The Dodgers last year traded for Craig Kimbrel, thus continuing a longstanding run of seasons without real closer competition. Ultimately, that didn’t turn out all that great as Kimbrel had one of the worst seasons of his career, and was eventually ousted from the closer role and left off the postseason roster.
Entering 2023, the Dodgers have yet to define a closer, and that statement doesn’t come as a knock on the quality of the bullpen, in fact far from it. Although there are pitchers with previous closer experience, there isn’t that quote-unquote defined ninth-inning guy, and more so, a collection of high-leverage arms, each capable of holding their own.
"At some time will we have a closer? I could see that. ... But I also could see us not having a closer." #Dodgers— Bill Plunkett (@billplunkettocr) February 16, 2023
Dave Roberts said he "could see" the Dodgers designating a closer at some point over the course of the season, but the club isn't entering spring with a set closer and spring training isn't enough to base a decision off of on its own.— Fabian Ardaya (@FabianArdaya) February 16, 2023
With all that being said, we can still make well-educated guesses of how this thing will shake out, and as of right now, with pitchers and catchers having reported, I believe Daniel Hudson will be the closer for the 2023 Los Angeles Dodgers.
Why ankle tendinitis doesn’t scare me
It was reported that Hudson’s readiness was slowed down a bit by ankle tendinitis, but that his goal remains to be active come opening day. But frankly, whether he’s actually ready by then or soon after, it probably won’t play a significant factor in the decision of his role.
The way most people see it, this is a two-man race between Evan Phillips and Hudson to get the job out of the gate, especially with newcomer Alex Reyes not expected back for a few months after last year’s shoulder surgery. There are other potential closer candidates, but all come with caveats.
Alex Vesia finished the year strong last year, but his propensity to lose command which led to a very high WHIP in the first half of 2022 is a bit of a yellow flag.
Dodgers relievers save totals
Brusdar Graterol might be the most GIF-able pitcher in the sport, next to his teammate Dustin May, and the stuff is certainly appealing, but the extreme groundball rate profiles him best for a high-leverage role, specifically open to coming on with runners on base, where a double play may be the goal.
Yency Almonte was an absolute force in a short sample last year, but he still needs to prove he can last over a full season without elbow issues flaring back up.
Hudson and Phillips standout above the pack.
Why I expect to see Hudson as the closer
A significant part of Phillips’ breakout performance was his ability to strand runners, holding opposing batters to a .271 slugging percentage with runners on base. As the best reliever on the team, Roberts should value being able to use him against the heart of the opponent’s order in the most crucial spots, regardless of inning.
Hudson had some closer experience back in 2019, after he joined the Washington Nationals, and became one of their premier relief men down the stretch. He also was second on the Dodgers with five saves in 2022, despite pitching only two and a half months. Hudson was looking like a terrific signing last season before tearing his ACL.
That experience, coupled with his proven track record, makes Hudson the best option to be a reliable ninth-inning guy, and allows Phillips to be used in the most crucial spots. Both Phillips and Hudson are elite relievers, regardless of roles.
If this was simply a matter of putting your best reliever in the closer role, Phillips would probably get the nod before opening day. He’s done nothing, but dominate in Dodger blue. But I’m not necessarily worried that Phillips may just run away with the job if Hudson misses a couple of weeks to begin the season.
Roberts and the organization as a whole have shown that they are firmly in sync with the notion that the most important relief spot isn’t always in the ninth inning. Although you always want one of your best relievers in save situations, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the very best one in the ninth, especially if a high-leverage spot arises earlier in the game.