“The Dodgers didn’t do enough to improve their bullpen this Offseason.” I keep hearing this and similar statements being thrown around all over the baseball media, radio, Twitter, and Dodgers blogs and fan pages. And they all have one thing in common-they’re all wrong.
To explain why, we must first take a little detour into two or three other franchises. Just two seasons ago, the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics had the third and fourth lowest payrolls in all of major league baseball, spending $60.6 million and $57.8 million, more than only the Astros and Marlins.
Rays and A’s
But despite their traditionally low payrolls, they have both been legitimate contenders in recent years. Tampa Bay made the post season in 2008, 2010, 2011, and 2013, and Oakland made it in each of the last three seasons -2012, 2013, and 2014. While starting pitchers log the majority of innings for every staff and are widely regarded as the key to any team’s overall pitching success, the bullpen has become signifanctly more crucial in recent years. These two franchises have had very effective pitching from top to bottom, especially over the last few years. In 2012, The Rays and A’s led the American League in ERA at 3.19 and 3.4, and in 2013 and 2014 they ranked fifth and second, respectively.
After the Moneyball Revolution, Billy Beane and the A’s philosophies to winning long-term while spending sparingly on their roster became the best unkept secret in the baseball world. While Tampa Bay and Oakland have different processes and leadership, no other organization in baseball has been as consistent at winning ballgames in such small markets.
Billy Beane’s approach to “Moneyball” inspired a hit movie and has also inspired a lot of baseball executives to take deeper looks into statistical analysis when assembling and evaluating their teams.
Two of the great business and baseball minds behind their success were Andrew Friedman, who served as the General Manager of the Rays, and Farhan Zaidi, who was the A’s Director of Baseball Operations.
Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ new President of Baseball Operations, observes spring training drills at Camelback Ranch on February 20th, 2015. Photo courtesy of @DaaDozer
Last season, Joe Posnanski of NBC Sports profiled Zaidi’s background, talent and specific skill sets: “He studied economics from MIT and got his PhD in economics from Cal Berkeley; someone with some sense is going to make him their team’s general manager very soon.” Posananski was right.
The Dodgers improved their overall franchise and in turn their bullpen this offseason before acquiring any players, when they plucked both of these guys from their small market franchises-hiring Friedman as the new President of Baseball Operations, and Zaidi as the new General Manager; marking 2015 as the first season under the new regime in L.A.
Dodgers GM Zaidi Farhan takes to Twitter to answer fan questions, but more often uses his laptop to analyze player statistics and build competitive Major League Baseball teams.
Trends and Philosophy
Friedman and Zaidi have a unique philosophy when it comes to constructing a strong pitching staff and bullpen. One of these methods is known as “buying low.” In practice, this means signing pitchers who are coming off a less impressive year, but also possess the potential to have a strong bounce-back season and are willing to agree to a short-term, cost effective deal, while having a lot to prove. Another trend is “depth,” which has been described by Friedman as having a high amount of arms with multiple options, and a diverse and dynamic slew of pitchers. Instead of “quality over quantity,” this signifies a different method: quality from quantity.
Philosophy In Action-Rays and A’s
While Friedman was pulling the strings in Tampa, he seemed to continuously strike lightning in a bottle with bullpen arms. Take Australian reliever Grant Balfour as an example. After having little to no success and struggling to hold a major league spot for the Twins and Brewers between 2001-2007, Balfour was eventually designated for assignment by Milwaukee. Friedman then traded for the 30-year old Balfour in exchange for pitcher Seth McClung in July of 2007. In 2008, Balfour had a breakout season in his first full year with the Rays, posting a 1.54 ERA in 58 innings. He quickly became one of the top veteran relievers in baseball and became an All-Star in 2013, with Zaidi’s A’s.
Grant Balfour closing out a game for the Oakland Athletics. Source: Getty Images
How about current Dodgers lefty J.P. Howell? Drafted in the first round by the Royals in 2004, Howell began his career as a starting pitcher, but had little success. In 2005, he went 3-5 with a 6.19 ERA in 72 innings. In 2006, Friedman acquired Howell via trade for infielder Fernando Cortez and outfielder Joey Gathright. Two years later, the Rays moved him to the bullpen where he flourished, going 6-1 with a 2.22 ERA while striking out 94 batters in 64 games.
