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Dodgers spring training battles: The bullpen

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A full breakdown of Dodgers relievers heading into big league camp.

NLCS - Chicago Cubs v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Five
Grant Dayton figures to play a larger role in the Dodgers bullpen after making his major league debut in 2016.
Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Though there is still plenty of time for the roster to be changed, let’s take our first look at some potential Dodgers position battles heading into spring training. First up is the bullpen, which was a real strength for the club in 2016.

Thanks to several injuries on the starting staff and a proactive early hook at times from manager Dave Roberts, the Dodgers set a major league record with 607 relief appearances, 3.75 per game, and their 590⅔ relief innings were tied for the sixth-most ever.

Despite the heavy workload, the Dodgers bullpen was tops in baseball in ERA (3.35) and strikeouts (633), and fourth in FIP (3.55) and strikeout rate (26.1%). The Dodgers were able to spread out the usage thanks to carrying eight relief pitchers — and sometimes nine — instead of the usual seven for a large chunk of the season, and thanks to incredible depth, with 12 pitchers making at least 20 relief appearances in 2016.

Seven of those 12 pitchers are back for 2017, plus some new additions. The 22 pitchers on the 40-man roster are split down the middle with 11 starters and 11 relievers, though a few starters could conceivably bleed over into the bullpen as needed.

Here is a breakdown of the relief pitchers on the roster heading into spring training.

The big man

Kenley Jansen was a must re-sign for the Dodgers, one of maybe a handful of truly elite relief pitchers in the sport. Batters hit .150/.194/.252 against him last year.

Most likely to succeed

Depending on how you view the roster, you may have more than just one or two locks to make the team. However, I am going to approach this spring with as open a mind as possible, with Jansen the only true roster lock and building the rest from there.

Pedro Baez fits in the near-lock area. He’s been on the roster continuously for the last two seasons, and though he was optioned to the minors in late August last year it was only a roster maneuver to give him a week of rest before rosters expanded.

Most of the rest of the would-be locks have something in the last year or so — an injury, a demotion to the minors, a suspension — that make me less likely to fully commit and write their name(s) in pen. After all, relievers are volatile by nature.

Majors or bust

Only two of the Dodgers relievers are out of options, meaning they cannot be sent to the minors without first being exposed to waivers. Chris Hatcher is looking for a bounce back after a 5.53 ERA and 5.21 FIP in 37 games in 2016, a season cut short by over two months with an oblique injury.

Luis Avilan rode the shuttle between Triple-A and the majors last year, but pitched well enough to earn a spot on the postseason roster. His likelihood of making the roster could depend on just how many left-handers the Dodgers decide to carry in the bullpen.

Out for the year

After Tommy John surgery on Oct. 25, right-hander Yimi Garcia won’t pitch in 2017.

The new addition

It’s no secret the Dodgers are still looking to add another relief pitcher, and likely someone who would be a roster lock. Joe Blanton could be primed for a return, and the Dodgers have been linked to Jerry Blevins and Craig Breslow as well. But the timing of this newcomer could be tricky, with pitchers and catchers reporting to Camelback Ranch on Feb. 15.

"I don't think you're ever truly done building a bullpen. We're at the tricky part of roster construction,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said on Saturday. “We really like the guys that we have.”

Adding another free agent on a major league deal would require a corresponding move to make room on the 40-man roster, so the team could cool it now. But it could be the Dodgers’ prerogative to wait until Feb. 17, the earliest date they can place Garcia on the 60-day disabled list, which would open up a spot.

Los Angeles Dodgers v Cincinnati Reds
Will Joe Blanton return to the Dodgers in 2017?
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Southpaws

The Dodgers are well stocked with lefties in relief, with three others joining Avilan. At the moment, Grant Dayton is the next big thing in our little baseball internet niche, with a few national articles on him in recent weeks. And for good reason, since he had a 2.05 ERA in 25 games in his first major league stint, and his 38.6% strikeout rate was second-best on the team, trailing only Jansen.

If Dayton isn’t the go-to lefty setup man, that role could very well go to Adam Liberatore, who excelled in that very role for most of 2016 before he was slowed by an elbow injury that required arthroscopic surgery in October. The recovery period for the procedure was such that Liberatore, who had a 3.38 ERA and 2.89 FIP in 2016, is expected to be ready at the start of spring training.

The Dodgers traded for Vidal Nuño, who posted a 3.53 ERA and 4.51 FIP in 53 games for the Mariners in 2016. Nuño and Dayton have one option year remaining, and Liberatore has two.

The right-handers

Picked up at the non-waiver trade deadline on Aug. 1, Josh Fields pitched his way on to the Dodgers’ postseason roster, posting a 2.79 ERA and 3.61 FIP in 22 games with the Dodgers, with 22 strikeouts and eight walks in 19⅓ innings.

