Aug 04

Phenomenal bullpen key to Dodgers’ revival

It’s hard to overstate the importance that Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig have had in the Dodgers’ turnaround from a 30-42 to a 30-7 team. They have had an enormous impact on an offense that otherwise has not performed much better in the second 54 games of 2013 than it did in the first 54.

A.J. Ellis, Adrian Gonzalez, Mark Ellis, Juan Uribe, Carl Crawford, Scott Van Slyke, Nick Punto and Jerry Hairston Jr. – five starters and three key bench players – all had lower OPSes in the middle third of the season, when the Dodgers went 36-18, than at the outset, according to Eric Stephen of True Blue L.A.

The starting pitching has been steady as she goes during the hot streak, with everyone – including, of late, Chris Capuano – keeping the Dodgers in games. In addition, the team has been better hitting with runners in scoring position, some recent events in Chicago notwithstanding.

But when you look at how the Dodgers have been playing .811 ball since June 22, winning games like they were free throws, much of it comes down to this – the bullpen simply just keeps getting guys out.

Perhaps no moment epitomized that more than when the Dodgers inserted Brandon League, simply horrible for much of this season, into the seventh inning of Saturday’s game with Cubs at the corners and the tying run at the plate.

Since entering the All-Star break with a 6.25 ERA, League hadn’t allowed an earned run or an inherited run in eight innings over six appearances, with opponents OPSing a scant .343. Don Mattingly had slowly moved League out of mop-up situations into higher-leverage moments, but this was the first time League had been used to protect a lead of three runs or less in nearly seven weeks since June 25.

League threw four pitches, induced the Dodgers’ fourth double play of the game, and strolled off the field.

In the next inning, Ronald Belisario gave up two singles to the four batters he raced – a relatively shocking development for a bullpen that has been so reliable – and then making matters worse, Paco Rodriguez came in and threw six straight pitches out of the strike zone, loading the bases with a 2-0 count to the go-ahead run, Chicago’s cleanup hitter, Welington Castillo (admittedly, not your prototypical cleanup hitter).

Rodriguez got the count back to 3-2, then struck Castillo out.

If teams don’t score against you, they’re not going to beat you. The Dodger bullpen has smothered nearly every single fire they have encountered since the fourth week of June.

Keep in mind the bottom four guys are not really relevant to the conversation, having mainly pitched in the rare garbage situations the Dodgers have been in since June 22. The four primary relievers (five if you count Withrow) have ERAs below 2.00, opponents’ OPS below .600 and have stranded 31 of 34 inherited runners. Thrown in a temporarily improved League as a bonus, and that’s a hellacious bullpen that could also find addition by subtraction if Carlos Marmol is jettisoned for someone more reliable, unless Marmol follows in League’s footsteps.

Can they keep this up? Well, no. Not bloody likely. Relievers don’t stay hot forever, particularly guys who are proven inconsistents like Belisario. The question is whether it will be a blown save here or there, or the more frequent meltdowns of the season’s first 72 games.

There’s also concern over how many games some of the relievers have been appearing in – especially Kenley Jansen. But the good news is that Jansen has been so efficient lately – he has retired 22 consecutive batters with 10 strikeouts – they’ve essentially been low-stress outings. Here are Jansen’s daily pitch counts since June 22 …

There was an eyebrow-raising stretch the week of June 23 and another following a 28-pitch outing July 23, but for the most part, Jansen has kept his pitch counts in check and had a nice checkerboard of days off.

Of course, the fastest way for the closer to get rest is for the Dodgers to start losing again. Otherwise, yeah, there will be a day when the Dodgers are in a tight one and they’ll want to try to get by without using their big ex-catcher.

The Dodgers’ surge has been too good to be true, but there’s no denying it has happened. Whether you should believe it can continue should depend in large part in your belief in this bullpen.

Dodgers at Cubs, 11:20 a.m.

May 19

Dodgers in a race to the upside down

Sure, OK, we can start with the bullpen. It’s hardly the only thing going on with the Dodgers, but it’s something. Oh yes, it’s something.

You need good relief to win, but you can’t plan for good relief. 

This comes up every year, so it’s tedious to point out, but it doesn’t seem to go without saying.

I’m going to ask take my years-old research into this on faith; whether you choose to do so is up to you. But what you find is that there is virtually no consistency year-to-year among relief pitchers. The best might give you two or three consecutive good years. The very best.

