09 March 2011

2011 Preview - The Bullpen

I've finally reached the end of the preview.

It's a good thing I waited two weeks to post this because it seems like our bullpen arms are disappearing faster than Middle Eastern dictators.

A few weeks ago I would have told you that Vicente Padilla, Ronald Belisario, and Scott Elbert were all slated to shore up what was to be a solid pen. Now Padilla is out at least a month after undergoing surgery to free up a constrained tendon, Belisario has used up all his second chances and will likely never pitch for the Dodgers again after failing to report to camp on time for a third straight year, and Elbert has pitched (if you can call it that) himself back to the minors with his inability to throw strikes (6 BBs in 1.1 innings).

That means previously questionable guys like Blake Hawksworth and Ramon Troncoso are all but guaranteed spots in the pen, while the legion of non-roster invitees have another to fight over before the end of March. While that may pose a problem considering the assortment of spring training stiffs the Dodgers have recently let on the team, the 2011 bullpen will without a doubt be more tolerable to watch for no other reason than the fact that George Sherrill is 2,500 miles away.

First, let's hit the bullpen staples.

Jonathan Broxton
Love him or hate him (after last season, it's likely the latter), Don Mattingly has pegged Big Jon as his closer, though you can be sure he'll be on one of these from the get-go. You don't need the numbers to know that Broxton had an ugly 2010 so I won't even bother throwing them here, but I will say that sitting in the stands with my uncle for 40 minutes watching Broxton cough up a 4-run lead to the Yankees last summer was the worst baseball experience I ever had to endure. That night was unforgivable, though I place most of the blame on this clown for falling asleep at the wheel (side note - has there ever been an uglier human being than Joe Torre?) Broxton was never the same in 2010 after that dismal night against the Yanks when he was left out to rot on the mound, making a total of 48 pitches even though it was evident after 8 that he had nothing. I don't really know what to expect from Broxton in 2011. He could either rebound like Chad Billingsley did last season or continue to struggle like most Dodgers seem to do. His loss of velocity late in the season is scary, but a long offseason full of rest likely did the big Tennessean some good. Either way, Broxton has the propensity to choke in big situations (in the Dodgers Dictionary it's called "Niedenfuering")and there's only so long the Dodgers faithful will allow him to get away with it. Dodgers fans simply don't trust Jonathan Broxton.

Hong-Chih Kuo
It's hard to believe that Kuo and Broxton are the longest tenured guys on the team. The only other guy on the active roster who played for the team in 2005 is Dioner Navarro, who found himself in Tampa Bay midway through 2006. Kuo is coming off one of the best seasons any Dodgers pitcher has ever had, striking out 73 in 60 innings and keeping left-handers hitless until after the All-Star Break. When Broxton lost the closer job late in the season, Kuo picked it up and ran with it, earning 12 saves on the year to go along with his 1.20 ERA. Perhaps the true ace in the bullpen, Kuo is the guy you can expect to see pitching those tough 8th innings and coming in to shut down guys like Aubrey Huff and Carlos Gonzalez (no more Adrian Gonzalez in San Diego). The only thing keeping Kuo from being the Superman of the staff is his injury history and the tender care taken by his coaches not to stress an electric arm that has already sustained 4 surgeries (including two Tommy Johns). This is why Torre refused to use him on back-to-back days, electing instead for 2-inning appearances when he really needed Kuo's help. I expect Mattingly to follow suit to make sure Kuofax doesn't end up like Koufax -- forced to hang 'em up before his time is up.

Matt Guerrier
The new guy on the staff is actually quite the mystery to me. I pride myself on being a huge nerd about baseball and a fountain of information on players and teams. So for me to respond to the news of Guerrier's signing with, "um, excuse me, who?" tells you a lot. Turns out the 32 year-old Guerrier has been Ol' Reliable out of the Twins bullpen the past several years. While he does have a solid track record (though not as many K's as one would like), the biggest red flag has to be the fact that Guerrier has pitched at least 73 games in each of the past four years. Considering that relievers this day and age have the same lifespan of fruit flies and are a dime a dozen, it is never, never, never, never, never advisable to make a long term commitment to a setup man. I was hugely pissed when I saw we had signed Guerrier for three years, shoring up our miniscule 6th-inning hole in the bullpen, while the gaping wound in left-field was left to hemorrhage. But Guerrier should be a solid bridge guy to get the ball to Kuo and Broxton assuming his arm doesn't fall off. But since we can only hope that Mattingly won't be the Angel of Death that Torre was to middle relievers' arms, it's not unreasonable to envision a situation in 2013 where Guerrier will be collecting a paycheck to sit on a hammock somewhere watching the Dodgers on TV like the rest of us.

