Is There Any Relief in Sight for a Struggling Bullpen?

(Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic via USA TODAY NETWORK)

Perhaps the funniest thing about the Dodgers’ victory over the Angels on Saturday night was the notion that most fans out there, as well as the players, coaching staff, and management, were hoping to add a few insurance runs late in the game after putting a whopping 13 runs on the board early.

Seemingly, manager Dave Roberts was able to finally breathe after his club jumped out to a 13-0 lead in the fifth inning. The skipper pulled some of his best players at that point, including his horses at the top of the lineup—Mookie Betts, Corey Seager, and Justin Turner.

Starter Clayton Kershaw was also replaced after five innings. This move made sense logically, being that he went through his entire gameday routine and logged an inning of work on Tuesday. After all, there was no way the Angels would claw their way back into the game over the final four innings, right?

A critical error by Austin Barnes at second base opened the door to a monster inning by the Angels with two outs in the seventh, but pinning the excuse for seven unearned runs on a single play probably isn’t reasonably justified (even though the box score says otherwise), especially for a bullpen that’s struggling.

There are a lot of fans who feel the offense is still the biggest culprit of the team’s latest misfortunes, but I believe the biggest concern is the bullpen. At some point, both Cody Bellinger and Zach McKinstry will return, providing the lineup with some type of offensive boost. Obviously, there’s the possibility that neither player tears the cover off the ball for the rest of the season, but chances are reasonable that both Bellinger and McKinstry are good enough for an .800 or better OPS, a mark that only five other players are above right now for the season.

Nevertheless, although it seems we’re much deeper into the campaign, the 2021 season is just a little over a month old, and there’s no doubt the Los Angeles roster will undergo some transformations in the coming months. However, when a 14-11 victory almost feels like the team has lost, it’s a reflection of just how bad the overall confidence level might be.

Still, it’s not like the Los Angeles bullpen is a complete dumpster fire. There are a few decent pieces in Victor Gonzalez, Blake Treinen, and yes, even Kenley Jansen, when all the stars are in alignment for him. However, there are indeed times when the rest of the relief crew—Mitch White, Alex Vesia, Garret, Cleavinger, Dennis Santana, Joe Kelly, and Jimmy Nelson—appear to be not much more than a glorified Quad-A group of relievers.

Undeniably, some of the aforementioned arms look decent at times, giving credence as to why they’re still valued by the organization. White really has good stuff, and sometimes when he’s on the mound, it just feels like he’s going to start putting it all together at any given moment. When Santana’s slider is working properly, it’s about the deadliest in the organization. Santana has put out a few fires in relief for the team this year, only to look completely different with his lack of command two nights later. Cleavinger has shown a few flashes of hope, indicating to us why management reached out last winter to snag him in the first place. Yet, if this group makes up the crew of the bullpen for the majority of the season, chances are there will be many more struggles to come.

Regardless, there is the group of fans who felt a sense of relief to see Kelly return, only to witness the righty struggle through two-thirds of an inning on Friday night. Kelly is another example of a pitcher who is schizophrenic with his performances, but the idea that his career 4.00 ERA and FIP with a 1.4 WHIP might start trending in an upwards direction at 32 years old is probably wishful thinking.

Before being sidelined by a sore hamstring, David Price in relief this season had compiled a 5.59 ERA, 6.11 FIP, and 1.862 WHIP over seven appearances and 9-2/3 innings of work.

The same can probably be said about Brusdar Graterol. He’s certainly exciting to watch as he easily touches triple digits with his heater, but until he finds and effective secondary pitch, he’s not going to be the bullpen savior that many fans prospectively make him out to be.

Tony Gonsolin could have been a huge difference maker to the relief crew, but the plan is to have him join the starting rotation as soon as he’s ready to return, filling the void created by Dustin May.

It’s hard to believe that the summer trade deadline is still almost three full months away. Even teams who find themselves light years behind in their respective division standings probably won’t deem themselves sellers for at least another four to six weeks.

Sure, there are some names in the system who sound extremely promising—see Josiah Gray, Bobby Miller, and Ryan Pepiot—but one might think the team will have to make some more meaningful adjustments to the bullpen group at some point this season if it’s going to go deep into the 2021 playoffs.

11 thoughts on “Is There Any Relief in Sight for a Struggling Bullpen?

  1. IF the Cubs are out of contention by June-July they will most definitely want to move Bryant. Lots of teams will want him but if we are willing to throw caution and finances to the wind, we could really get a leg up on everyone else by being willing to take both Bryant and Kimbrel, who is having an excellent year so far. He’s walking a few too many but all of his other stats are excellent and he’s been very effective. Of course, by the deadline he may have regressed again to what he was last year but if not it might be an interesting move for us. Same as with Bryant, Kimbrel is a free agent after this season.

  2. Building any pen is an iffy proposition since from one season to another they can be Jekyll and Hyde. Relievers like Hoffman and Rivera are few and far between. Even guys like Perranoski who was very effective for most of his Dodger tenure. Guys like Kelly have spurts where they are unhittable, then all of a sudden their nick name becomes Gas Can. Having guys with good track records is helpful, but not always effective. Dodgers lost both of their major additions already with Knebel and Kahnle down. Santana, White, Uceta, and Cleavinger have not been awe inspiring. Gonzalez has shown flashes and Treinen has been reliable. Kenley has been meh. Alexander has been reliable. But the injuries have a problem. Be sure AF is not ignorant of the problem and is probably working on different scenarios as we speak.

    1. I thought the pen looked pretty good on paper early. Losing Knebel, Gonsolin, Graterol, Kelly, Alexander, Kahnle, Morrow and Price… am I missing anyone? … kind of had an effect on the overall quality of our relief staff.

      Not making the plays defensively hurts. Yes, 6 unearned runs after 1 error is odd, we probably won’t see that again, but that inning is a glaring example of what can happen if you don’t make the routine play. Let’s face it, this is NOT a good defensive club (currently 14th) but I think we can do better.

      1. He doesn’t. Second base is Lux and Taylor. If necessary Neuse.

  3. This team as constituted right now is not a very good team. Bench play is sporadic, pen is unreliable. Starters seem to give up just enough to lose because the offense is so pitiful. No time table for the return of either Bellinger or McKinstry. The good news is that the Padres are not playing up to their potential and no one expects the Giants to maintain their high level of play. So the division is definitely winnable. All that noise about the best team ever can be put to bed. Greene resigns with the Braves….personally, I think AF has his work cut out for him fixing this.

    1. I expect the offense to snap out of it, but it’s possible this is who we are, 13-2 for a couple weeks 4-11 for the next couple weeks. Muncy is a now a Mendoza hitting blind squirrel looking for a walk, Seager has warning track power with the new ball, we’re injury prone. Or, it’s just a World Series hangover and by mid season we will be on track. Whatever, this run has been boring. And now Bauer is pissed. That could get interesting.

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