The reasons for this should be clear. You don’t become a reliever unless you are flawed in some way that prevents you from being a starter. That obviously doesn’t mean you can’t be a fantastic reliever in a given year, but for the most part, relievers are pitchers who aren’t designed to be great over the long haul. They typically have a limited number of pitches, which leaves them vulnerable to being figured out over time. The good ones end up getting overworked, or maybe they were never that good in the first place, instead merely a triumph of small sample size. We could go on, but let’s sum it up this way: Mariano Rivera is not reality.

The 2003 Dodger bullpen was incredible. It was also, in many significant ways, an accident.

Staffing a bullpen has always, fascinatingly, been Ned Colletti’s simultaneous strength and weakness. Colletti has had a knack for finding capable non-roster talent (Takashi Saito, Ronald Belisario) over the same years that he has invested multiyear deals in such inconsistent arms as Matt Guerrier and Brandon League. There is no correlation in the Colletti tenure between salary and performance, yet the expensive signings continue.

The point is that you can never feel good about your bullpen entering a season – never. I really believe that. You can’t feel anything at all. The best thing you can do is assemble a number of arms before Spring Training, a combination of youth and experience and promise and reclamation, and then hope for the best.

The peril of having someone with a long-term contract is that you feel obligated to keep him past the point of effectiveness. That’s the boat the Dodgers are in with League and Guerrier, even with a new ownership that doesn’t much worry about player salaries these days.

The Dodger bullpen is leaky through and through. Almost nothing is working right now. Just as you were gaining supreme confidence in Paco Rodriguez and Kenley Jansen, they found growing pains that left them struggling like the more experienced J.P Howell, League, Guerrier and, if you will, Belisario and Javy Guerra.

Fans tend to have unreasonable expectations of bullpens – you see outrage anytime any relief pitcher gives up a run, let alone a lead. I’m not sure where fans get the idea that every reliever on their team should have a 0.00 ERA, but there it is. Every Dodger relief pitcher since the heyday of Eric Gagne and Saito has been attacked for his failings, however momentary, however good that pitcher has been overall.  So when a bullpen is collectively struggling as much as the Dodger bullpen is, it’s frogs and locusts time.

Don Mattingly’s instinct has been correct in general to try to play matchups with his relievers. You can debate the specifics of all his choices – I don’t agree with them all – but the bottom line is, there’s little he can do when no one is reliable.

Mattingly’s bullpen Sunday faced 18 batters and got nine outs. When Jansen entered Saturday’s game in relief of Chris Capuano, he had thrown only 21 pitches in his previous 72 hours. Capuano had pitched well that night, but he was past the 90-pitch mark and going on a balky calf.

But when things are bad, things are bad.

Tim Federowicz is not a martyr.

This morning brought the news that Tim Federowicz, and not Luis Cruz or Ramon Hernandez, had been displaced from the active roster to make room for the return of Mark Ellis from the disabled list. Federowicz is more valuable than Cruz or Hernandez, but the hysteria this caused was rather remarkable.

When I called out this freakout on Twitter, several people lectured me, as if I didn’t know, that it wasn’t just about Federowicz, but that it was symptomatic of the Colletti Dodgers’ larger mismanagement in general or obsession with experience over youth in particular. As if I needed to be told that Colletti values experience, sometimes to the franchise’s detriment.

I’ve spent a lot of time on how to phrase this next section, because I don’t want to give the impression that you shouldn’t try to maximize every advantage you can. Federowicz can’t help the Dodgers that much right now, but sure, I’d rather see him get five at-bats a week over Hernandez, because an on-base percentage over .500 in Albuquerque and above-average defense suggest a better skill set than Hernandez currently offers. Scott Van Slyke’s callup was overdue, not because he was guaranteed to hit two homers in a game, but because he was on a hot streak in the minors that made it clear there was no better time to try him out.

But just as there is with the bullpen, there’s a level of knee-jerk fan reaction with the bench that is out of proportion. When a player is a single game away from having better stats than his competition, as Hernandez is compared with Federowicz (3 for 17 with one walk and no extra-base hits as a major-leaguer in 2013), and neither is projected to be a starter, and the alternatives to Hernandez as backup if A.J. Ellis gets hurt are Jesus Flores, Matt Wallach and Gorman Erickson, the uproar should not be Defcon Anything.

Yeah, Cruz stinks right now, and no one in their right mind would keep him over Juan Uribe – just like no one in their right mind would have argued to keep Uribe over Cruz last summer.

