.
At the moment he was acquired by the Dodgers from Miami in 2015 for another fellow relief prospect in Chris Reed, Dayton was a career minor-leaguer who never even touched the Triple-A level until he was 27 years of age. He pitched three years of college ball at Auburn with mediocre success: a 4.66 ERA in 249 innings with 217 strikeouts and 289 hits allowed. Still, he caught the eye of the Marlins and was selected the 11th round in the 2010 draft.
His minor league career was fairly ordinary before landing in the Dodgers’ system, but something seemed to click in 2016. Dayton began the season with Double-A Tulsa, where he pitched in 12 games and had a 3.45 ERA and 0.70 WHIP in 15-2/3 innings — nothing overwhelmingly impressive, but enough to earn him a promotion to Triple-A Oklahoma City, where the presence of quality relief was a bit barren. At OKC, he threw 36-1/3 innings over 26 games and tallied a 2.48 ERA and a 0.83 WHIP while striking out 63 and walking just eight.
It was somewhere right around that time frame that the secret to his newfound success began to show through — his command. Dayton always had a decent slider and changeup, but what stood out last year was his ability to control his fastball and hit any given target with pinpoint accuracy. Couple that with a 95 MPH reading on the radar gun, and his four-seam was at times borderline ridiculous — in a good way.
Scouting directors and management of the Dodgers eventually recognized his capabilities, promoting Dayton to the bigs not long after last season’s All-Star break in July. In his major league debut, he netted two strikeouts over two hitless frames in an extra-innings loss against the Cardinals on the road. By the end of the year, over 25 appearances, the lefty had a 2.05 ERA, a 2.96 FIP and a 0.76 WHIP with 39 strikeouts in 26-1/3 innings of work. More importantly, he gained the respect of Roberts and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, and ultimately became an important piece in high-leverage, late-inning game situations.
Over the winter, the Dodgers did some shopping on the free agent market and scored veteran righty reliever Sergio Romo in hopes of better bridging the gap to Jansen; however, Romo will certainly need to show effectiveness during Cactus League play to earn that role at the beginning of the season. Yet because he isn’t your typical LOOGY, Dayton could make a play to appear as a primary setup guy as well. He seems to have no trouble with platoon splits and makes quick work of right-handed batters out as well as lefties.
At the end of the 2016 campaign, the Dodgers’ bullpen was the best in baseball having posted a combined 3.35 ERA, but it took Roberts and his crew quite some time to create the proper formulas to net that success. This season, though, with the presence of key pieces such as Romo and a healthy Jansen straight away, the Dodgers certainly have the potential to duplicate last year’s results.
And Grant Dayton promises to play a huge role as part of that process.