Howell’s case is different than Balfour in that his breakout season came at the age of 25, but it displays that Friedman’s Rays also thrived in their development of younger pitchers. Friedman and Howell are now reunited with the Dodgers, along with recently acquired righty Joel Peralta, who also had success pitching in Tampa Bay.
Under Zaidi and Beane in Oakland, similar trends occurred with solid bullpen players who seemingly came out of nowhere. Dan Otero didn’t break into the majors until the age of 27, when he threw only 12 innings for the Giants and got hit hard with a 5.84 era. Zaidi picked him up, and the next season he posted an impressive 1.38 ERA in 2013 for Oakland, followed up by a 2.30 ERA campaign in 2014 with a 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio.
Another current A’s reliever, lefty Fernando Abad, was originally signed by the Astros in 2005 out of the Dominican Republic. In three seasons with Houston, Abad struggled, going 1–11 with a 5.10 ERA in 88 games while striking out just 65 in just over 84 innings. After signing a minor league contract with the Nationals and getting DFA’d, Abad was acquired by Zaidi and Beane for minor league outfielder John Wooten. Last season for Oakland, Abad posted an exemplary 1.58 ERA in 57 innings, while striking out 51 and walking only 15 batters.
These four relievers are just a few of many that Friedman and Zaidi had a hand in discovering, acquiring, and building into effective, every-day major league pitchers. Further, not only were these ‘pen arms effective, they were also extremely cost efficient.
During his breakout season in 2008, Grant Balfour only earned $500,000, and J.P Howell made less than $400,000, as the two relievers made a World Series run with Friedman’s Rays. For Oakland, Dan Otero made just over $502,000 in 2014, and Fernando Abad made just under $526,000. While the average relief pitcher makes nowhere close to what most starting pitchers earn, these are all very affordable deals for high quality relief pitching.
Before becoming a key part of the Dodger bullpen, J.P. Howell helped the Tampa Bay Rays to the World Series in 2009. Image source: zimbio.com
The 2014 Dodgers Bullpen
One year ago today, the Dodgers believed they had their own star-studded bullpen which was being touted pre-season as one of the best in baseball. L.A. had standout closer Kenley Jansen in the prime of his career along with three other former All-Star closers all on one staff-Brandon League, Chris Perez, and Brian Wilson.
The 2014 Dodgers bullpen, much like the starting lineup, was largely a group of players with recognizable names, big recognizable contracts, and pitchers who were just a year or two (or three) removed from All-Star status. But by September, only two of these four were solid contributors. Wilson and Perez were liabilities on the mound, to the payroll, and were ultimately complete busts. Wilson made $10 million, while posting a bloated ERA of 4.66, giving up 25 earned runs and 49 hits in just 48 innings. Perez was paid $2.3 million, finishing his poor performance with a 4.27 ERA, striking out just 39 while walking 25 batters in only 46 innings.
Jansen and League were effective down the stretch, but many still questioned the consistency of League in the set up role. League had a nice ERA of 2.57 and logged over 67 innings, but his 27 walks to 38 strikeouts got him into a lot of tough jams, causing Dodgers coaches and fans many anxiety-ridden late-game situations down the stretch.
Kenley Jansen has been a key part of the Dodger bullpen, but bridging the gap between the starting rotation and the 9th inning has been a problem for the Dodgers.
Royals vs. Dodgers
Baseball writers and analysts love to use the 2014 Kansas City Royals‘ bullpen as a prime example of a deadly arsenal of under-the-radar type pitchers who were assembled to eventually become a unified, dominant force. During their World Series run, Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland became known as the “three-headed monster,” blowing away opposing hitters at the end of games, which completely altered the outlook of their pitching attack, and helped to catapult their squad to becoming American League champs.
