With Tom Koehler Down, Who Will Own the Eighth Inning?

Tom-Koehler
(Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

We’re halfway through the third week of spring training and, so far, the Los Angeles Dodgers news from Camelback Ranch has been fairly tame. Norovirus swept through the clubhouse this past week, sending over two dozen Dodgers back to their bunks (and, presumably, their bathrooms) for a couple days before running its course.

That’s what’s passed as a big story as the National League champions prepare for their 2018 title defense and another shot at the team’s first pennant in 30 years.

What’s happening on the field? Matt Kemp, Alex Verdugo and Andrew Toles are all hitting well, which may or may not turn out to be impactful when the regular season starts.

Joc Pederson and Yasmani Grandal are not hitting at all, which seems much more important. Kyle Farmer hitting .636 in the first week of spring games probably won’t have a huge impact on the backstop situation. Grandal hitting .077, on the other hand, might.

Clayton Kershaw looks fine in limited action. Alex Wood is pitching from the stretch. Both Wood and Brock Stewart have been hit a little bit, but as long as no one gets hurt, it’s no big deal, and things will kind of sort themselves out.

But someone did get hurt this week, and that may have ripple effects that actually reverberate into the still-distant time when results really matter.

Down goes Koehler

Tom Koehler, the veteran right-handed pitcher signed as a free agent this past offseason — and the only offseason signee this side of Chase Utley that seemed even relatively important — is officially down. Koehler is out “weeks or months” with a right shoulder strain, according to Bill Shaikin of The Los Angeles Times.

“We’re optimistic he’ll be back this year,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts told Shaikin, which doesn’t sound optimistic at all.

Koehler was being groomed as the eighth-inning replacement for Brandon Morrow, who left Los Angeles to sign with the Chicago Cubs (and has yet to throw a pitch this spring). The Dodgers wanted to replicate the Morrow formula: take a struggling starter who’d enjoyed a flash of success as a reliever, train him how to jam six innings of velocity into three outs  and use him into a road grader into the Kenley Jansen experience.

Koehler wasn’t great in his first two appearances as a Dodger, which only comprised 1.1 innings of work — the very definition of a small sample size. We’re going to have to wait to see if the team’s modest $2 million wager in the former Blue Jay and Marlin pays off.

What are the other options for the Dodgers’ setup role?

Shakin notes that “right-handers Pedro Baez and Ross Stripling and left-handers Scott Alexander and Tony Cingrani as locks for what is expected to be an eight-man bullpen,” adding that Josh Fields, Wilmer Font, Yimi Garcia, Zach Neal and lefties Adam Liberatore and Edward Paredes are in the running for the other four spots.

Baez has the weapons to be a setup man — he lacks Morrow’s cutter, but his 97-mph fastball and 87-mph slider are mirror-images of Morrow’s best stuff. But would anyone trust Baez in that role, especially after last season’s September implosion?

Stripling is a pretty good reliever. Is he ready to lock down the crucial eighth inning, night after night? Alexander, the left-handed ground-ball specialist, may be a fit — he’s been called “Zach Britton lite,” not a terrible comparison — and, for a southpaw, he was tough on right-handers during his tenure in Kansas City.

Cingrani’s 2017 numbers with the Dodgers were much better than his significantly more mediocre career stats, although the lefty fastballer spent five-plus seasons pitching for a significantly more mediocre Reds team.

Fields had gopher ball fever in 2017, the deadliest sin for a setup man. Font is intriguing but unproven. Once upon a time, you could have believed this was a role Garcia could grow into, but it’s been a long and lonely road back from Tommy John surgery for Yimi.

Neal was barely a Major League pitcher in 2017. Liberatore and Paredes are both over 30 years old with a shade over three seasons of MLB experience between them. None of these three seem like serious contenders, barring a breakthrough I don’t think that anyone expects.

Oh, and J.T. Chartois, a potential 100-mph righty who’s caught the eye of our own Dennis Schlossman, is now floating around the fringe. Chartois is probably still some serious time in Oklahoma City away from the 25-man roster, but he’s interesting.

Moves for moves’ sake? Probably not.

What else is out there? Shakin writes that “the list of available free-agent relievers — including Joe Blanton, Drew Storen and Huston Street — is not inspiring.”

Greg Holland, the 2017 NL save leader, is still on the market. He made $6 million for the Rockies last season, which isn’t a crippling sum for the relatively frugal Dodgers (especially if Kemp or Grandal moves on), but, as Daniel Kramer noted for MLB.com, Holland’s old (32) and both his command and velocity wavered at times in last year’s campaign.

Forty-two-year-old Koji Uehara’s out there. Tyler Clippard, a meltdown artist for the 2017 Yankees, is out there. Josh Collmenter, a 10-year veteran with a batting-practice fastball and a FIP in the sevens, is out there.

Don’t expect a panic signing or a knee-jerk trade. “Deals that made sense three days ago will still make sense,” President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman told Shaikin. “And I don’t think the opposite is true: I don’t think something is going to make more sense that didn’t three days ago.”

Friedman: Secretly loving this?

Friedman went on to tell Shaikin about the joys of testing out those high-upside, nothing-to-lose guys in camp. You have to think that moments like these are what Friedman lives for: chances to dust the coal pile to find diamonds hidden in the rough.

Morrow had a brief, decent showing as a reliever in San Diego before the Dodgers snatched him up. Wood was on the verge of lost-cause status in Atlanta. Fields, a disappointment in the Braves’ and Astros’ systems, came to L.A. and promptly began murdering righties out of the bullpen. He hasn’t lost a game in 77 regular season appearances for the Dodgers.

This is the closest thing we have to a crisis right now: what to do about Tom Koehler.

The answer — not much. 

“We’ve had conversations in the last few weeks on things that would add to our depth,” Friedman told MLB.com’s Ken Gurnick. “I don’t think (the injury) makes (a move) more likely; A., because we’re not sure how long he will be out, and B., because we also plan for some of this with depth in the offseason and guys that can fill different roles. It doesn’t change the thought process; nothing will make more sense now than three weeks ago.”

And, for now, that’s all there is to it.

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