While the Dodgers left the 2017 Winter Meetings with only a consolation prize of a mid-level infield prospect, many fans have taken to social media to express their respective concerns heading into 2018, especially in the area of the bullpen. It took several years for the team to finally find a competent setup man in Brandon Morrow, yet the veteran righty was able to walk away from Los Angeles and land a lucrative deal with the Cubs for the next several seasons. Andrew Friedman and his troops seem fairly confident in the internal relief options heading into 2018 spring training, but questions loom as to whether the impending bullpen will be talented enough to help guide the squad into next season’s playoff picture.
By now, you’ve probably already heard theories surrounding next year’s prospective eighth-inning guys—Yimi Garcia, Pedro Baez, Josh Fields and Tony Cingrani. But we thought it would be interesting to look at the bullpen from a completely different perspective, this time considering only the most elite arms in the Los Angeles minor league system. That said, we have put on the farm director badge for a day, and built an eight-man bullpen consisting of some of the best pitchers in the system. A few are traditional choices having been relievers for most of their recent careers, however, a handful are currently being groomed as starters, who we believe could be potentially utilized as relievers in the very near future and beyond.
First is our four-man conventional relief crew.
Beginning his 2017 campaign at Tulsa, Joe Broussard made four appearances in Double-A, throwing 5-1/3 frames of absolutely perfect baseball before an early-season promotion to Triple-A OKC in the hitter-friendly PCL. Making a combined 48 appearances across both levels, he posted a 3,27 ERA with an impressive 73 strikeouts in 63-1/3 innings of work.
Broussard attended college at LSU, and was instrumental as the team’s closer and captain in 2014, leading the school to its 11th SEC Championship. The righty was selected by the Dodgers in the 15th round of the 2014 draft, and his bread and butter is a heater which normally sits in the low-to-mid nineties, but features a ton of nasty movement. Coupled with his very deceptive, over-the-top delivery, he sometimes appears borderline untouchable when his mechanics are all in tune.
Shea Spitzbarth was signed by the Dodgers as a free agent after the 2015 draft, and although he was a starter for most of his career at Molloy College, he began paying dividends as a reliever almost immediately upon being acclimated on the Los Angeles farm. In 2016, he posted a 1.91 ERA with 43 strikeouts and six saves over 28-1/3 innings of work, helping Low-A Great Lakes capture the team’s first Midwest League Championship in 10 years. Across two levels in 2017, the 23-year-old righty made 43 appearances, tallying a 2.45 ERA with 77 punchouts and nine saves over 69-2/3 innings. He features a traditional, over-the-top arm motion that oftentimes catapults his heater well into the mid-nineties.
“The pitches I throw are a four-seam, a curve ball, and a change,” Spitzbarth told us not long after the season began last spring. “Not a ton of movement on the fastball, but when I get it elevated, it moves. With the four-seam, I sit around 92-94 MPH while topping out at 95. Curve balls normally come in under 81.”
Another right-hander, 23-year-old Corey Copping, was the chief closer for Tulsa last season. He was selected in the 31st round of the 2015 draft out of the University of Oklahoma, and was one of the guinea pigs the Dodgers sent to Driveline Baseball in 2016, which resulted in his heater increasing in velocity more than five ticks on the radar gun.
In 2017, Copping posted a 5-2 record with 18 saves and 60 strikeouts over and even 68 innings of work. Besides his reinvented four-seam, he also features an impressive curve with 12-6 movement.
It seems as if righty Yaisel Sierra has been around forever, yet the native of Cuba is only 26 years of age as he enters his third season in the organization. He signed a six-year, $30 million deal with the Dodgers in February of 2016, while being one of the top available international prospects on the market. His primary weapon is a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and tops out as high as 98. He also features a hard slider with cutting action that his coaches see developing into a plus-pitch on his road to the majors.
Initially viewed as a starter, Sierra has made the transition to the bullpen nicely. He began last season at Tulsa, but was awarded with a promotion to OKC later in the year. Across both levels, he registered a 5-1 record with a 3.04 ERA and 84 strikeouts in 71 innings over 39 appearances.
Moving onto the unconventional relievers, the management crew of the Dodgers has said that 23-year-old righty Walker Buehler will likely be utilized as a starter moving forward, but considering the number of available starting arms available to open the year, the club may be convinced to use the righty in relief similar to the role he played in 2016, but this time much sooner in the season.
Buehler made his first career major league appearance in his second professional campaign after being selected in the first round of the 2015 Draft out of Vanderbilt University. Buehler, who is rated by MLB.com as the Dodgers’ No. 1 prospect and is currently rated by Baseball America as the 17th best overall prospect in baseball, went 3-3 with a 3.35 ERA over 88-2/3 innings and collected one save in a combined 28 games with Rancho, Tulsa and Oklahoma City in 2017. He also held hitters to a combined .208 average, while striking out 125 batters against just 31 walks. His season culminated when he was named the 2017 Dodgers Branch Rickey Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
Like Buehler, the next three prospects have the ability to touch triple digits on the gun, which make them prime candidates to fill much-needed relief roles, at least in the early stages of their careers.
Yadier Alvarez features a four-seamer that varies in velocity in the 95-100 MPH range. His slider is by far his best breaking pitch, often being clocked 20 MPH slower than his fastest heater. His change and curveball are still in the developmental stages, but are starting to show promise as he sharpens his command and climbs the organizational ladder.
Alvarez began the year at High-A Rancho and finished with the Drillers, appearing in a combined 21 contests—18 of which were starts—posting a 4-6 record with a 4.68 ERA and 97 strikeouts over 91-2/3 innings.
Dennis Santana, the youngest of the group at 21 years of age, may have the most realistic shot at the big league squad after being promoted to the club’s 40-man major league roster last month. Between both Rancho and Tulsa this year, Santana tallied a career-high 118-1/3 innings pitched, while posting an 8-7 record with 129 strikeouts. In the Texas League’s North Division Championship series finale against Northwest Arkansas on September 10, Santana threw perhaps the best game of his professional career, delivering seven brilliant innings of three-hit, shutout ball while striking out a season-high 11 opposing batters.
“I think my two best offerings are my slider and my fastball,” Santana told us in an interview back in September. “I throw both a four-seam and a two-seam that sinks. I also use a changeup and a bending curve ball. Plus, I’m currently working on a splitter. My fastball normally sits at 96-98 MPH, but was clocked as high as 100 MPH at Rancho earlier in the season.”
22-year-old right-hander Jordan Sheffield, who is no stranger to the bullpen, was selected as the 36 overall pick by the Dodgers out of Vanderbilt University in the 2016 draft. In 2017, he made 24 combined starts for Great Lakes and Rancho, compiling a 4.70 ERA with 109 strikeouts over 107-1/3 innings of work. He was instrumental as a starter for Vandy during the squad’s 2016 championship run, however, in 2015 he made 16 relief appearances for the Commodores, registering a 2.85 ERA with 55 strikeouts over an even 60 innings of work.
Sheffield’s four-seam sits in the mid-nineties, but topped out as high as 98 MPH last season at Rancho. He also features a hard three-quarter slider which sits in the upper-eighties, and a circle change that shows a ton of nasty movement.
One final dark horse candidate for the bullpen is 23-year-old right-hander Josh Sborz. Although he’s currently being groomed as a starter at the Double-A level, he did post a 1.50 ERA with 12 punchouts in nine relief appearances over 12 innings for the Quakes towards the end of 2015. For the University of Virginia during his senior campaign, he made 30 relief appearances while registering a 1.59 ERA with 15 saves and 62 strikeouts over 73 innings.
(Photo Credit: Jeremy Davis)
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