But the Kansas City “three-headed monster” was somewhat of a “What’s His Face” crew considering how far they had to come to become relief royalty. While Greg Holland was a reigning All-Star closer, Kelvin Herrera was just a fire-baller with a 3.86 ERA who had control issues in 2013. And Wade Davis, a converted set-up man, was one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball in 2013, going 8-11 with a 5.32 ERA.
Wade Davis was an unsuccessful starter before finding his niche as a reliever for the Kansas City Royals in their 2014 American League Championship season.
In retrospect, not knowing what we know now, if it was the winter of 2013 and you had to start your 2014 fantasy baseball team with a bullpen of Jansen, League, Perez and Wilson, or Herrera, Davis, Holland and Aaron Crow, I would bet most of you would’ve chosen the Dodgers squad. I know I would have.
I don’t fault former Dodgers GM Ned Colletti one bit for the moves he made the last few years. The new ownership group basically handed him a blank check, so he went out and snagged the best baseball talent he could find and threw them together on one roster. L.A. came close to reaching the Fall Classic a few times, but it wasn’t quite enough.
After watching the Dodgers bullpen get blasted again in the 2014 postseason by the St. Louis Cardinals, having strong reservations about the 2015 squad is understandable. But the lesson we can learn from the Royals and even the World Series champion Giants (ouch! ouch..I know..) is that often times, the best bullpens in baseball are ones that appear to be make-shift on paper, or a bunch of “What’s His Face” guys at season’s start. We also learned from the Colletti era that a bunch of big names and big contracts doesn’t necessarily equal big wins in big games in October.
The Dodgers Now
So, here we are again, pitchers and catchers getting in their first workouts at Camelback Ranch for Spring Training in late February. And once again, Friedman and Zaidi look at a long depth chart of relief pitchers that altogether have been awarded very few all star appearances or big contracts. But this is not the Rays and this is not the A’s, this the Dodgers. In their past respective franchises, Friedman and Zaidi had no choice but to gamble on a few of these “What’s His Face” relief pitchers, knowing they could not afford to sign relievers to long term, big contracts. So, how will the 2015 Dodgers bullpen be different? And how will they be better?
“Depth and flexibility.” We keep coming back to these terms being tossed around daily by the new Dodgers front office. Some fans and writers have a solid grasp on the concept and believe that it works, while many others are skeptical. But what does “depth and flexibility” really mean for this crew?
With the limitations of small budgets gone, Friedman and Zaidi are now stockpiling as many low-risk, high reward arms as possible, like two kids in a candy shop who just got paid their allowance. A $261.6 million allowance. Now they have the freedom and resources to sign several pitchers with no reservations; pitchers who have been previously released, traded, or unsigned, now playing with a huge chip on their shoulders.
The foot injury to incumbent Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen is going to sideline him for approximately 2-3 months. This would seemingly be a major blow to what was an already fragile bullpen last season. But this group is deeper, and ready to step in.
Just as they did with Balfour, Howell, Otero and Abad, Friedman and Zaidi are looking once again to catch a few strikes (or strike-throwers) of lightning in a bottle. Projecting that Howell, League and Chris Hatcher have productive seasons again and Jansen recovers smoothly from his foot injury, they would seemingly need a just few more solid and consistent arms to fill out the ‘pen in 2015.
Chris Hatcher, seen here at Camelback Ranch on February 20th, 2015, may be a significant piece at the back end of the Dodger bullpen this season.
Most MLB bullpens have about seven or so relievers on their 25-man rosters, and the the Dodgers can count up to at least a whopping 21 possible bullpen arm options in their current system going into 2015 spring training:
Returners: Brandon League, J.P. Howell, Pedro Baez, Paco Rodriguez, Carlos Frias, Yimi Garcia, Daniel Coloumbe
New guys: Chris Hatcher, Joel Peralta, Juan Nicasio, Adam Liberatore, Mike Bolsinger
Non Roster Invitees: David Aardsma, Sergio Santos, David Huff, Erik Bedard, Ben Rowen, Ryan Buchter
DL: Kenley Jansen, Chris Withrow
For a full view of the Dodgers’ spring training roster, click here.
