PHOENIX — With second baseman Chase Utley still technically not yet officially aboard — Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said on Wednesday that a deal with Utley was “close” — the Dodgers have still signed just one free agent to a major league deal this offseason. That man is Tom Koehler, who has embraced his new relief role.
Koehler has been a starter for the bulk of six major league seasons, starting 132 games from 2013-17. Outside of making seven of his eight appearances in 2012 out of the bullpen, then pitching six games in relief to start 2013, Koehler was a starter through and through with the Marlins.
A trade last season to the Blue Jays in August saw Koehler move back to the bullpen, where he had success with Toronto, posting a 2.65 ERA in 15 appearances.
“Once you get on the mound, it’s still pitching,” Koehler said Wednesday.
Koehler in relief in 2017 saw an uptick in his fastball velocity (from 93 mph to 94), and out of the bullpen he threw his curveball a third of the time as opposed to 19.5% as a starter.
“Koehler for us is a guy who has long been in our radar as a reliever conversion candidate. He’s got a really good curveball,” Friedman said. ”If you look at the stuff and make some small tweaks here and there, and he’s going in shorter bursts, there is real upside.”
“My curveball has always been my second-best pitch. Early in the season my delivery got a little out of whack and it took me a while to fix it, so my curve wasn’t where I wanted it to be,” Koehler said. “I realized that to be successful as a reliever you’ve got to go to your best stuff no matter what.
“The game is definitely changing. In my first two years as a starter if you handed me a piece of paper that said I was throwing 50% curveballs everybody would have said you can’t be successful this way. Now it’s, if that is you’re best pitch why aren’t you throwing it?”
Outside of Koehler and the pending Utley signing, the Dodgers have really only added two players this winter, acquiring Matt Kemp and relief pitcher Scott Alexander in trades.
“Any time you’re in a position with your core pretty much locked down, it allows you to be a lot more narrow and specific in what you’re targeting,” Friedman said.
“You look around and they didn’t go out and sign a lot of guys,” Koehler said. “They saw something in me. That’s very exciting.”
The Dodgers have had success in recent seasons with pitchers who recently converted from starting to relief, including Joe Blanton, Brandon Morrow and Kenta Maeda, the latter down the stretch and in the postseason in 2017.
Maeda is in the rotation again to start 2018 along with four left-handers. The rotation depth after that starts with Ross Stripling and Brock Stewart, and manager Dave Roberts mentioned Koehler with his starting experience in the tier just below that.
“We’ve got him in the pen right now, but he’s a guy if need be we can stretch him out,” Roberts said of Koehler.
The Dodgers have used an average of 14 starting pitchers per season the last three years.
The Dodgers signed Koehler to a one-year, $2 million deal in December. He has performance bonuses of up to $950,000 for games pitched and games finished, and another $500,000 for between 10-25 starts. He is prepared for either scenario.
“The best part about being here right now is my only focus is helping this team in any way. The role means nothing to me,” Koehler said. “I let them know if they want me to start, I’ll start. If they want me to throw late in the game that’s what I’ll do.
“When you play for a winning ball club roles don’t matter as much. The only thing that matters is winning. I watched the playoffs last year and saw how close this team was. I just want to be a part of that and hopefully part of something special and maybe one more win.”