See what I’m getting at?

If you’re not frustrated with the Dodgers right now, you’re either not a Dodger fan or very zen. You’re not wrong if you’re unhappy with Federowicz’s demotion. But if you’re angry over Federowicz being sent down, you’re overreacting. It’s not symptomatic of the Dodgers’ larger problems. You’re not going to plug in Federowicz, Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson and Alex Castellanos into the Dodger bench and as a result see things turn around.

And May 19 is too soon to give up, if only because of one person.

Matt Kemp.

Until Kemp starts hitting, nothing is going to happen with this team. Nothing. The Dodgers cannot win without his bat. And again, it’s not something anger will solve. The effort is there – if anything, he’s trying too hard to get things going. But it is up to Kemp.

It would help if Andre Ethier hit more, but the difference between what Ethier is doing compared to what is expected of him is not what it is with Kemp.

I’m sure Kemp has had all the advice in the world, from Mattingly, Mark McGwire and any number of coaches or people he meets on the street. But no one else can synthesize the good from the bad and put it into action.

You can start firing managers or coaches or trainers. Kemp still needs to hit.

The bullpen can start putting out fires. Kemp still needs to hit.

The defense can stop making two errors a game. Kemp still needs to hit.

But what if he does?

Let me tell you one more thing.  I would love to give up on the 2013 Dodgers. It will be a relief if and when I can. I spent part of my Sunday writing this 1,500-word piece that probably isn’t worth a damn, especially for a team barely winning 40 percent of its games.

And the season might be over, except for this. For all their problems, Los Angeles is still somehow only seven games out of first place. The Giants, in case you haven’t noticed, have their own cauldron of concerns. And Arizona and Colorado … I just don’t know. I can’t see them not hitting their own skid. I can’t see it.

The National League West looks like an 85-win division. That’s still within the Dodgers’ abilities.

The team gets healthier. The bullpen stops being a disaster. Matt Kemp starts to hit. And then …

Honestly, that’s as far as I can go. The team does look awful right now. It looks nothing like a winning team. It’s creaky and crumbly. Race to the bottom or race to the top – I truly can’t decide.

Mar 27

Dodger pitching: Safety in numbers

‘Twas interesting, in the space of 24 hours, for relief pitcher Mark Lowe to go from Dodger camp to pitching against the Dodgers in the Freeway Series.

That the Dodgers would cut loose the 29-year-old Lowe, who was nothing extraordinary but fits the profile of the Jamey Wright types that annually make the Opening Day roster, was the latest indication of how overflowing the Dodger pitching staff is, five days shy of the 2013 season.

That depth is a key weapon for the team this season, because there is so much uncertainty over how healthy and effective so many of the pitchers will be, whether it’s concerns over Zach Greinke’s elbow, Chad Billingsley’s health and consistency or the legitimacy of Brandon League’s late-2012 revamp.

While roster decisions in general should be made based on talent and capability, I won’t mind if the Dodgers stash such relievers as Paco Rodriguez or Josh Wall in the minors (as they have with Javy Guerra and Shawn Tolleson) in order to test the 2013 mettle of those without minor-league options.

The last thing the Dodgers should do is rush into a low-value trade of one of their excess starting pitchers – Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang or Ted Lilly – just so they can make room for a Wall or Kevin Gregg in the back of their bullpen. If they can make a good deal, super – Los Angeles certainly has weak spots among the position players to address, namely in the infield and on that shaky bench. But the end of March is not time to give away starting pitchers for nothing, especially when the existing Dodger starting rotation has its own set of interrogative punctuation (or as they are popularly known, question marks).

It might mean you don’t have the most exquisite 25-man roster for Opening Day. You need to think about the long haul, and the 2013 season, like every other, will absolutely be a long haul.

May 07

Upbeat news on Hairston (or wishful thinking)

Giants at Dodgers, 7:10 p.m.
Dee Gordon, SS
Mark Ellis, 2B
Matt Kemp, CF
Andre Ethier, RF
Juan Rivera, 1B
Bobby Abreu, LF
Juan Uribe, 3B
A.J. Ellis, C
Ted Lilly, P

Jerry Hairston, Jr. might be back in action within a couple of days, according to Eric Stephen of True Blue L.A. Of course, the Dodgers have a long history of underestimating the severity of injuries, but we’ll try to be optimistic.

In fact, already making it back into today’s lineup are Matt Kemp (hooray!) and Juan Uribe (hooray?).

