A bullpen is built craftily. It needs to be a perfect mix of talent, minor league options and flexibility in such a way that a team has choices in what they can do with their players. When the Dodgers released Josh Fields, they gained that flexibility.
Let’s paint a picture.
You are standing in a boxing ring, ready to fight a talented boxer. You both get boxing gloves, the special boxing shoes, a coach and a stool to sit on in between rounds.
The other boxer is talented. He is well known for his offensive style and you have been coached to know that the best and only way to beat him is by playing the best defense you have ever played in your entire life.
There is one catch: your feet are tied together.
The ties around your ankles pose an interesting issue. Your hands, the most important part of your defense are free to move around but in your handheld defense, your ability to move around the ring is limited. You’re handcuffed.
The Dodgers are the boxer with their feet tied as are many major league bullpens.
The maneuver around the season like a boxing ring and they are playing teams that are equally as dangerous as opponents where, like in boxing, one shot can end the match. So, in this metaphorical bout, it is crucial that teams seek out the ‘leg ties’ or the players that bind the bullpen, making the options less and less widespread.
Insert Josh Fields.
Fields is a six-year major league veteran with a power fastball and a curveball thrown with the same amount of effort. His swing and miss style has always been there with a 10.2 K9 rate to prove it and his stats, for the most part, are no joke.
Since joining the Dodgers halfway through the 2016 season, Fields has actually been one of the Dodgers best relievers. Over the last two years combined, he has pitched his way to a 2.57 ERA with a 157 ERA+. He really has been no joke.
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So how does that make him the Dodgers handcuff and why should it warrant his release after just three spring training appearances? The answer is simple, he can’t be sent down.
The Dodgers have long banked on their ability to move players between the major and minor leaguers.
Brock Stewart, for example, has been shuttled between Triple-A and the Major leagues over 15 times in the last year and he practically spends a third of his season on an airplane.
Two years ago it was Luis Avilan who was doing the traveling and while the Dodgers haven’t yet assigned that undesirable job for 2019, it is going to happen almost undoubtedly.
So let’s tie Fields back in here. In the event that the Dodgers want to create a flexible bullpen with players that can play multiple roles as well as have the options to be called up and sent down at will, they need to have the space to do so.
Fields would not have been able to be sent to the minor leagues at any point unless he was designated for assignment thus he would have taken up a roster spot, one less for the Dodgers to work with.
That was the bound feet in the boxing match. Fields was an effective reliever and his removal from the Dodgers’ roster almost certainly had nothing to do with his ability to be a quality bullpen arm. It did, however, have everything to do with his binding roster status and his inability to pitch as a starter and a reliever. He was not flexible contractually or on the mound.
Fields became the odd man out.
However, the case was not this clear cut. Yimi Garcia, another optionless reliever with no room to be moved from the pen to the rotation, is still on the roster. Garcia binds the Dodgers in our metaphorical baseball boxing match just as much as Fields did. So why keep him and not the player who has had proven and consistent success as a major leaguer?
Looking at this in comparison, the answer is far from obvious. Garcia has played 100 less major league games than Fields since 2015 and Fields has still been the better pitcher across much more work.
As a matter of fact, Garcia does not pass Fields in any statistical pitching category in that set timespan.
But, there is one number that is hard to quantify in value and even harder to conquer: age.
Josh Fields will turn 33 in August while Yimi Garcia will turn 29 just one day earlier. Factor in the age gap and the risk of keeping around Garcia with the ability to do to him what the team did to Fields is the obvious choice and the one the Dodgers made.
So, let’s step back into the ring for a second. You were getting hit hard with your feet tied. Your options severely limited and then, with just a few seconds left on the clock, you slipped away from the bindings on your legs. It frees up space for you to make more advanced moves and does nothing to limit your choices. In releasing Josh Fields, despite losing some value on the mound, the Dodgers, like the boxer, slipped the ankle ties.