LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles Dodgers fans might not have had to endure watching their least-favorite team celebrate its third world title in five seasons Wednesday night if their team’s bullpen had proven reliable. Ned Colletti might still be the general manager if the team’s bullpen had proven reliable. Kirk Gibson might not be the last Dodgers World Series hero if the bullpen had proven reliable.
Yeah, it was that bad.
Finishing games was a problem all season, but it was a nightmare against the St. Louis Cardinals in the playoffs. St. Louis, hardly a team of sluggers, hit home runs off a Dodgers reliever in each of the first three games of the series, and that reason is as good as any why the Dodgers didn’t advance.
Clayton Kershaw might not be remembered for his seventh-inning meltdowns if Don Mattingly had trusted his bullpen. In Game 4, he let Kershaw enter the seventh inning after throwing 94 pitches on three days’ rest, then left him out there after two straight hits because -- he basically admitted afterwards -- nobody else at his disposal was even close to as good.
As bad as the problem was, the fix can sometimes be worse. Bullpens are fickle, and if we learned one thing from watching the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals over the past few weeks, it’s that bullpens don’t have to be expensive to be effective. In fact, often the thrifty ones prove best. Good minor-league systems produce a lot of good arms, and a lot of good arms make for strong, homegrown bullpens.
When the Dodgers lost to the Cardinals, starting pitcher Dan Haren had moved locales from the dugout to the bullpen in case he was needed, meaning the Dodgers had $41 million worth of salary sunk in the area of the team that sunk their season. Again, it’s not about the money, which is why new president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman figures to follow a different path from Colletti and not throw money at aging former closers to try to chase stability late in games. Stability can’t be bought. It just has to develop and it usually happens organically.
There are some fine free agent relief pitchers available this off-season, headlined by David Robertson and Andrew Miller, but also including Pat Neshek and Sergio Romo. Koji Uehara is off the market after agreeing to a two-year deal on Thursday to stay in Boston. Some of them will be busts. Some of them will play crucial roles. None of them will be bargains. It’s possible the Dodgers could wade in on one or maybe even two of those guys, but they might be better off trying to develop some of their own young pitchers. It’s a roll of the dice either way. Why play at the $100 table when standing similar odds at the $5 table?
They’ve already got a bunch of money tied up in relievers, with Brandon League (former closer) making $7.5 million next year, Brian Wilson (former closer) making $9.5 million next year, Kenley Jansen (closer) due for a big arbitration-fueled raise from his $4.3 million salary and J.P. Howell due to collect $4 million.
It seems that $25 million or so already is an extravagant sum for a bullpen, but that will get the Dodgers just four relievers next year, only three of whom were effective. The Dodgers may not have the makings of what the Royals had -- the deadly Kelvin Herrera-Wade Davis-Greg Holland triangle -- but they do have up-and-coming arms. It’s not unreasonable to hope that one or two pan out, maybe even spectacularly.
Hard-throwers Pedro Baez and Carlos Frias both showed glimpses of effectiveness when they got chances late in games. Baez in particular should benefit from a year of growth. He was, after all, a third baseman two years ago. There’s nothing wrong with 98 mph on a cool October evening. Yimi Garcia pitched great in his eight games with the Dodgers. Paco Rodriguez and Scott Elbert could compete for a spot as the left-handed complement to Howell, and the Dodgers could get lucky with one of their younger prospects, Chris Anderson or Tom Windle, both high draft picks and former college players with big arms.
By July, Chris Withrow might be recovered enough from Tommy John surgery to start working his way back into the mix. Who knows, maybe the Dodgers will even bring up teenager Julio Urias, who could prove deadly as a late-inning lefty, by August or September. Many within the organization thought he was good enough to pitch in the big leagues last year, before his 18th birthday. Several organizations have had good luck breaking pitchers they view as starters into the big leagues as relievers. Adam Wainwright and Carlos Martinez of the Cardinals and Alexi Ogando of the Texas Rangers come to mind.
Building a new bullpen figures to take as much of Friedman’s attention as anything this winter, but if he's smart -- and that's what everybody says -- he won't spend all his time writing checks.