Believe it or not, some people saw a bit of logic when the Dodgers ignored their suspect bullpen while trying to upgrade their offense at the non-waiver trade deadline last month. After all, there were some internal moving pieces which would improve the relief corps, and the addition of two of the best available offensive weapons would seemingly allow the squad to slug its way into the postseason.
But, as the middle of August has already crept in, nothing appears to be working according to the pre-deadline plan. The Dodgers, who many pundits once believed to be among the deepest clubs in baseball, have now lost five straight contests and are two full games off the division lead. A glut of outfielders and catchers throughout the farm system is not helping one of the organization’s biggest weaknesses—reliable relief pitching.
While it’s easy to point fingers at the front office crew for not acquiring any bonafide bullpen help last month, it’s tough to say how much of an effort Andrew Friedman and his troops put into the task. They were known to make statements that reflected their confidence in their in-house options, as players like Julio Urias and Josh Fields were returning from injuries while, conceivably, there were plans to move arms like Ross Stripling and Kenta Maeda into the bullpen when the need arose.
Nonetheless, the ninth inning has been nothing short of a nightmare lately, and whatever strategy skipper Dave Roberts and his staff try to utilize ultimately backfires. Maeda, Zac Rosscup, JT Chargois, Dylan Floro and Scott Alexander have been the casualties during the last week, with the last two losses to the Giants ranking among the most excruciating of the season. All-Star closer Kenley Jansen was placed on the disabled list last Friday, and in the five games since, the relief crew has allowed 11 runs and 20 baserunners over just 12 innings of work. The bullpen wasted seven shutout innings from Walker Buehler last Saturday and eight innings of stellar pitching from staff ace Clayton Kershaw on Monday, making the losses seem even more painful.
If there was indeed a primary problem, it tough to indicate which one it is. The offense has already proven it can produce, as made evident by the 21-run output on August 2 against the Brewers. But the lineup changes on a daily basis, and sometimes the hottest players find themselves on the pine amidst their most torrid streaks of the year, while the slumping players are often out there every single night. And, when the team does score enough runs to apparently secure a victory, the bullpen sometimes passes out runs in the ninth inning like it was giving away turkeys at Thanksgiving. If there were any easy answers, they would have already been drawn up and incorporated.
Over his last 54 AB, outfielder Matt Kemp has just three hits, calculating to a .056 batting average. Utility man Max Muncy is hitting just .153 with 29 punchouts over his last 59 AB, after taking the National League by storm in the first half of the year. Yasmani Grandal, who arguably had a career-best month in July, is hitting just .162 in August. Machado started out strongly upon his arrival, but has put up a slashline of .216/.273/.294 over his last 51 AB. To make matters worse, all of these players generally appear smack dab in the middle of the Los Angeles lineup. What’s more, super-utility man Enrique Hernandez has frequently been appearing in the cleanup spot as of late, despite hitting just .215/.293/.426 on the year. Having been known as a lefty-killer for most of his career, his splits against righty pitching this season are actually better than those against southpaws.
Some fans have already began to panic, but there’s plenty of time for the Dodgers to turn things around, as there are still 41 games remaining on the regular-season schedule. Even though the strategy of using Maeda late in games has backfired early, it may show signs of improving later on. Stripling is suffering from minor issues in his back, but may be a viable option in the near future. Urias and Fields are both getting near their respective returns, while Jansen may be much closer than recent reports have indicated.
Yet, whether or not the offense can live up to its own end of the bargain through all this remains to be seen. There’s no time like the moment to establish some momentum, and a nice little surge of victories would definitely be beneficial before the division-leading Diamondbacks come to town for a potentially pivotal four-game set on August 30.