The Dodgers were counting on Tom Koehler to fill a late-inning role out of the bullpen and perhaps serve as the bridge to Kenley Jansen. On Friday, Koehler sprained his shoulder and could be out for a couple months.
The Dodgers have depth in Major League camp that will help cushion the loss of Koehler for an extended period.
Koehler has apparently avoided surgery, a promising sign for the Dodgers. Shoulder injuries have derailed pitchers’ careers, especially shoulder injuries with tears. New Dodger Bullpen Coach Mark Prior can relate, as he suffered a premature ending via shoulder injury to what appeared to be a career destined for greatness. Prior never fully recovered from surgery, and spent nearly a decade trying to return to form before retiring. Super phenom Julio Urias is attempting to come back from “minor” shoulder surgery, so the Dodgers are handling him with kid gloves, and hoping for the best. Koehler appears to have dodged a bullet and should be able to recuperate with rest and rehab.
Koehler’s loss essentially creates two holes on the Dodgers–a slot in the bullpen, naturally, and even more important, the loss of a potential eighth-inning set-up reliever. Granted, this role has been fluid with the Dodgers under Dave Roberts, as it is usually match-up dependent. However, as evidenced in the postseason, a shutdown eighth-inning reliever like Brandon Morrow is a nice luxury to have. We will address this need first.
The bottom line is the organization needs Pedro Baez to step up and claim that eighth inning set-up role. Baez has the stuff to blow hitters away but needs to develop some consistency. Josh Fields also throws gas but has not dominated in high leverage situations as of yet. If he can excel in these critical situations and take his game to the next level, he could claim the role.
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As far as the rest of the projected eight-man bullpen, plan on Ross Stripling making the club as a multi-inning/long reliever type who will spot start, and Tony Cingrani and Scott Alexander shutting down the opposition from the left side. Cingrani is a one-time closer who could probably get the eighth inning job done as well. He just won’t get first shot at the role, as he will have his own utility as a left-handed specialist, and multi-inning reliever. Just like Stripling, Cingrani has experience as a starting pitcher. Expect to see any of the above serve as the bridge to Jansen should the situation dictate.
The remaining two spots in the bullpen are a wide-open competition at the early going here in spring training. Yimi Garcia, Adam Liberatore, and Wilmer Font are the likely favorites at this stage of the spring. Journeymen veterans Mark Lowe, and Brian Schlitter are long shots. Switch-pitcher Pat Venditte has looked good so far in limited action but is likely headed to AAA as depth, along with Cuban fireballer Yaisel Sierra, lefty Edward Paredes, and recent waiver claim JT Chargois.
I don’t see Brock Stewart as an immediate fit for the ‘pen since he will be relied upon to build up innings in AAA to serve as an emergency starting pitcher when the need arises. So that really leaves Garcia, Liberatore, and Font vying for those last two spots.
Liberatore appears to be the odd man out of this group. He is a lefty, is still being brought along slowly after last year’s injury, and even more importantly, has a minor league option remaining. Garcia is also returning from an injury, but it was an injury sustained nearly two years ago. Garcia also is drawing rave reviews from staff as it appears he is back to full strength. Garcia is also at an advantage, as he appeared to have been groomed for the eighth inning role a couple seasons ago prior to his injury. Font is out of options and has looked good so far. Font also has value as a starting pitching option. Right now, he looks too valuable to try and slide through waivers.
Koehler’s injury will derail the Dodgers bullpen plans slightly. however, the good news is he should be back by midseason. His loss is also offset by the serious competition this spring by the likes of Garcia, Font, and others. Couple these additions with the continued growth of Baez and Fields and the ‘pen should be a formidable unit once more in 2018.