LOS ANGELES -- The Dodgers now have what they like to call a “highly functional roster,” which of course invites the question of what last year’s group -- which somehow sputtered and bickered its way to 94 wins -- was.
Most people who were around this team last year have a pretty good idea what Andrew Friedman was talking about when he brought up the topic of functionality.
Manager Don Mattingly will no longer have to spend a chunk of his day worrying about what a benched multi-millionaire outfielder will do -- or say to the media. The defense in the middle of the infield should be strong enough to support the Dodgers’ strong pitching. The back end of the rotation is younger and there should be some occasional hits from the catcher’s position in the batting order.
But there’s still one area that looks worrisome as Friedman and his top two deputies -- Josh Byrnes and Farhan Zaidi -- continue to try to build the highest-functioning roster in the NL West despite persistent competition from the north (San Francisco) and south (San Diego): What about the bullpen?
Better? Maybe, as much because of subtraction as by addition. Dominant? Hardly.
In fact, the Dodgers still haven’t found the bridge to closer Kenley Jansen that they’ve been looking for since Brian Wilson’s elbow started bothering him again last February. They did add Chris Hatcher, whose 95.1-mph fastball suggests he could be a bigger part of that Marlins trade than anyone yet realizes, and Joel Peralta, who usually provides bankable innings.
But the “vacancy,” sign hasn’t exactly been taken down from the Dodger Stadium bullpen. OK, there was never really a “vacancy,” sign, but you get the picture.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to get to a point where we go, ‘OK, let’s sit back and put our feet on the desk,’ “Friedman said. “We’re always going to be looking at different areas, whether it be on the margins or more significant. I think any time you ask me this question, the bullpen will always be an answer I’ll give. It has to be my nature never to feel comfortable with a bullpen in the offseason.”
It’s become fashionable to pile on former general manager Ned Colletti for a series of what turned out to be bad contracts to Dodgers relievers, the situation that fueled last year’s troubles, but few people were knocking him for overspending last winter. After all, it wasn’t their money. Wilson couldn’t repeat his late-2013 success, Brandon League just never regained Mattingly’s trust and Chris Perez continued his career decline.
Now that we’ve gotten a feel for what this new front office values in starting pitchers -- high ground ball rates, upside based on improving health -- and what it values in position players -- bankable defense, low swing-and-miss rates, pitch framing -- we might finally get to see what kind of relievers it values.
There are some free-agent options out there although the pool has begun to thin by now. Francisco Rodriguez, Rafael Soriano, Joba Chamberlain, Casey Janssen and Jason Grilli have all closed before and have all accepted lesser roles with varying degrees of success in recent seasons. They can all be had for the right price.
At some point, the Dodgers will start producing enough reliable arms from the minor leagues that they won’t have to play at the high-stakes roulette wheel. When that happens, we’ll know that hiring Friedman and his guys has truly paid off.