If the last two spring trainings have taught us anything, it's that planning the back end of the bullpen is a difficult chore. But if manager Don Mattingly has his way in 2013, Brandon League will be his closer, with Kenley Jansen and Ronald Belisario in primary setup roles.
"We'll try to set roles, because I think it's best when guys kind of know what they're called upon to do. But at the end of the day, they set they're own role," Mattingly said. "If we're not getting people out, or having trouble there, we'll do what we have to do to win games."
Doing what he had to do to win games meant making a switch at closer, something he's done early in the last two seasons. In 2011 Jonathan Broxton was hurt in April, which led eventually to rookie Javy Guerra winning the job. Guerra opened 2012 as closer, but by the first week of May was supplanted by Jansen.
An irregular heartbeat in August for Jansen, the second season in a row he dealt with the issue, opened the door for League, who was acquired at the trade deadline from the Mariners. League saved all six chances in September for the Dodgers, won two more games, and allowed just one run in 15 games. He parlayed that into a three-year, $22.5 million contract to return to the Dodgers.
"He's always been a late inning guy. He's a swing and miss guy. I just know from scouting against him, he's a guy that nobody really wants to face," Mattingly said. "His stuff is moving all over the place, he's really unpredictable as far as movement. He's not a comfortable at-bat for anybody, so that's what makes him a good guy for (closing)."
League was a swing and miss guy to the tune of striking out 25.0% of the hitters he faced with the Dodgers, compared to 14.0% with the Mariners last season and 17.7% for his career. Jansen, owner of a 2.22 career ERA, struck out 39.3% of his batters faced in 2012 and has struck out 40.8% of batters faced in his career. Mattingly isn't worried about the competition, and enjoys the depth in the back end of the bullpen.
"I don't think Brandon is the kind of guy who looks over his shoulder. I'm not trying to set that type of environment at all. Those guys know the deal," Mattingly said. "Kenley's been good back there. Beli's been good late in the game. All of these guys have electric stuff. It's nice to have options back there where you can get to the end of the game and have some power arms at the end."
League did have 10 unintentional walks in 27⅓ innings, not too far off his career rate. Mattingly noted that's part of the package with his closer.
"For me, he's always been a guy with tremendous stuff. His stuff has been all over the place, and has always been on the verge of being wild," Mattingly said. "You don't know if he's going to throw a strike or not. When he's not throwing strikes, he gets in worse counts, and he's going to get hit a little more."
Getting hit a little more caused League to lose his closer role in Seattle in May last year, after four blown saves and a 6.75 ERA over a five-week period. He gave up runs in four of his first seven games as a Dodger, but after working with bullpen coach Ken Howell and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, League was able to find his groove, to the tune of one run allowed over his final 21 games, with 22 strikeouts and eight unintentional walks in 22⅓ innings.
"Kenny and Rick made a simple adjustment, but I think part of the adjustment was a change of scenery for the guy," Mattingly said. "When you're in a situation that you're struggling in and everybody is kind of down on you, and you get to come somewhere that's a fresh look, and somebody suggests in a drill, 'This is what we're seeing, try this,' and it clicks, it's like, he's back."
Jansen, who had cardiac ablation surgery in October to correct his irregular heartbeat, is back and fully recovered from the procedure. He has no restrictions now and will be ready to pitch once the Dodgers open their Cactus League schedule on Feb. 23.
"He seems to have a lot more energy. We found out why he didn't have that energy at times. Kenley's been pretty consistent," Mattingly said. "He's pretty durable, and he gives us a lot of options."
But once the season starts, Jansen won't have his closer role. Mattingly compared Jansen to Alex Smith of the 49ers, who was benched after a concussion in favor of Colin Kaepernick.
"With the way Kenley threw the ball, it was kind of like the quarterback at San Francisco. He didn't do anything wrong, he just missed some time and this guy comes in and lights it up," Mattingly said. "Kenley is probably going to fit that role at one point. He's still got only about 50-60 innings total, I'm guessing, in that role."
Mattingly's plan is to use Jansen and Belisario used as the bridge to get to League in the ninth inning.
"I'm comfortable with where we're at. I would prefer one guy," Mattingly said. "If it doesn't work out, then we can start changing some things. But I would prefer (one closer), and mix and match to get to him."
The Dodgers had seven pitchers record a save in 2011, including five pitchers with two or more. Four Dodgers recorded a save in 2012, including three with six or more saves. If the last few years are any indication, bullpen plans find a way to go astray despite the best laid plans.