Torched in the second half of the season, the Dodgers' bullpen once again needs some help. But can Los Angeles find the right pieces in time for the postseason?
The Dodgers still sit atop the NL West, but even after a wave of reinforcements at the trade deadline, a four-game losing streak against fellow contenders has underscored the frailty of their pitching staff. Outside of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke—both of whom recently reeled off impressive scoreless innings streaks—and a couple of A-list relievers, Los Angeles is suddenly struggling to get outs.
At 62–50, the Dodgers own the NL's fourth-best record and have a 2 1/2-game lead on the Giants in the division race, but they've gone just 11–11 since the break; they're 6–2 in games that Kershaw or Greinke have started and 5–9 in games that they haven't. In the grand scheme, they’re fourth in the league in run prevention at 3.73 runs per game, but that figure has risen by a quarter-run since the All-Star break, and even then, it masks more disconcerting splits. For the second half:
|Kershaw + Greinke||60||2.10||2.00||0.3|
|Rest of rotation||71 2/3||5.02||4.20||0.9|
Greinke pieced together a 45 2/3-inning scoreless streak across seven starts from June 18 to July 26, starting the All-Star Game along the way, but in his most recent turn, he was roughed up for six runs—as many as he had allowed in his previous nine starts—by the Phillies. Five of those runs came in the first inning, abetted by Greinke's throwing error on a leadoff bunt (they were all earned runs). Fortunately for the Dodgers, he went 3-for-3 himself, including the fifth homer of his career, and the Dodgers won a 10–8 game that was so ugly it could replace "Yo Mama" jokes. Greinke still leads the NL in both ERA (1.71) and WAR (6.2), giving him a shot at a second Cy Young award.
Likewise, Kershaw has more or less rediscovered the form that helped him win three Cy Youngs and an MVP award in the past four seasons. From the final three innings of his July 3 start against the Mets through his next four starts—two of them complete-game shutouts—he held opponents scoreless for 37 consecutive innings, with a 49/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and just 17 hits allowed. A leadoff homer by the Pirates' Gregory Polanco ended Kershaw's streak last Friday, and he eventually yielded four runs over six innings in the team's 5–4 loss, just the second time in his last 13 turns he's allowed more than three runs. Over that span, which began on May 26, he has a 1.41 ERA with 124 strikeouts and 14 walks in 95 2/3 innings. That'll do.
The only other starter to take all four turns since the break is Brett Anderson, who has generally pitched well this year (3.43 ERA, 3.75 FIP) and reached the 20-start plateau for the first time since his 2009 rookie season with the Athletics. But after nine straight starts of allowing three or fewer earned runs, he was battered for seven runs by the Nationals on Monday night in Los Angeles. Perhaps gun-shy given the bullpen's failures in Pittsburgh the night before (more on which below), manager Don Mattingly left Anderson in the game despite his allowing seven straight batters to reach base in the sixth en route to a game-breaking five-run rally. Mattingly followed that by using the team's three most effective relievers—Pedro Baez, J.P. Howell and Kenley Jansen—to pitch the final four innings of what was initially a 6–0 deficit but ran to 7–0 when Baez generated a bases-loaded fielder's choice. Not exactly Donnie Baseball’s finest hour of bullpen management.
The back two spots of the rotation, which have been in flux since the season-ending injuries of Hyun-jin Ryu and Brandon McCarthy, have been filled by six different pitchers since the break. In the spot vacated by fill-in Carlos Frias, who hit the disabled list with a back injury, Brandon Beachy, Zach Lee and Ian Thomas each made one start apiece. For Beachy, it was his start since his second Tommy John surgery; for Lee, it was his nightmarish major league debut, featuring a four-run first inning at the hands of the new-look Mets; and for Thomas, it was his first big-league start after two relief appearances. Mike Bolsinger, who stabilized one of those spots via a 2.83 ERA and 2.86 FIP across 16 starts, drew the short straw and was sent to Triple A Oklahoma City to make room for the July 30 blockbuster that brought Mat Latos from the Marlins and Alex Wood from the Braves.
Latos, who allowed one run over six innings against the Angels in his debut, was rocked for six runs in four frames by the Pirates on Saturday, a game that the Dodgers lost 6–5. Wood has allowed seven runs in 11 1/3 innings over two starts against the Phillies and Pirates, both of which saw Mattingly leave him in for too long. On Aug. 4 against the Phillies, Wood allowed one run and seven hits, striking out eight in the first six innings and 93 pitches. The 24-year-old lefty returned to start the seventh of a 1–1 game, but things quickly unraveled, as he yielded a leadoff single and a productive out, then intentionally walked switch-hitting second baseman Cesar Hernandez (.281/.358/.365 through that game) to face lefty Odubel Herrera (.283/.313/.424); after a balk and a walk, Joel Peralta came on and promptly served up a grand slam to Maikel Franco.
Peralta has played a significant part in the failures of the Dodgers' bullpen. Recall that last year, the Ned Colletti-built 'pen featured a trio of expensive, erratic ex-closers in Chris Perez, Brandon League and Brian Wilson. By season's end, Mattingly was so distrustful of them that he bungled his bullpen management in the Division Series against the Cardinals. Perez didn't even make the postseason roster and left via free agency, and while Wilson and League were owed a combined $18 million for this season, the new Andrew Friedman/Farhan Zaidi regime cut loose both before they could throw a pitch for the 2015 Dodgers; the former was released in December, the latter in July after spending the first half of the season on the disabled list due to a shoulder strain.
