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The days of the fluid bullpen might be dwindling

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Dodgers' new front office would like nothing more than to deploy its relief pitchers in ways it finds most effective rather than in ways prescribed by the save rule, which aren’t even close to the same thing in some cases. They’re just not willing, apparently, to go it alone.

With Kenley Jansen on the disabled list since the earliest days of spring training, the Dodgers have done what they apparently always wanted to do: spread the burden and rewards of the highest-leverage situations around democratically.

Jansen, the team’s hard-throwing and well-compensated ($7.425 million) closer has created the vacuum to try something new. It has thus far been hard to knock.

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, at the urging of president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi, has spread his save situations around to three different pitchers, Joel Peralta -- now injured -- Yimi Garcia and Chris Hatcher. He has typically used his most effective reliever -- Garcia -- to match up with a team’s best hitters, whether those confrontations happen in the seventh, eighth or ninth inning.

The Dodgers have the fourth-best bullpen ERA (2.25) in the majors, only two blown saves and the majors’ fourth-best WHIP (1.11). And yet you’d be hard-pressed to find a casual Dodgers fan who could name a single healthy Dodgers reliever.

The trend is deeper if we broaden it to the minor leagues. The Dodgers’ four minor-league affiliates have had a total of 14 pitchers record at least one save. The Chicago Cubs are doing something similar in their system, spreading save situations around to get more pitchers accustomed to pitching under pressure. Most teams continue to groom closers and middle relievers.

The only Dodgers minor-leaguer with more than three saves has six, and it is David Aardsma, a former major-league closer whose days in the Dodgers’ organization appear to be dwindling, rapidly. He has a May 1 opt-out clause to his minor-league contract, meaning the Dodgers either add him to their 25-man roster today or he’s a free agent most likely. And the roster churn continues: The Dodgers claimed left-handed reliever Eury De La Rosa from the Oakland A’s Thursday and will assign him to Oklahoma City.

Only one other major-league team, the Colorado Rockies, has as many as three pitchers on its staff with at least one save. Largely due to the save rule and the unwritten agreement that has blossomed and petrified between teams, relievers and agents, only 40 pitchers have recorded a save in a major-league game this season.

But the Dodgers aren’t about to be the mavericks of the league in the long run. Jansen’s comeback is well under way. His surgically fixed foot is healed and he will make his fist minor-league rehab start Friday evening for Class-A Rancho Cucamonga. He is expected to join the Dodgers in about two weeks. Whether the Dodgers want to or not, Mattingly will reserve Jansen for the ninth inning in close games practically every time he pitches. Why? Because that’s when saves happen.

The way things look now, that’s not necessarily going to hurt the Dodgers. Garcia gives hitters a similar look and is striking them out at a similar rate (6.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio). Or, to put it another way, he just might be a closer-in-waiting, just as Jansen was a couple of years ago. One day, Garcia, too, stands to gain financially from the save rule.

Friedman cleared up his philosophy of bullpen usage in his first public comments this spring. He said his group doesn’t spend much time thinking about what it would do if a former Chicago sports writer named Jerome Holtzman hadn’t invented the save stat 56 years ago. Then, he went on to wonder exactly that.

"What if Holtzman hadn’t created that stat, if arbitration hadn’t rewarded guys dramatically differently for pitching the ninth inning vs. the eighth, if the free-agent market didn’t reward guys dramatically differently, what would it look like?" Friedman asked.

"I’m not sure either of us," Friedman went on, gesturing toward Mattingly to his left, "is looking to put ourselves on an island and say, 'We’re going to be the one team.'"

If not the Dodgers, who? Until the rule changes or the balance of power between the players’ union and management changes, we might never know. By now, the save rule is so important to the structure of major-league bullpens, it has become engrained in the collective psychology of the group. Relievers like to have their roles defined even if there is scant evidence that things actually function more smoothly when they are.