In other news, Kenley Jansen has replaced Javy Guerra as the Dodgers’ closer. Presumably, Josh Lindblom is now the primary set-up man, though it wasn’t immediately spelled out whether Guerra would move into a set-up role or into middle relief while he works out his problems.

May 07

No Guerrantees

I would imagine after his latest blown save Sunday – leading to the Dodgers sixth loss in the ninth inning or later in their past 18 games – Javy Guerra might be moved to pitch in different game situations for the time being, with Josh Lindblom and Kenley Jansen pitching later in games.

That won’t necessarily help the Dodgers until Guerra solves what’s not working for him, regardless of when he’s pitching, but I can understand why it feels worth a try. What Guerra is capable of achieving hasn’t changed, but his ability to execute has gone at least temporarily awry. The downside is that the best time for on-the-job problem-solving is when the team is losing by a few runs, and no one wants to see that.

One thing to keep in mind about Guerra is that he has options remaning, so that if he doesn’t sort things out soon and the Dodgers decide to make a move to Shawn Tolleson or activate Matt Guerrier, Guerra could be the one that comes off the active roster. That’s not necessarily what should or would happen, but it is an alternative to releasing a veteran. And patience with the bullpen must be wearing thin. Remember, about a year ago at this time, Kenley Jansen briefly went to the minors.

Meanwhile, Justin Sellers should be with the Dodgers for tonight’s game against San Francisco following Jerry Hairston Jr.’s unfortunate hamstring injury, which has left the Dodgers with Dee Gordon (below) and Adam Kennedy as their only two fully healthy left-side infielders. A couple of weeks ago, the Dodgers lost on a Sunday at Houston, 12-0, but this most recent Sunday defeat was more painful.

Photo of Dee Gordon © Todd Coffey/Los Angeles Dodgers 2012

Photo of Ted Lilly © Dee Gordon/Los Angeles Dodgers 2012

Apr 24

Guerrier hits disabled list, Antonini called up

Here’s some unexpected bullpen news: Matt Guerrier has gone onto the 15-day disabled list with right elbow tendinitis, retroactive to April 19, the Dodgers announced today.

The team has recalled lefty Michael Antonini from Triple-A Albuquerque. Antonini, who came to the Dodgers in exchange for Chin-Lung Hu in December 2010, would be making his major-league debut. He has a 4.26 ERA with 15 strikeouts against 24 baserunners in 19 innings with Albuquerque this season. In 2011, he had a 4.01 ERA with 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings for Double-A Chattanooga.

Update: More disabled list news comes from the Isotopes, who have placed Alex Castellanos on the sidelines with a left hamstring strain.

Apr 24

Clock ticking on Mike MacDougal?

The Dodger bullpen is nearing another crunch. Todd Coffey is scheduled to pitch in minor-league rehab games Wednesday and Friday, in advance of becoming eligible to come off the disabled list Sunday, reports Ken Gurnick of MLB.com.

Before Coffey went on the disabled list to make room for the activation of Ted Lilly, it appeared that Josh Lindblom would be sent to the minors, because he had options remaining. Since that time, the importance to the Dodger bullpen of Lindblom, who had a 2.73 ERA and 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings last year, has only been underscored. Even after allowing his first run of the season Monday, the 24-year-old Lindblom has a 0.84 ERA in 2012 with nine baserunners in 10 2/3 innings, generally pitching in critical situations. Meanwhile, Mike MacDougal has been just about useless in what has become a mop-up role, allowing 12 of 26 batters to reach base.

Even though the Dodgers have committed $1 million to MacDougal ($650,000 salary for 2012, plus a $350,000 buyout of the club’s nearly insane $2.35 million 2013 option), it’s seemed clear in recent days that Lindblom has established that he has become too important to the Dodgers to send to the minors.

There’s room for a little second-guessing, however.

MacDougal has suffered from a .412 batting average on balls in play (Lindblom is at .174). The 35-year-old’s top problem has been that he has walked five batters in 4 2/3 innings. MacDougal has always had control problems, but as overrated as he might have been in 2011, he’s probably better than he has shown in 2012. The sample sizes are so small that I’m not sure the Dodgers would be ready to give up on their MacDougal investment so early in the year.

On the other hand, they might as well be. MacDougal’s peak value is still replaceable. The Dodgers aren’t hurting for alternatives, including Shawn Tolleson, who continues to absolutely destroy opposing batters in the minors. After becoming the team’s minor league pitcher of the year in 2011, Tolleson has started 2012 by facing 22 batters and striking out 13, while allowing only three to reach base.

