Over the winter, the big league bullpen of the Dodgers has been one of the few areas of the roster which has been receiving a high amount of scrutiny. Aside from All-World closer Kenley Jansen, many of the roles are still undefined, as everyone will be jockeying for key spots during Cactus League play and the first few weeks of the regular season.
The efforts of the front office crew in revamping the relief corps have been a bit subdued this offseason, despite a couple of modest additions in the forms of Tom Koehler and Scott Alexander. Still, the quest to replace eighth-inning guru Brandon Morrow will almost certainly be an uphill battle, at least in the early portions of the year.
With about a week remaining before pitchers and catchers report to Camelback Ranch for spring camp, it’s very unlikely the Los Angeles management team dips into the free-agent market to make any additional upgrades to the relief crew. And although there are plenty of internal options to fill out the major league bullpen, most of the younger prospects are still being groomed as starters. There are, however, a few inherent, natural relief pitchers in the system who could sneak onto the fast-track, and 23-year-old righty Shea Spitzbarth might be one of them.
Now having two full professional seasons under his belt, Spitzbarth has already risen to the Double-A level during his short time in the system. Across two levels of the farm last season, the Staten Island native made 43 appearances, posting a 4-4 record with nine saves, a 2.45 ERA and an impressive 77 punchouts over 69-2/3 innings of work. In 2016, he recorded a 1.91 ERA with 43 strikeouts and six saves over 28-1/3 innings, helping Low-A Great Lakes capture its first Midwest League Championship in 10 years.
Some fans may remember Spitzbarth from Cactus League play last year. Although he didn’t open camp on the big league side, he did garner enough trust from management to make quite a few major league appearances during 2017 spring training. In all, he threw in nine contests, and struck out six opposing batters over 7-1/3 innings. For such a young arm to throw with confidence and conviction on a big stage, the coaching staff was indeed impressed.
“I like how he comes right at you, just so aggressive, no fear,” pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said after the right-hander put together his third scoreless Cactus League outing last spring.
Looking at the mechanical aspect of his game, Spitzbarth, who is 6-foot-1 and 195 lb., told us a little bit about his delivery and pitching repertoire in a quick conversation last spring. He features a traditional, over-the-top arm motion that oftentimes catapults his heater well into the mid-nineties, not to mention him possessing a very impressive plus-curve ball.
“The pitches I throw are a four-seam, a curve, and a change,” Spitzbarth explained. “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.”
Looking ahead, having already cemented himself into the Tulsa roster, Spitzbarth figures to be one of the Drillers’ primary relief arms to begin the 2018 campaign. But with a relatively high ceiling, and considering the absence of quality relief prospects in the organization, a promotion to Triple-A Oklahoma City at some point in the season isn’t completely out of the question.
(Follow Dennis on Twitter: @thinkbluepc)