For many followers of the Dodgers, the general consensus was that the club needed some type of upgrade before the non-waiver trade deadline on July 31. In turn, with elite Baltimore closer Zach Britton being virtually untouchable, Los Angeles snagged a pair of southpaws in Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani during the waning moments of the cutoff period. Yet, now that the need for at least one lefty arm has been addressed, those same followers are still wondering if the team’s relief corps has enough firepower to succeed deep into the 2017 postseason.
The doubters can take solace in the fact that in addition to having the best overall pitching staff in the entire game, the Dodgers have the most effective relief crew in the National League, second only to the Indians in the majors. The Los Angeles bullpen’s combined ERA is 2.91 — light years ahead of the second ranked team in the NL, the Cubs at 3.30. Furthermore, the Dodgers combined bullpen WHIP of 1.08 and strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.76 are both the best in baseball.
We seemingly hear about all these numbers on a daily basis, but very seldom do we see a defined breakdown of how the entire bullpen fits together. The two biggest questions lingering right now are: Who are the best eight arms to shape a formidable crew heading in to the playoffs, and, how exactly do Watson and Cingrani fit into the grand scheme of things?
To build a concise, hypothetical model, of course we’ll start with All-World closer Kenley Jansen. We could type out five or six sentences of monotonous statistics, but anyone who knows anything about baseball knows that there are very few relievers who can even be considered on the same level. So we’ll build around him.
And we’ll also assume that the club will utilize an eight-man bullpen for a good portion of the stretch run. Although there were junctures in the season where a seven-man crew and even a nine-man crew were used, the eight-arm variety seems to be the best recipe for success as the playoffs draw near.
To setup Jansen, the two most favorable eighth-inning candidates are flamethrowers Pedro Baez and Brandon Morrow. At this point, there’s really no reason to worry about Baez based on Wednesday evening’s appearance against the Braves. He’s had an outstanding season and deserves at least one mulligan. His 3.85 FIP is a bit concerning, but for now we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Having already made 46 appearances this season, hopefully skipper Dave Roberts backs off the gas a little with his usage, at least until the playoffs begin.
Frequently hitting triple digits on the speed gun, it’s certainly safe to say that Morrow has put his injury history behind him. And unlike Baez, he’s still fresh. In 22 appearances over 22-1/3 innings pitched, Morrow has a 0.75 WHIP, a 1.21 FIP, a 1.98 ERA and an 11.1 K/9. Enough said.
Landing next on our flow chart is the lefty Watson, who we presume will be used more as a setup piece instead of a LOOGY. Watson has the capabilities of a solid closer, or at least he did before a brief meltdown in Pittsburgh at the beginning of 2017. His sinker still plays well in the upper-90s, and when he’s in tune can be untouchable. Perhaps a change of scenery, coupled with the coaching staff’s masterful knowledge of mixing and matching reverts the 32-year-old southpaw back to his former self of just a few years back.
As far as long men go, Ross Stripling appears to be the most logical choice, although righty Brock Stewart also plays into the equation, if the starting rotation is completely healthy. Strip has already thrown 50 full innings over 29 appearances, though, and could benefit from a lighter workload as the autumn months approach.
So, just to recap, we have five of the eight spots filled with Jansen, Baez, Morrow, Watson and Stripling, with Stewart on the outside looking in.
Next we take a look at the remaining southpaws in Cingrani and Luis Avilan. We’ll assume that as long as he’s healthy, Avilan has a spot in the group, mainly because he has no options remaining on his contract. His ERA is 3.19, but his 2.89 FIP suggests that his peripherals are trending in the right direction.
However, it’s very difficult to figure out how Cingrani figures into the master plan. Like Avilan, he has no options, so unless there’s an injury somewhere down the road, he’ll be a part of the big league roster, at least for now. He had a 2.55 ERA on July 15, but a 14.29 ERA in six outings since then. Left-handed batters are hitting .293 off him this season with six home runs in 43 plate appearances. For the year, he has a 5.40 ERA and a 7.01 FIP in 23-1/3 innings of work — that’s just borderline scary. Grant Dayton with a bit of a stiff neck could rival Cingrani for a roster spot. According to multiple reports, though, he’ll be added to the 25-man roster before the series finale against the Braves on Thursday.
As far as the final spot goes, Josh Fields gets the nod for the time being. Through his first 22 games of the season he was lights out with a mere 0.81 ERA, but in the 15 games since, he has posted a 6.01 ERA, surrendering six long balls and 10 earned runs in the process.
It’s probably also important to remember that the postseason will afford a few starting pitchers a chance to make the playoff roster in a relief capacity. If everybody is in peak health, arms like Hyun-Jin Ryu, Kenta Maeda, Stewart or even Brandon McCarthy could conceivably figure into a bullpen role in October.
And if the club is both creative and flexible with its 40-man spots when rosters expand at the beginning of September, we could see Walker Buehler, Wilmer Font, Madison Younginer or Joe Broussard emerge from the depths of Triple-A Oklahoma City, and potentially play important roles towards the end of the season.
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