In addition, Ronald Belisario’s suspension will end next week (May 3) after the Dodgers play their 25th game, forcing Los Angeles to confront his future. And somewhere down the road, a recovery for Blake Hawksworth theoretically lurks.

There’s only one logical assumption, and that’s another conveniently timed injury will befall a Dodger reliever, perhaps one whose initials are the same as Mickey Mantle’s. Barring that, Los Angeles should be brave enough to confront a future without MacDougal, who conceivably could clear waivers anyway and spend some time in Triple-A, where he pitched as recently as 2010.

Feb 03

Dodgers to sign reliever Coffey

The Dodgers have signed runnin’ righty reliever Todd Coffey, pending a physical, to a one-year deal for $1.3 million, reports Dylan Hernandez of the Times.

The signing comes as a bit of a surprise, considering how full the Dodger bullpen seems even without counting on someone like Ronald Belisario. Los Angeles already has Javy Guerra, Kenley Jansen, Matt Guerrier, Josh Lindblom, Mike MacDougal, Blake Hawksworth (who is recovering from arthroscopic surgery) and Scott Elbert, as well as some promising arms in the minors.

The 31-year-old Coffey is better than the worst of that bunch, averaging 6.9 strikeouts per nine innings last year and 6.7 for his career. Opponents last year had a .305 on-base percentage and .351 slugging percentage against him. He stranded 29 of 36 inherited runners in 2011 (81 percent), a rate that was far better than he normally has. But he’s not so much better that I would see this as anything more as a move to add depth to the relief corps.

Update: Steve Slowinski of Fangraphs calls this signing “excellent,” with the important caveat that Coffey has wide platoon splits favoring him against right-handed batters. Mike Petriello of Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness also approves.

Sep 21

Don’t make Kenley Jansen the closer — he’s too good for the job


Kirby Lee/US PresswireKenley Jansen has allowed two runs since June, while stranding all nine runners he has inherited.

Keeping this as concise as possible in the interest of time:

  • Kenley Jansen has struck out 25 of his past 40 batters.
  • Kenley Jansen has gotten 25 of his past 31 outs via the strikeout.
  • Kenley Jansen is so overwhelming right now, a Giants blog, Bay City Ball, rhapsodized about him.
  • Kenley Jansen has a WHIP of 0.671 since coming off the disabled list in June, allowing eight singles, a double and 10 walks in 28 1/3 innings.
  • Kenley Jansen has allowed a .098 batting average, .192 on-base percentage and .109 slugging percentage in that time.
  • Kenley Jansen is the Dodgers’ most dominant reliever, the reliever you’d most trust to get an out when you need it.

It is for these reasons that I hope the Dodgers do not make Kenley Jansen a closer next season.

Tuesday’s victory illustrated why. If Jansen were the closer, Dodger manager Don Mattingly would have held him back until the ninth inning, rather than having him come put out the fire when Clayton Kershaw gave up a home run and two walks in the eighth inning.

It’s far better that Jansen be available at the game’s biggest crisis point, whatever inning that comes.

My hope is that if Mattingly feels he must have a regular closer in 2012, he is seduced by Guerra’s 19 saves in 20 opportunities and keeps him in that slot. Nothing against Guerra, who has been one of the season’s most pleasant surprises, but he is not a smokejumper like Jansen, who looks more capable of putting out the toughest fires than any other Dodger reliever.

* * *

  • With Colorado’s loss to San Diego today, the Dodgers’ clinched no worse than a third-place finish in the National League West.
  • Matt Kemp could be the first NL player to finish in the top two in home runs and steals since Hank Aaron in 1963, according to Eric Stephen of True Blue L.A.
  • From the Dodger press notes: “Since Aug. 1, James Loney leads the National League with a .359 batting average (51-for-142) and ranks among the league leaders in doubles (15, T-1st), on-base percentage (.425, 4th) and slugging percentage (.627, 2nd).”
  • Kenny Shulsen of Lasorda’s Lair predicted Jerry Sands’ home run off Tim Lincecum on Tuesday — a home run, I believe that will be remembered when debating Sands’ potential this offseason.
  • Tuesday was the 50th anniversary of the Dodgers’ final regular season game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, notes Keith Thursby at the Daily Mirror, which also features a Jim Murray column commemorating the event. Sandy Koufax struck out 15 in a 13-inning complete-game victory. If Baseball-Reference.com is accurate, Koufax threw 213 pitches in the game.
Aug 18

Guerra preserves Dodgers’ 5-1 victory – whew


Morry Gash/APThe Dodgers could see right through Marco Estrada of Milwaukee today.

