There might not be anything that has been more agonized over, more debated and more complained about than the Los Angeles Dodgers bullpen the past three seasons.
Rather than spend big on this group (aside from Kenley Jansen), the front office has been content to depend on their ability to find diamonds in the rough and develop relievers from within.
Despite the complaining from the outside, the results have been pretty remarkable. In 2016, the bullpen had the league’s best ERA. In 2017 they were fourth (despite posting an almost identical ERA to the year before). In 2018 they were eighth.
All told, it’s hard to complain about much. And yet, here we are in 2019 and people are already lamenting the group that Andrew Friedman and Co. have assembled. So, rather than complain blindly, let’s look at who the Dodgers are counting on this season.
For starters, we’re making the assumption that Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Rich Hill and Hyun-Jin Ryu are all starters. Of course, that’s only four names — and so the fifth will likely come from the group of Kenta Maeda, Ross Stripling and Julio Urias.
While whichever two aren’t initially in the rotation will obviously be huge assets in the bullpen, for the purposes of this exercise, we’ll set them aside for now.
Even after a rollercoaster 2018, Jansen remains the anchor of the bullpen — for better or worse. After two straight seasons of an ERA well under two, Jansen saw his ERA balloon to 3.01 last season with four blown saves in 42 chances.
Now 31, it’s reasonable to wonder what Jansen’s career looks like moving long-term, but for now there’s reason to believe Jansen is still an elite closer.
One of the team’s two free-agent acquisitions thus far, Kelly will turn 31 this season and is admittedly a fairly large question mark. While many (myself included) will do all we can to make this signing look like a big deal, the reality is that Kelly posted an ERA of 4.39 last season (and got worse as the regular season went on).
Of course, Kelly was dominant in the postseason (0.79 ERA in 11.1 innings with 13 strikeouts and 0 walks), but whether that translates to an entire season remains to be seen.
Long a lightning rod in the bullpen, it’s impossible to deny what Baez did last season. Per to FanGraphs’ WAR, Baez was the team’s most valuable reliever last year — posting an ERA of 2.88 in 55 appearances, while posting a better strikeout per nine and BB/9 than the season before.
Nearly 31 years old himself, the Dodgers are surely hoping that Baez’s improvements persist for another season.
Second on the team in WAR (of all relievers)? That’s right — it’s Floro, despite pitching in just 29 games. In those appearances, he posted an ERA of 1.63 while striking out 10.08 batters per-nine-innings. Floro also made eight appearances in the postseason and posted a 3.86 ERA.
The find of the bullpen during the 2017 season, Cingrani regressed a bit last year with a 4.76 ERA. The good news is that the peripherals suggest that this was incredibly bad luck for Cingrani.
His FIP (essentially a projected ERA based on various peripherals) was just 2.32. This was mostly thanks to an absurd K/9 (14.29) and a ridiculously low BB/9 (2.38). Cingrani also battled injuries last season, which limited him to just 22.2 innings pitched.
Alexander was the 2017 version of Kelly (sort of). He was the acquired bullpen arm that everyone hoped would be a difference-maker. Instead, he turned out to be a pretty average middle reliever — which is totally fine and necessary.
Last season, Alexander was a workhorse, leading the team in appearances with 72. In those appearances he was fine — posting a 3.62 ERA thanks to his ability to get groundballs 70.6 percent of the time.
If there was a pleasant surprise that came from nowhere in 2018’s bullpen, it was Ferguson. At just 22 years old, Ferguson pitched 38.1 innings out of the bullpen and posted an ERA of 2.35 with fabulous peripherals (11.03 K.9, 1.41 BB/9). With no room for him in the rotation in 2019, Ferguson could move into an even bigger role in the bullpen this season.
It’s weird to think how under-the-radar Fields has been since coming over in a trade with the Houston Astros, but Fields has been the type of solid innings-eater that every bullpen needs.
He isn’t the best pitcher in the world, but he’s available and decent — both of which count for something. While Fields posted the best ERA of his career (2.20), much of that was probably the product of luck — as his strikeout and walk rates both dropped from the year before.
Also, his batting average on balls in play was a miraculous .226 despite getting just 22.9 percent of hitters to put the ball on the ground.
It’s crazy to think the list mentioned includes eight solid Major League relievers and doesn’t include whichever pitchers don’t make the Opening Day rotation. If Stripling, Urias or Maeda were asked to start the season in the bullpen, all three have proven to be capable of being really high-end relievers.
And even having said all that, there are plenty of other wild cards who could make a difference whom we haven’t mentioned. Those who flashed last season at times such as J.T. Chargois, or even young options Dennis Santana, Yimi Garcia or Brock Stewart.
The point is that the Dodgers bullpen is as deep as it has ever been — and while there are definitely question marks surrounding the high-leverage guys, the front office clearly thinks that Jansen, Baez, Kelly and others are capable of providing answers.
And, given their track record, it probably makes sense to trust them on that one.