Yeah, I know, there are some names on this list that I didn’t recognize at first either. But the exciting part about stacking up so many guys is that any one of these “What’s His Face” guys could possibly emerge as a solid piece at some point this season. This is a diverse group of pitchers; they’ve got power arms such as Baez, Hatcher, Garcia, and the injured Withrow, finesse strike-throwers such as Peralta, Rodriguez, Howell and Bedard, and even a submariner in Ben Rowen. And this list doesn’t even scratch the surface when it comes to the farm system pitchers, with six of the Dodgers top ten prospects being hurlers.
Fellow correspondent Ernie Villa of West Coast Bias Sports breaks down some of these bullpen options, specifically highlighting David Aardsma, Erik Bedard, David Huff, Sergio Santos, along with potential rookies Chris Anderson and Julio Urias.
Though the Dodgers have been linked to veteran relievers such as Francisco Rodriguez, Rafael Soriano and Joba Chamberlain this offseason, I hope they don’t sign any of these guys or any other additional multi-million dollar bullpen pitcher for that matter- because they simply don’t need them.
My 2015 Dodgers Bullpen
Here’s my pre-spring training preference configuration of what the Dodgers relief staff should look like on Opening Day:
Long Relief: By Committee
Middle Relief: (R)Brandon League, (L)J.P. Howell, (R)Chris Hatcher, (R)Joel Peralta, (L)Daniel Coulombe, (R)Yimi Garcia
Set-Up: By Committee
Closer: (R)Pedro Baez
Next Guy In: (R)David Aardsma
As mentioned earlier, despite losing in the playoffs, Brandon League, J.P. Howell, and Kenley Jansen had very nice seasons in 2014 and should slot back into their spots in the ‘pen this year. Chris Hatcher, acquired from the Marlins in the Dee Gordon trade, has a live fastball and posted a 3.38 ERA with an impressive 60 strikeouts and just 12 walks in 56 innings.
While veteran righty Joel Peralta struggled last season, he has remained consistent by tossing a substantial amount of innings each year and getting the ball over the plate, as he walked only 15 batters last season for the Rays.
The Dodgers seem to be high on young lefty Daniel Coulombe, who will battle with Paco Rodriguez as the second left-handed reliever in the bullpen behind J.P. Howell. I think that Rodriguez could struggle again as he did in 2014 and start the season in AAA, leaving Coulombe with an open spot to win this spring.
Paco Rodriguez could be the second left-handed arm out of the Dodger bullpen if he can regain his 2013 form, but will have to compete with another young lefty, Daniel Coulombe, for that spot.
I believe that 24-year old Dominican righty Yimi Garcia is due for a breakout rookie season, as he possesses great stuff and impressed Dodgers leadership last September, giving up only two earned runs in ten innings, while striking out nine batters and walking only one.
Eric Becker of West Coast Bias Sports makes the case for in-house candidate Pedro Baez as the next best option to fill the closer role while Jansen is out. I completely agree with Becker, as Baez showed promise last season and possesses electric stuff. Similarly to Kenley Jansen, Baez is also a converted position player, as he is still learning the intricacies of pitching at the major league level. With the right training and development, he could emerge as a supreme power arm for back end of the Dodgers bullpen this season.
Pedro Baez and his 96 mile an hour heat may get a chance to fill the closer role for the Dodgers to start the 2015 season.
Who will be the middle relievers and set-up man?
This group is my top choice now, but it will probably change 20 times or so over the course of the season. And thats okay. The beauty of having true depth in a pitching staff of 21 or more possible candidates is that it serves as a legitimate insurance plan for many of the aches and pains a bullpen will incur throughout a long season; such as injuries, inconsistency, or overall poor performance. Many have speculated that the lack of middle relief depth in the 2014 Dodgers staff ultimately led to their downfall in the postseason.
But this new assemblage is already deeper, more balanced, and hungrier. To get a pitching staff through an arduous 162 game season of over 1,458 innings, it takes a village. And this village is built to win.