Peralta, who pitched for Friedman in Tampa Bay, was acquired via trade in November and slated to fill a setup role, then pressed into closer duty when Jansen began the year on the disabled list due to foot surgery. After seven scoreless appearances and three saves in the season's first 15 games, he was sidelined by a pinched nerve in his neck and missed two months. Since returning in late June, he's been cuffed for a 7.53 ERA and allowed four homers in 14 1/3 innings; five of the nine runners he's inherited have scored.
In Peralta's absence, Mattingly relied heavily on Baez and Yimi Garcia, two young, inexperienced fireballers who acquitted themselves well in the early going and helped compensate for the other injuries. But Baez missed six weeks due to a pectoral strain, and Garcia was sent to Triple A after getting tagged for 12 runs in 15 2/3 innings from June 2 to July 6. He pitched a scoreless inning upon returning on July 28, but like Bolsinger, he was sent out amid the deadline shuffle, which also included the acquisitions of Braves relievers Jim Johnson and Luis Avilan as well as the departure of oft-optioned lefty Paco Rodriguez.
Johnson saved 101 games in 2012–13 for the Orioles and appeared to be in line for a big free-agent payday, but his career unraveled last year upon being traded to the A's, who junked him after 38 appearances and a 7.14 ERA despite a $10 million salary. He was no better for the Tigers upon being plucked off the scrapheap and finished the year with a 7.09 ERA and wretched peripherals, including 5.9 walks per nine. The Braves appeared to have straightened him out, as he posted a 2.25 ERA and 3.20 FIP in 48 innings, even saving nine games after Jason Grilli suffered a season-ending injury in early July. He has yet to pitch a scoreless outing for the Dodgers in four tries, however, an ugly stretch that included allowing the winning run in Saturday's 5–4 loss, then culminated in Sunday night's debacle.
Called upon to protect a 5–3 lead at the start of the seventh, Johnson struck out Aramis Ramirez but then allowed eight of the next nine batters to reach base; the lone out was a sacrifice fly. By the time Mattingly could be roused into giving him the hook, the score was 8–5 for the Pirates; Mattingly, reaching for the gasoline can, called upon Peralta, who served up a first-pitch–three-run homer to Jung Ho Kang and yielded a leadoff homer to Francisco Cervelli to start the eighth.
At this juncture, it would make sense to designate Peralta for assignment and move Johnson to mop-and-bucket detail; as bad as he’s been, four appearances is too small a sample to justify releasing a pitcher who was so recently humming along. That would leave lefties Howell (1.35 ERA, 2.71 FIP) and Avilan (3.54 ERA, 3.69 FIP) and righties Baez (2.34 ERA, 2.09 FIP) and Juan Nicasio (3.06 ERA, 2.63 FIP) do the heavy lifting in front of Jansen, who has whiffed 53 of the 112 batters he's faced this year (46.4%, or 16.3 per nine) but has served up five homers in his 29 1/3 innings. Either Garcia or Bolsinger could replace Peralta on the roster and work in the middle innings. At the moment, the Dodgers are having Bolsinger mix starting and relief work at Oklahoma City in order to keep the him stretched out—a sensible move given the quality of his previous work and the fragility and inconsistency of the non-Kershaw/Greinke starters.
With just under three weeks to go before the Aug. 31 waiver deadline, Friedman and Zaidi should continue working to find upgrades, and with money clearly no object, they could try dealing for a pricey reliever such as the Padres' Joaquin Benoit (who has an $8 million option for next year) or even Francisco Rodriguez (who's under contract for $5.5 million in 2016 with a $6 million option and $4 million buyout for '17), both of whom have been very effective this year. Within their organization, they also have a recipe for their own K-Rod-level October surprise in the form of 19-year-old lefty Julio Urias, recently ranked among the game’s top five prospects by multiple outlets. Urias has thrown 59 innings in all, including 51 with a 3.16 ERA and 10.0 strikeouts per nine at Double A Tulsa. He recently returned from a two-month absence due to elective surgery on his eyelid, a move designed to prolong his availability this year while keeping his innings count in line. He threw 87 2/3 innings last year and could conceivably still top 100 this year, even if he doesn't move to the bullpen until September.
However it shakes out, the bottom line is that Mattingly needs to find a configuration with which he’s comfortable and act with more urgency, using his relievers to put out small fires before they become big ones. To be fair, Mattingly does have other headaches, for the struggles of the Dodgers' staff come at a time when their lineup appears vulnerable as well. They’re down two infielders (Justin Turner has been out since July 26 due to an infected pimple on his leg, while Howie Kendrick went on the disabled list on Monday due to a hamstring strain), and both Joc Pederson and Yasiel Puig are in extended slumps, with sub-.200 batting averages since the start of July.
Even so, the Dodgers' current four-game losing streak was preceded by a 6–1 stretch, and the team still has two of the game's top starters, a top closer, a more-than-serviceable offense and no shortage of resources to draw upon. With all that in their favor, Los Angeles has no excuse for not stumbling upon the right answers before it’s too late.