The Dodgers Bullpen: Reclamation Project Gone Wrong


While I’ve been deep in the trenches covering the day-to-day Dodger games and frustratingly writing about numerous extra-inning losses and bullpen implosions, the Dodgers have settled into third place over the course of the first quarter of the 2014 season. With the Giants rebounding from their historically abysmal season this year, the Dodgers will need to figure things out in order to defend their National League West title. It won’t be easy. Colorado is suddenly a factor as well, and the Boys in Blue certainly have some kinks to work out if they should challenge San Francisco for the top spot.

Chris Perez has not shown any instance that he can return to his prior form when he was a successful closer for Cleveland. Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The bullpen. Where do I begin? Adrian offered some fixes in his article about the bewildered pen, but I feel like I need to address just how bad the relief squad has been this season and try to figure out why. Before the season started, I admittedly wrote about the multi-dimensional aspect of the bullpen, and I legitimately thought the Dodgers bullpen could be one of the best in the league. Boy, was I wrong. Watching the Dodger relievers struggle this season so far has been at first quite shocking since at first glance the members of the pen all have valuable talent and strengths, or did so at one point in their career.

The Dodgers bullpen is a reclamation project gone wrong. Brandon League, Chris Perez and Brian Wilson were once top closers at one point in their career. Yet there is a reason why the Mariners, Indians, and Giants gave up on them. Pitching, especially relief pitching, is so volatile and fleeting. We all know the sorrowful story of Jonathan Broxton, right? Once each was striking out batters in the ninth inning for their prospective team and closing out games while collecting saves. Disclaimer: saves are not the stat in which to accurately assess a reliever’s value to a team. Brandon League once had 37 saves back in 2011, Chris Perez saved 39 games for Cleveland in 2012, and Brian Wilson impressed with 48 saves for the Giants in their championship 2010 season. Like a wishing well, eventually the success dries up. The question then becomes, should the Dodgers squeeze every last bit of potential innings out of these washed up late-inning hurlers or should they be left to the wayside to be replaced by younger yet less experienced arms?

Carlos Marmol was just released by the Marlins on Monday. The Dodgers had picked him up last season for another one of their projects. There is just so much magic which Rick Honeycutt perform. Marmol was indeed a wild and inevitable lost cause. The Dodgers moved on from Marmol, but will they need to move on from Wilson, Perez, and or League too?

The season is a long drawn out marathon, and the old saying goes “you can never have enough pitching.” We have all witnessed the extreme work load this Dodgers bullpen has taken on after the starting pitchers haven’t been able to do deep into games while the defense has also tacked on extra pitches to the starters’ and relievers’ arms as well. It’s easy to say that the Dodgers should just cut loose Wilson or Perez or the 2013 Brandon League, but the Dodgers also need to eat innings throughout the season at times, and unfortunately those times have been far too often this season so far. Calling up young arms like Yimi Garcia seems like a logical fix in order to replace one of the older and battered arms out of the pen, but with the Dodgers’ offense stagnating and the defense also adding to the losses, should they bring up these young guns now or later in the season when playoffs will be looming?

The other side of the coin is that every game counts. Falling behind early in the season is not the optimal place the Dodgers want to be in. The

Brandon League isn’t so much the problem anymore. Who would have thought? Photo: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

historical 42-8 streak will not repeat itself. I’m sorry to be negative in that respect, but I also have to look at things logically. That epic and sweeping winning streak was perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime Dodger moment which may not ever happen again. After all, a team shouldn’t just chuck in these early games in hope of a later season winning streak which may not ever happen. That’s why you want to have your best players on the field at all times. So, is Chris Perez and Brian Wilson the Dodgers’ best choices right now?

My answer is no. No, Brian Wilson and Chris Perez shouldn’t be a liability to the team just so that they can work out their problems on the mound. Brandon League, the conundrum, is the exception. For now, the comeback season from League has silenced myself and all the other League haters, and I am the first one to admit he has been downright effective this season. Like Adrian mentioned, who knows if this nice scoreless streak will last. It probably won’t. Although my expectations for League are very low, so any positive contributions the right-hander can make to the team are appreciated. We are all aware that the Dodgers are not cutting Brandon League with his exorbitant contract in just its second year, so for now League stays.

Chris Withrow has been consistently inconsistent. Walking a batter, striking out a batter, then walking the next is the pattern we have seen from Chris this season. He has been walking more batters than ever (18 BB in 20 2/3 innings), and while that is extremely frustrating, this kid is in just his second Major League season. Withrow has electric, dare I say ninth inning stuff, but his control is the wild problem. Like Jose Dominguez, Withrow has the right stuff, he just needs to figure out how to spot where he wants the ball once it leaves his hand. That will come, I can only hope.

