While fans of the Dodgers are clamoring to sign Gerrit Cole, the bullpen remains the biggest question mark of the off-season.
For the Dodgers and the rest of Major League Baseball, free agency is officially open for business. While it’s unlikely any of the big free agents sign before December, fans and teams alike have begun building their wish lists. For Dodger fans, Gerrit Cole remains the biggest Christmas wish list although such a signing remains unlikely.
This off-season is definitely not Gerrit Cole (or Stephen Strasburg) or bust as the Dodgers have several areas of the team that they could improve. The most overlooked area where the blue need improvement is in the bullpen. If Dave Roberts had better weapons to use out of the bullpen then he wouldn’t have used Clayton Kershaw in relief or used Joe Kelly for two innings.
While it is unlikely that the Dodgers sign another big free-agent reliever after last winter’s splurge on Kelly, there are ways to improve the bullpen via trade such as Blake Treinen who could also be non-tendered. The team does have approximately $40 million to spend until they reach the luxury tax line so another free agent reliever signing cannot be ruled out completely.
The most notable relievers on the free-agent market are Will Smith, Daniel Hudson, and Will Harris. Dellin Betances is also a free agent but he is recovering from a partially torn Achilles tendon. Signing any of those four would improve the bullpen significantly.
Entering the 2020 season, the Dodgers will have Adam Kolarek, Pedro Baez, Kenley Jansen, and Joe Kelly as the locks to make the opening day bullpen. What the rest of the pen will look like will depend on who makes the rotation and who gets left out.
Kenta Maeda, Ross Stripling, Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May, and Julio Urias are all candidates to start the season in the bullpen if they fail to lock down a rotation spot. Maeda was excellent in the postseason but due to his starting pitching incentives, the Dodgers tend to use him in the rotation for the regular season.
Kenley Jansen remains a big question mark for next season and will begin the season as the closer but his performance will dictate how long he stays in that role. If Kenley cannot rebound from a subpar 2019 season then the bullpen becomes even more of an Achilles heel. LA must land another big-time bullpen arm in case Jansen’s decline continues.
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Even the bridge to Kenley Jansen has its share of concerns. Pedro Baez was excellent in the regular season but then became ineffective and may have been tipping pitches in the NLDS. Joe Kelly was inconsistent in 2019, alternating between stretches of dominance and mediocrity. That has been the theme of Kelly’s career as a reliever.
During the National League Division Series, starting pitching was hardly an issue for the Dodgers as their starters combined for an ERA of 2.39 while the bullpen posted an ERA of 6.75. Only the Minnesota Twins posted a worse bullpen ERA in the divisional round.
Even if you take out the two runs Clayton Kershaw allowed out of the pen in game five, the bullpen would still finish with the second-worst ERA in the division series. There is no doubt that the Dodgers could use another veteran starter but the addition of Gerrit Cole would not solve the club’s bullpen concerns.
It’s also worth remembering that the Astros had Gerrit Cole and lost to the Nationals just as the Dodgers did. If the Dodgers had an elite setup man in the NLDS then chances are they would have hung onto the lead that Walker Buehler turned over to the bullpen.
The Dodger bullpen as it stands now will be good enough to get by during the regular season but come October against quality opponents, it could lead to another early playoff exit. Andrew Friedman needs to go out and acquire a reliever that Dave Roberts will trust in the late innings of postseason games.