Josh Ravin after joining the team in August pitched well enough to be on the playoff roster but he wasn’t eligible after an 80-game PED suspension. He posted a 0.93 ERA in 10 games, with 13 strikeouts in 9⅓ innings. After a season with the suspension, a spring stomach virus that saw him lose 20 pounds in a week, and a car accident that broke his non-pitching arm, Ravin is healthy and has a chip on his shoulder.

“I’m a different person. I have so much emotion,” Ravin told J.P. Hoornstra of he LA Daily News in August. “I just want to destroy everyone in the box. I have no other way of working it off.”

Jacob Rhame was just added to the 40-man roster in November, putting him just a phone call away from a major league debut. Rhame, who posted a 3.29 ERA and 3.87 FIP in 54 games with Triple-A Oklahoma City, is in his second big league camp after pitching six major league games as a non-roster invitee last spring.

Fields and Ravin each have one option remaining. Rhame has three.

The non-roster invitees

In addition to the group on the 40-man roster, six of the nine non-roster pitchers in camp are likely suited for relief.

Brandon Morrow leads the group, with the 10-year vet fully healthy after missing roughly a year and a half with shoulder injuries. In 18 relief appearances after returning from the DL last year with the Padres, Morrow had a 1.69 ERA but only eight strikeouts in 16 innings.

Right-handers Steve Geltz and Madison Younginer pitched in the majors in 2016, as did left-hander Patrick Schuster.

Ralston Cash was drafted by the Dodgers in the second round in 2010, and struck out 29.3% of his batters faced between Double-A Tulsa and Tripe-A Oklahoma City in 2016.

The Dodgers signed Yaisel Sierra to a six-year, $30 million contract last February but the 25-year-old struggled mightily as a starter in Class-A Rancho Cucamonga. He improved in relief, posting a 3.45 ERA in 17 games between Rancho and Tulsa, with a 25.8% strikeout rate.

The extra starters

That covers the 11 relief pitchers on the 40-man roster, plus a few more non-roster invitees. But there could be a scenario in which one of the Dodgers starting pitchers ends up in the bullpen if there isn’t room in the rotation.

These things tend to work themselves out, but if Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda are all healthy, that means no room in the rotation for at least one of Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy and Alex Wood, and that is before considering the timing of adding Julio Urias to the rotation.

Wood and Urias are the only ones of this aforementioned group with options. Wood, who missed three months of his own with elbow problems in 2016, pitched in relief at the end of last season and in the playoffs, but more because there wasn’t enough time remaining in the year for him to build up his innings as a starter.

Ross Stripling and Brock Stewart pitched in relief in addition to starting at the major league level in 2016, but with options they are more likely to start in the minors than relieve in the majors.

Schedule

The Dodgers have only two days off in April, and none in the first eight days of the regular season, so it’s highly unlikely they would maneuver the roster to carry only four starters to open the year, which would have allowed them to carry an extra reliever for a week or so.

In other words, expect seven relievers out of the gate.

Projections

Here is a look at some projected 2017 statistics for this group, thanks to ZiPS and Steamer.

2017 Dodgers bullpen projections

Pitcher ZiPS ERA ZiPS K% Steamer ERA Steamer K%
Pitcher ZiPS ERA ZiPS K% Steamer ERA Steamer K%
Kenley Jansen 2.18 39.6% 2.51 35.7%
Grant Dayton LHP 2.91 32.6% 2.85 31.0%
Pedro Baez 3.52 26.0% 3.26 26.6%
Adam Liberatore LHP 3.37 27.0% 3.41 25.0%
Josh Fields 3.51 29.1% 3.29 26.9%
Chris Hatcher 3.44 26.2% 3.45 25.1%
Luis Avilan LHP 3.82 21.8% 3.43 22.2%
Vidal Nuño LHP 3.77 21.9% 3.53 22.8%
Jacob Rhame 4.13 26.1% 3.51 24.8%
Josh Ravin 4.50 28.6% 3.20 28.5%
Ralson Cash 4.45 23.6% 3.93 22.6%
Brandon Morrow 4.71 16.0% 3.85 20.1%
Yaisel Sierra n/a n/a 4.31 17.8%
Steve Geltz 4.42 24.0% 4.29 22.0%
Madison Younginer 4.61 18.4% 4.17 19.9%
Patrick Schuster LHP 4.85 18.9% 4.41 19.9%
2016 MLB relievers had a 3.93 ERA and 22.7% strikeout rate Credit: FanGraphs

Conclusion

With only 10 healthy relievers on the 40-man roster fighting for maybe seven spots, there is definitely an opportunity here for someone else to sneak in, either from the non-roster group, from the starters, or from the free agent pool.

But even before accounting for the Dodgers adding another relief pitcher in the next two weeks or so, there is still quality depth here for the Dodgers. All 10 healthy relievers on the 40-man roster are projected (averaging ZiPS and Steamer) to beat the 2016 MLB relief ERA of 3.93, with eight of the 10 projected to have strikeout rates higher than the 2016 relief average of 22.7% (Avilan and Nuño are projected right at the average, roughly).

Let the battles begin.