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By Jon Weisman
Throughout the flurry of Dodger deals that greeted us in early December, I’d see a recurring question from folks on social media: “What about the bullpen?”
This puzzles me, because roughly two months before pitchers and catchers report, there has already been a significant teardown of 2014’s core relief corps.
Let’s look at it this way. For an average game, the Dodger bullpen will probably carry seven pitchers. One of those is Kenley Jansen, whom I’d like to think we can stipulate doesn’t need to be replaced. Another is J.P. Howell, who had a rough go of it after mid-September, but up to that point was having one of the top relief seasons in Dodger history. You’re not going to cut him loose.
But otherwise, change is in the air. Brian Wilson is gone. So are Scott Elbert, Chris Perez and Jamey Wright. Chris Withrow is recovering from Tommy John surgery and won’t be ready for Opening Day. Brandon League, who balanced 1.52 baserunners per innings by leading National League relievers in double-play grounders, is the only other 2014 Dodger reliever remaining on the roster without minor-league options.
What of the rest?
Paco Rodriguez, Pedro Baez, Carlos Frias, Yimi Garcia and Daniel Coulombe are all young pitchers who have contributed in the past and might contribute more in the future — but given that each spent considerable time in the minors in 2014, none are locks to be in Los Angeles for Opening Day 2015.
Still, those five form a good pool to draw from. I did a double-take to realize that Baez, who turns 27 in March, is the oldest, while the youngest is Rodriguez, who made his Dodger debut in 2012 but won’t be 24 until April. (Another 24-year-old is Garcia, who struck out nine while allowing seven baserunners in 10 September innings with the Dodgers, after holding Pacific Coast League opponents to a 3.10 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in 2014.)
Joining that quintet from outside the organization are righties Juan Nicasio (whose transition from starting to relief was analyzed by both Mike Petriello and Daniel Brim of Dodgers Digest), Joel Peralta (Petriello) and Chris Hatcher (Brim) and lefty Adam Liberatore, who had a 0.89 WHIP, 1.66 ERA and 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings in 54 games for Triple-A Durham.
With Nicasio, Peralta and Hatcher alone, you have the likelihood that about half of the everyday 2015 bullpen will differ from what was there at the end of 2014. And again, it’s still only December. Before we even dip into the next two months of signings and non-roster invites, or any other members of the organization — including starters who could be converted into relief — we already have a dozen relief pitchers in contention for seven spots.
What I suppose you don’t have is a true headline-grabbing relief acquisition, such as Andrew Miller going to the Yankees for four years — but given the ongoing volatility of relief performance, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As I wrote in October, “only 10 relievers (including Jansen) have finished in the WAR top 50 for three consecutive years.” Miller, the No. 7 reliever in Wins Above Replacement in 2014, was 106th the year before.
There is no magic bullet for quality relief pitching, only making good bets and then hoping for the best. But it’s pretty clear that recalibrating the bullpen has been an offseason priority, and that it will have a different look than 2014 — perhaps much different. And where it’s not different in appearance, you might see improvement from players within the organization … that could make all the difference.