At the risk of taking Clayton Kershaw for granted, let’s bypass his latest sterling effort — eight shutout innings in the Dodgers’ 5-1 victory over Milwaukee today — and make our periodic foray into a Bullpen Usage 101. Or maybe it should just be Bullpen Usage 1.

Of course, you know the drill by now, the age-old vexation, the pure folly that is refusing to use your top relievers in a tie game in order to preserve them for a save opportunity that might never come. That’s what happened Tuesday, when the Dodgers used the 2011 version of Hong-Chih Kuo and the 21st-century version of Mike MacDougal in a 1-1 ballgame in the bottom of the ninth rather than the Javy Guerra and his scoreless streak of 11 1/3 innings.

[Aside: Kuo was taken out immediately after walking the only batter he faced, Prince Fielder, with Don Mattingly being quoted as saying that he was monitoring Kuo’s usage in an attempt to build his confidence. Now, read that sentence and tell me if you see the logic flaw there.]

Anyway, the Dodgers gave up the run they couldn’t afford to give up Tuesday and lost. Then, when they could afford to give up four runs and still win today, they brought in Guerra and his 1.57 ERA.

For weeks, Mattingly refused to identify Guerra as his closer, but now he’s become so rigid with Guerra that he doesn’t see fit to use him any differently than Jim Tracy used Eric Gagne in his Dodger heyday. And that rigidity itself is ironic, because it was Mattingly’s flexibility in using Guerra as his ninth-inning stopper — ahead of a veteran with saves and All-Star credit like MacDougal — that gave birth to Guerrarama.

That Guerra allowed a run today doesn’t change what the best odds were for the Dodgers.

Someday, managers will stop trying to explain why they think a lead in the 10th is more pressure-filled than a tie game in the ninth, and actually just do the right thing. Mattingly should seize the opportunity to be that man. To paraphrase “Say Anything”: “The world is full of guys. Be a manager.”

* * *

OK, I can’t ignore Kershaw completely.

Kershaw threw only 104 pitches in his eight innings. In the sixth, he was nursing the 1-0 lead that Rod Barajas’ 11th home run of the year provided when the Brewers put runners on first and third with one out, and MVP candidates Ryan Braun and Fielder due up.

The 23-year-old retired each batter on the first pitch to get out of the inning. To do so that economically was something of a fluke, but it sure wasn’t surprising, and it’s that kind of confidence that Kershaw is inspiring that is only adding to his legend.

Kershaw is now at a league-leading 199 strikeouts for the season and five wins away from 20, the latter as cool as it is meaningless. Twenty-three years old.

Jul 25

Javy Gravy? A guarded response to Guerramania


Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PresswireJavy Guerra

All praise is due to Dodger reliever Javy Guerra, who had never pitched above Double-A before 2011 but has posted a standout rookie season.

The 25-year-old has a 1.99 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 22 2/3 innings against 31 baserunners and has yet to blow a save opportunity. His perceived calm on the mound — perhaps marked by how he pitched out of a bases-loaded, none-out jam of his own making July 8 against San Diego — has led many to wonder if the Dodgers have found their replacement at closer for Jonathan Broxton, who surely will not be back in a Dodger uniform in 2012, if at all.

On one level, I take issue with the question itself — the goal is always simply to find the best relievers you can and not worry about their roles. Part of the beauty of what happened with Guerra this year is how he wasn’t assigned the closer job, but just began pitching in the ninth inning because he happened to be the guy who was available. You shouldn’t doubt, for example, that Kenley Jansen, who has been absolutely unhittable since coming off the disabled list, could close games.

But as far as whether Guerra is the real deal, I’m of two minds. He certainly showed his potential after striking out 8.8 batters per nine innings in his 65 games with Chattanooga from 2009-11. But he has also always allowed a fair number of baserunners: his career WHIP in Double-A is nearly 1.5. That’s not all that good. Jansen’s WHIP at Chattanooga, by comparison, was below 1.1. It’s reasonable to suggest that Guerra might be pitching over his head.