Jamey Wright doesn’t look to be going anywhere, and I’m still rooting for the veteran to finally collect that World Series ring he has been striving for. For some reason the Jamey Wright has never pitched in the playoffs narrative really pulled on my emotional heartstrings. Jamey did finally get the opportunity to pitch in the postseason with Tampa Bay, but wouldn’t the story be even sweeter if the eldest member of the squad could pitch in the Fall Classic?

Kenley Jansen is still amazing. Sure, he’s had a few bad games while battling the flu, but Jansen has already appeared in 22 games this season and overuse and Don Mattingly‘s mismanagement of the bullpen has contributed to his so-called struggles. Jansen still has struck out 31 batters in just 18 2/3 innings with 9 walks. Not too shabby.

J.P. Howell has been reliable out of the bullpen, and he was one of the better signings this past offseason for the Dodgers. He’s a great option for Mattingly not only as a LOOGY but also as a set-up option since Howell has been effective against lefties and righties this season (right-handed batters are hitting .156 against Howell while lefties are hitting .217). I have no complaints with Howell, but I would like to see Paco Rodriguez back in the pen in order to pair with Howell so that he is not the only left-handed option Mattingly has.

The biggest concerns for the Dodgers when it comes to the bullpen is pretty obvious. Brian Wilson and Chris Perez have both been ineffective and downright awful. While you can’t disable Wilson if he is healthy, his struggles this season can’t go without questioning his twice surgically repaired elbow which already landed him on the DL once this season when it acted up. While Wilson’s reaction to the media is always odd, his answers to Alanna Rizzo out of the Dodger dugout during the Arizona series were defensive. He basically said that the games he has pitched in didn’t really matter, because he wasn’t pitching in high leverage situations. He insinuated that he was upset he hadn’t closed a game in awhile, but while Brian Wilson was once certainly one of the best closers in the game for the Giants, that was four years ago. Right now the Dodgers need him to be effective in any role or inning they put him in. If that’s a problem, then perhaps Wilson’s days in L.A. are numbered. 13 walks in 13 1/3 innings is not acceptable no matter what inning you are pitching in.

Chris Withrow can’t find the strike zone this season. Photo: H.Darr Beiser-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Perez has been in decline since his two great season with Cleveland back in 2011-2012. Like League, he began to struggle and the Indians gave up on the big right-hander. What is Chris Perez’s role in the Dodgers’ bullpen? Is he a work in progress with late inning aspirations, or is he a washed up closer who is thrown into middle relief in order to try to bridge the gap to Kenley? I’m confused by the signing, and even though  Ronald Belisario had his issues both personal and on the mound, Belisario’s sinker was downright nasty.

Just how bad has the Dodger bullpen been this season? The bullpen has allowed the most earned runs in the National League (75), by far the most walks (83), the most hits (141), tied with the Cubs for most losses (11), they are thirteenth in ERA (4.38), and they’ve pitched the most innings (154). With these alarming numbers continuing, the Dodgers will not be a viable contender in the division especially coupled with their inconsistent offense especially from the heart of the order. Hanley Ramirez is only hitting .251 and Adrian Gonzalez is slowly coming out of a slump while hitting .275 going into the series in New York.

The solution to the bullpen mess is a complicated one, and there doesn’t seem to be an easy fix aside from cutting or disabling Brian Wilson and letting Chris Perez go while bringing up Paco Rodriguez or another young arm like Jose Dominguez or Garcia who aren’t guaranteed to find instant success in the Majors either. On Wednesday, the Dodgers are expected to activate Hyun-jin Ryu to start and shift Paul Maholm to the bullpen. While the easy move would be to option or designate the mostly useless Chone Figgins, the Dodgers will then be short a utility player off the bench. Optioning Chris Withrow would be another alternative, yet not the best choice in my opinion. Paul Maholm out of the bullpen could be useful as a long-reliever, an asset the Dodgers have needed this season during these extra inning affairs or when the starters have not gone the distance. The problem is that Maholm will take the spot of another almost certainly better reliever in the bullpen.

Spending my off day writing about the Dodgers bullpen woes isn’t the most relaxing or enjoyable task, yet the Dodgers somehow need relief from these relievers. While we can sit back and blame Don Mattingly for the bullpen problems, he isn’t the one walking lead-off batters in the late innings or unleashing wild pitches during high leverage situations. Sure, Mattingly’s moves can be questioned at times, but without the ability to throw strikes consistently, the bullpen remains ineffective and a weak spot for this Dodgers team. Rick Honeycutt, please work your magic.