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Dodgers pitching choices are few & far between to start 10-day stretch

Chicago Cubs v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — After seven innings against the Cubs on Friday night, the Dodgers trailed by a run, in the first game of a weekend series at Dodger Stadium, after an off day with a rested bullpen.

They opted for Andre Jackson, who has been pitching in long relief. In his first three outings, Jackson entered the game up seven runs (his three-inning save), down three, and ahead eight. He has the lowest average leverage index in the Dodgers bullpen, entering Friday at .082. A score of 1.000 is considered average pressure when coming into a game by definition, though the major league average leverage index through Friday this season is 0.887.

Jackson in his first three games pitched perfectly well, allowing three runs in 6⅓ innings, with six strikeouts and no walks. It’s just that how he’s been used, the Dodgers really hadn’t put him into close games. Until Friday.

Manager Dave Roberts said he considered Caleb Ferguson — .661 average leverage index, fourth-highest in the Dodgers bullpen — to pitch the eighth inning, but opted against it for two reasons:

  • Though down only one run, the Dodgers offense wasn’t doing much of anything Friday night, with two solo home runs and a single. “We couldn’t muster anything,” Roberts said. ‘We didn’t threaten all night.”
  • Friday was the first of 10 consecutive game days for the Dodgers, their longest stretch without an off day this season.

“Given that we’ve got a lot of games in a row, and we only have three hits to that point,” Roberts said. “If we start running leverage guys out there to come up short, that’s not where we want to be.”

Jackson’s outing was disastrous, allowing three home runs in the eighth inning, then two more runs, including another home run in the ninth. After his first inning of work, Jackson’s role shifted into one of soaking up the final outs to “save” the rest of the bullpen, but he was pitching so poorly that Phil Bickford was warming up in the bullpen just in case.

Obviously pitching Jackson turned out terribly, but having him pitch in a close game was a defensible position. You’d be surprised over the course of a long season how often teams try to buy an inning or two here and there, rather than optimizing every single moment.

The bullpen as a whole has been subpar, with a 5.48 ERA — 4.75 excluding Jackson — and a low 21.8-percent strikeout rate. The problem for the Dodgers at the moment is that there isn’t really a quick fix.

But it could get worse.

Michael Grove starts Saturday for the Dodgers, coming off a very bad start in Arizona, allowing nine runs while recording 10 outs. He’s allowed 12 runs on 14 hits in 7⅓ innings this season.

Tony Gonsolin (sprained left ankle) won’t be back until May, and Ryan Pepiot (left oblique strain) as of the other day hasn’t yet thrown a baseball. The next starter in line is Gavin Stone, a consensus top-60 prospect in baseball, but he’s been shaky in two of his three starts in Triple-A Oklahoma City, with nearly as many walks (seven) as strikeouts (10) and a 7.71 ERA.

Stone has a much higher upside than Grove, and I’d argue it’s worth absorbing Stone’s growing pains in the majors rather than keeping Grove in the rotation.

With eight pitchers on the injured list, the Dodgers have only two healthy pitchers on the 40-man roster and not in the majors. Left-handers Justin Bruihl and Victor González are thriving so far for Oklahoma City. Bruihl has nine strikeouts in six scoreless innings, González has six strikeouts and a 1.93 ERA in 4⅓ innings in his four appearances.

If the Dodgers are concerned about the bullpen over this stretch of games, which stretches out to 19 games in 20 days through May 3, they could option Jackson on Saturday in favor of one of the Triple-A left-handers, maybe González first because he didn’t pitch Friday, unlike Bruihl. Then they could bring up the other reliever Sunday while optioning Grove, and have a nine-man bullpen for four games.

Once the fifth spot in the rotation comes up again on Thursday at Wrigley Field, the Dodgers could opt for Stone, who at the moment is scheduled to start Sunday for Oklahoma City. Or they could use a bullpen game to kick the can down the road a little bit, or call up one of the Triple-A veterans — Matt Andriese or Robbie Erlin — then designate them for assignment after a start or two.

While I would pick Stone for the next turn in the rotation, I can understand why the Dodgers wouldn’t. But the other options they have at the moment are all underwhelming. This could be a rough stretch.