People are talking about Guerra’s precocious performance, but we’ve done that about many other young relievers who made strong debuts only to falter a year later. People are talking about Guerra’s fearlessness and attack mentality on the mound … just like they did for John Ely. Seriously, there were experts that not only thought Ely was the real deal a year ago, they were crediting him for showing other Dodgers how to pitch. A year later, he’s a pitcher of last resort.

Guerra is on a particular roll of late, having retired his past 10 batters over four appearances – striking out five and earning saves in each game. It’s wonderful. I’m just not ready to declare him a natural closer, partly because I’m skeptical about the use of such a definition, partly because we still haven’t seen enough of him to know how effective he’ll be over the long haul.

We shouldn’t be surprised if Guerra hits a rough patch. We also shouldn’t be alarmed. The guy hasn’t even faced 100 batters yet in his career – I’d recommend being patiently optimistic. I’m just saying, it really is still early.

In any case, the Dodgers do appear to have the potential for a nice, mostly home-grown bullpen brewing for 2012, with Guerra, Jansen, Scott Elbert and minor-leaguers including Josh Lindblom, Steven Ames, Shawn Tolleson and Cole St. Clair in the mix. That’s seven names right there before you even talk about veteran holdovers like Matt Guerrier, Blake Hawksworth and Mike MacDougal. Broxton and Hong-Chih Kuo might be gone next season because of performance, salary and injury concerns, in much the same manner that Russell Martin departed last winter, but at least in this area, Los Angeles looks ready to move on without them.

Update: More on Guerra here from Jason Grey of ESPN.com.

Jun 18

A low down dirty shame

One thing I noticed about the sixth-inning-gone-wrong in the Dodgers’ 7-3 loss to Houston on Friday was how the hitters who did the most damage to Ted Lilly were diving for pitches.

Carlos Lee went down and away to loop a 200-foot single to drive in the run that broke a 1-1 tie. The first-pitch breaking ball was not in the strike zone. Then, with the bases loaded, Clint Barmes hit a 1-0 slider over the plate but down at his knees, slicing a two-run double just inside the right-field line about 250 feet down.

The topper came on a two out, 3-2 fastball to Jason Bourgeois – first seen here in my 2002 article on Single-A ball in Savannah, right around the time I started Dodger Thoughts – that was over the center of the plate, but all Bourgeois did with that was hit a grounder up the middle that Aaron Miles flagged, only to miss on the throw to second, allowing two runs to score.

In the meantime, Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com can tell you about the Dodgers’ lack-of-patience woes at the plate.

Not the Dodgers’ night, or their week, or their month, or their year.

* * *

Kenley Jansen, one of three injured Dodger relievers coming off the disabled list in the short term, returns to the active roster today. The trio of returnees will create some tough cuts in the Dodger bullpen, starting with Josh Lindblom, who is being sent to Double-A for the time being.

Note where Lindblom ranks on the following lists …

Opponents’ OPS in 2011 for recently active Dodger relievers
.624 Josh Lindblom
.629 Matt Guerrier
.637 Blake Hawksworth
.686 Scott Elbert
.749 Mike MacDougal
.777 Javy Guerra
.996 Ramon Troncoso

Opponents’ OPS in past 28 days for recently active Dodger relievers
.588 Blake Hawksworth
.624 Josh Lindblom
.686 Matt Guerrier
.840 Scott Elbert
.851 Mike MacDougal
.863 Ramon Troncoso
.868 Javy Guerra

Jun 01

Despite loss, kids continue to carry Dodger bullpen


Icon SMI/US PresswireRubby De La Rosa and Scott Elbert brought relief from the minors.

The kids have come to the rescue of the Dodger bullpen, and not nearly enough has been said about it.

Jonathan Broxton went on the disabled list May 6, followed within 10 days by Hong-Chih Kuo, Vicente Padilla and Blake Hawksworth. To replace them, the Dodgers brought up Kenley Jansen (who had temporarily gone down to Chattanooga), Scott Elbert, Javy Guerra and Ramon Troncoso.

Another week later, the Dodgers dispatched mop-up man Lance Cormier and replaced him with Rubby De La Rosa. Then in the past week, Jansen went on the disabled list and was replaced by Josh Lindblom, who made his major-league debut with an inning in the finale of the Colorado series Wednesday.

Of the replacements, Troncoso was the veteran with all of 177 1/3 career innings. The combined career experience of Jansen, Elbert, Guerra, De La Rosa and Lindblom was 39 2/3 innings. Their average age: 23 1/2. Think about it – more than half of the bullpen handed over to runts.

