All-star shortstop out for the year? Check. World’s greatest pitcher out with an arm injury? Check. Stud third baseman not seen a big league pitch yet due to a wrist fracture? I mean, what else can really go wrong? Well, glad you asked.
Kenley Jansen, probably the game’s greatest closer when he’s right, hasn’t seemed…well, right. It started late in spring with what was deemed a minor hamstring injury. Though it’s merely speculation, that hammy appeared to cause Jansen to make some mechanical compensations that resulted in diminished velocity and increased hittability of his virtually unhittable cutter. This manifested in a couple of spectacular blown saves and losses courtesy of monstrous home runs by guys you might not expect monstrous home runs from (see: Owings, Chris). This, of course, led to all manner of hand-wringing. What were we to do if we couldn’t at least rely on our relief ace to shut the door in the ninth inning?
Fortunately, Kenley started converting his save chances and the aforementioned hand-wringing receded down to merely a bit of nervous foot tapping. Now we’re left to ask, why is there any nervousness at all? Again, I’m glad you asked. Jansen’s career K/9 rate is just shy of an other-worldly 14. FOURTEEN! This year, it’s a more pedestrian 8. He’s quite simply not generating as many swings and misses as we’re accustomed to. Now, I’m far from the first person to notice or point this out. I had just thought it would get better, and it really hasn’t. Now, generally speaking, outs are outs. If at the end of the day you got three outs in the ninth without allowing anyone to score, you did your job. But there’s definitely something comforting about a guy who blows everyone away being the closer. Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by years of watching batters flail helplessly at Kenley’s legendary cutter, and that’s why his inability to induce swings and misses with it so far in 2018 is so shocking.
The hope is that it means nothing. It could, after all, just be the rust still getting knocked off. He didn’t get a ton of action in Spring Training, and couple the Dodgers abysmal play so far in 2018 with Dave Roberts’ seeming aversion to using Kenley in anything but a save situation, he’s gone four or five days between appearances on multiple occasions. But what if it isn’t nothing. What if an injury is still lurking beneath the surface? What if something is still wrong with Kenley and we lose him too?
Last season, this would have been an easy question to answer. Brandon Morrow (now of the Cubbies) was one of baseball’s best setup men in 2017 and could have slotted into the closer role for as long as it took Kenley to get healthy. The options became more plentiful at the trade deadline when the team acquired Tony Watson (now of the Hated Ones) who had plenty of closing experience with Pittsburgh. But at the risk of restating the obvious, this isn’t 2017 and neither of those guys are on the team anymore. The 2018 options aren’t nearly as clear-cut. Tom Koehler was brought in as a free agent to fill the Brandon Morrow role after some success in a very small sample size of relief pitching after a career of throwing mostly batting practice as a starter, but he’s been hurt since early in Spring. Lefty Scott Alexander was acquired in a trade with Kansas City with the expectation that he’d get late-inning work, but he has been mostly awful, and even got himself briefly demoted to AAA. Ross Stripling got off to a nice start in 2018, but injuries to Kershaw and Rich Hill necessitated a move to the rotation for him. Tony Cingrani has had sustained periods of dominance but is now on the DL with shoulder/dead arm concerns. So who is left?
It doesn’t look pretty.
The hard-throwing righty is the only guy other than Kenley to be brought in for the ninth in a save situation so far this season, and worked a 1-2-3 inning. That’s the good. The bad is, well, everything else. Fields has managed a sub-3 ERA since joining the Dodgers in 2016, but his peripherals tell a different story – one in which his FIP is about a run and a half higher. His groundball rate is practically nonexistent, and as you might expect from a fly ball pitcher with fastball he leaves over the plate too much, he’s dinger-prone. Still, Roberts went to him in a save situation and as the old saying goes (writer’s note: I actually have no idea if this is an old saying or not, but it sounded good here), if someone does something once, they will do it again.
You laugh. Or maybe you cry because you know I’m being serious. Both Roberts and his predecessor Don Mattingly have thrown Baez into save situations in either extra innings or with Kenley unavailable due to usage, with mostly disastrous results. But a three pitch mix including a high 90’s fastball doesn’t grow on trees, and neither do guys who absolutely own Paul Goldschmidt. Petey is probably the most hated Dodger reliever among fans since Tom Niedenfuer, and hasn’t done much to inspire any confidence since about September of last year. That said, his failures thus far haven’t stopped Roberts from running him out there in key situations, and if the other options are even worse…
Now here’s a guy who is actually interesting. When he throws strikes, he’s virtually unhittable, as evidenced by his 18 strikeouts versus only 8 hits allowed in 14 innings. The problem is, he doesn’t always throw strikes, as we can see with his 10 walks allowed in those same 14 innings. There had to be a reason the Twins, not exactly synonymous with bullpen depth, cut ties with him, right? That said, he’s the only relief pitcher on the team other than Stripling who has pitched mostly well. Roberts tends to only like using him to protect three-run deficits in the sixth inning or earlier, but if he keeps pitching well and other guys mostly suck…
In a word, no. Garcia burst on the scene in 2015, electrifying fans with his high-90s fastball. Hitters eventually caught on that his slider wasn’t sharp, and he didn’t always locate his fastball and dingers commenced. He missed most of 2016 and all of 2017 with injuries, and while he’s back with his explosive heater this year, but also packed his middling breaking stuff and dinger propensity when he left AAA for the big club. He’s perfectly serviceable as a 6th or 7th inning guy, but no more than that.
Easy! Put the rotting produce down! I too have seen how captivating his starts have been so far this season, and why would we want to mess with that!? While I understand, I also remember that Buehler is on an innings limit this year, and regardless of how well he does in his starts, they’ll shut him down at some point, in the neighborhood of 120-140 innings. However, couldn’t one manage his innings by simply shipping him off to the bullpen and have him fire 102 mph fastballs and an obscene change up past helpless and desperate batsmen? Me thinks so, but one of the reasons I waited this long to mention him is I’m pretty sure nobody else thinks so. Oh well.
Given the team’s start to the year, coupled with Arizona’s blazing start, it’s not a foregone conclusion the Dodgers will contend this year. In fact, it’s looking like more and more like the opposite. This means that the front office will be unlikely to give up prospects for a rental closer around the deadline. However, they might be less averse to trading prospects for a pitcher who fits the profile AND comes along with a year or three of control. Someone like Miami’s Kyle Barraclough, for example. Somehow, Barraclough is behind both the ancient (yet somehow still reasonably effective) Brad Ziegler and the unproven Drew Steckenrider in the Marlins’ bullpen pecking order. This may be partially due to Don Mattingly’s general ineptness when it comes to bullpen management, but maybe the team doesn’t really value Barraclough as highly as it should. Is there seriously anyone who wouldn’t want to go get him?
Have I neglected to mention anyone? Let us know @thestainsports and @DodgersNation on Twitter. Thank you for reading.
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