Here’s how they’ve done, including the 3-0 Dodger loss to Colorado, in which the bullpen followed Jon Garland’s six-inning, three-run start with shutout ball:

  • Jansen: 7 2/3 innings, 13 baserunners, four earned runs (4.69 ERA), 13 strikeouts, 0 of 5 inherited runners scored
  • Troncoso: six innings, six baserunners, no earned runs (0.00 ERA), two strikeouts, 2 of 5 inherited runners scored
  • Guerra: seven innings, nine baserunners, two earned runs (2.57 ERA), five strikeouts, 0 of 0 inherited runners scored
  • De La Rosa: five innings, four baserunners, one earned run (1.80 ERA), five strikeouts, 0 of 0 inherited runners scored
  • Elbert: 4 2/3 innings, six baserunners, no earned runs (0.00 ERA), seven strikeouts, 1 of 6 inherited runners scored
  • Lindblom: one inning, two baserunners, no earned runs (0.00 ERA), no strikeouts, 0 of 0 inherited runners scored

Total: 31 1/3 innings, 40 baserunners, seven earned runs, 32 strikeouts, 2.01 ERA, 3 of 16 inherited runners scored

That’s remarkable, especially considering we can assume that we can possibly attribute three of the seven runs allowed to the shoulder inflammation that sent Jansen to the disabled list.

The news that Padilla is expected to return to active duty Friday will, barring injury, start pushing the runts back to the minor leagues, but each has made the case to stay with the big club. Considered a weakness less than a month ago, the Dodger bullpen will in less than 48 hours have eight effective relievers to choose from, with more to come as Broxton, Kuo, Hawksworth and Jansen get back on their feet.

The other noteworthy thing is that with all the injuries, Dodger manager Don Mattingly has basically been forced to throw the idea of a designated closer out the window, instead bringing in pitchers simply based on the situation rather than their title or status. Unshackled from a pecking order, the Dodger kids haven’t suffered – they’ve thrived. Jansen, Guerra and De La Rosa have all finished close games, while Elbert and now even Lindblom have pitched in situations where giving up a single run could be a killer. De La Rosa, whose destiny remains starting pitcher, could be a circa-1992 Pedro Martinez-like smokejumper, giving you a couple innings at a time as long as there’s sufficient rest in between.

Message to Mattingly: Do yourself a favor. As the veterans return to the pen, don’t get caught up in who your closer is. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Manage according to the situation, not according to resume.

May 19

Padilla latest to go (back) to the disabled list

Vicente Padilla is heading back to the disabled list with a balky forearm, meaning that Ramon Troncoso will be called up and perhaps get a chance to work on that 20.25 ERA. With Padilla, Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo and Blake Hawksworth out, more than half the Dodgers’ regularly scheduled bullpen is on the DL. That’s brutal.

May 01

Kuo activated, Jansen sent to Chattanooga


Harry How/Getty ImagesAaron Miles and the Dodgers will try to get back on their feet today

The first part of the headline is the most important: The Dodgers get Hong-Chih Kuo back after a minor-league rehab appearance Friday (his third) in which he allowed no runs or walks and struck out two. But the more curious aspect is the second part, in which the Dodgers optioned reliever Kenley Jansen to Triple-A rather than cut loose back-of-the-bullpen reliever Lance Cormier. (Update: The Dodgers later issued a correction saying that Jansen has gone down to Double-A Chattanooga.)

Jansen has had two certifiably terrible outings, one April 2, the other April 19. But in has past three games, covering 4 2/3 innings, Jansen has allowed no hits, walked two and struck out nine. That makes Jansen the Dodgers’ most effective reliever over the past week.

If this small sample size were all that Jansen had going for him, that’d be one thing, but the two bad outings in April are much more of an aberration in the Jansen oeuvre than what he’s done recently. Jansen’s career numbers remain strong: 2.90 ERA, 49 baserunners vs. 63 strikeouts in 40 1/3 innings.

Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com writes that the Dodgers want Jansen to develop a secondary pitch, and that the Dodgers value Cormier’s role as a mop-up man, which is as damned with faint praise as you get. So what this boils down to is the Dodgers breaking more eggs in their bullpen, in the hopes that they’ll bake a better cake in the long term. It’s not the end of the world, but Jansen will be missed.

As long as Cormier’s sticking around, can I suggest again that the Dodgers use the right-handed Cormier more against left-handed batters, a group he continues to have the most success against?

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