Kenley Jansen
It's rather pleasant that in a bullpen stocked with the electric Kuo and enigmatic Broxton it's this young man from Curacao who could be the most exciting arm to watch in 2011. A couple years ago Jansen was a weak-hitting catcher who could fire the ball to second base. Less than a year after his conversion to the pitcher's mound, Jansen struck out 41 major leaguers during a 27 inning stint with the big club. He's already been pegged with the future closer tag and with this being a make-or-break year for Jonathan Broxton, Jansen has a huge opportunity to make big things happen in his rookie season. We'll likely find out before the end of April whether those 27 innings were indeed a legitimate foretelling of Jansen's lasting skill coming out of the bullpen or if major league hitters just needed a little bit of time to find his holes (much like what happened to John Ely last year). Only time will tell with Jansen, but his progress and development should be very interesting to follow in 2011. Expect to see Donnie Baseball challenge him with work in the 8th inning and beyond when needed.

Ramon Troncoso
It's easy to forget that Troncoso and Belisario were the big workhorses of that outstanding 2009 bullpen. Like other victims of Torre's bullpen obsessions, both pitchers' overuse led to struggles in 2010. Troncoso couldn't pitch consistently enough to keep his spot on the big league roster and saw a lot of time in Albuquerque. So far he has been nearly perfect this spring and looks to be a fix for the Opening Day roster thanks to the troubles of Padilla, Belisario, and Elbert. It would be a pleasant surprise to see Troncoso get back to his 2009 form, but any sort of decent consistency in the 6th-inning role would be welcomed. No longer seen as a marquee set-up man, Troncoso merely needs to put in good innings to prove his worth.

Blake Hawksworth
No longer the "oh wow, we managed to get something in return for dumping that piece of crap" guy in camp, the injury to Vicente Padilla affects Hawksworth more than any other Dodger because he is the only other guy on the staff who fits the bill of potential long reliever. Part of the allure of signing Padilla as the sixth starter was that Mattingly would have a nice power arm in the pen who could pitch for multiple innings at a time and make an emergency start here and there. Hawksworth was lights out in the pen for St. Louis two years ago and only really struggled after the Cardinals tried to make him a starter. Now he's Rick Honeycutt's project and almost assured a spot on the starting roster, ready to mop up after one of our starters gets chased in the early innings (too bad for him that Charlie Haeger isn't around anymore). What will determine what happens to Hawksworth when Padilla returns is how he pitches during the first month. If he struggles he'll likely find himself in an Isotopes jersey as soon as Vicente is ready to start his season. If he prospers, his usefulness will keep him around.

The final spot in the pen is up for grabs and a ton of hands are reaching for it. Ned Colletti handed out minor league contracts like they were going out of style this offseason. I'm usually the last guy to pay a compliment to the man who has bumbled and blundered his way through his first five seasons as general manager, but he made sure he was more than prepared for any problems this pitching staff could have encountered this spring.

Colletti also has a number of young arms in camp trying to get over the hill and stabilize themselves in the major leagues. If 2011 is anything like the past few seasons, the team will move into the season with the hottest hand even though Spring Training stats are almost completely worthless.

Here's the list of guys gunning to be #25 out of 25.

Travis Schlichting - Pitched well in his few stints last season, sporting an amazing mullet, been roughed up so far this spring. Probably going to start in AAA but I think 2011 will be the year he sticks in the pen for us.

Scott Elbert - As was mentioned earlier, the LOOGY role was his to lose and he's done his best to lose it. Dodgers don't need to give him a spot on the active roster until he can prove he deserves it. First step is to find the plate.

Roman Colón - While he gets bonus points for riling up that walrus on the Brewers, the ex-Royal seems to have an uphill battle. He still has a 0.00 ERA after 4 appearances this spring but he's allowed 7 base runners so far, including five walks.

Lance Cormier - Part of some of those great Rays bullpens of recent years, his walks have always been his undoing. He's yet to walk anyone this spring, but the same goes for his strikeouts (not his hits though - he's allowed 6 of those in only 3 innings).

Wilkin De La Rosa - The former Yankee farmhand is probably a longshot to make the staff. Like most of these candidates, he's walked too many, struck out too few, and has little in the form of reputation to get him by.

Jon Huber - The 29 year-old has been the victim of poor Spring Trainings in the past preventing him from securing spots in the bigs. Decent in 28 major league innings, doing well so far this spring.

Mike MacDougal - One of the posterboys for those who hate that every team gets an All-Star rep, MacDougal was an All-Star with the Royals eight years ago. Typical criticism is that he doesn't strike out enough guys. His closer experience is rather meaningless but it definitely affects the way people perceive him. Tony Jackson of ESPNLA thinks MacDougal is a favorite to make the team. He's pitched well in three innings this spring.

Ron Mahay - Another favorite, the lefty served alongside Guerrier in the Twins bullpen the past couple years. With Elbert out of the LOOGY race and Kuo (the only LHP slated for the pen) set to be the 8th inning guy, Mahay could have taken a big league in this little competition if not for the fact that he's already given up two homers to left-handed hitters this spring.

Juan Rincon - The long-time Twin hasn't had a full season in the majors with an ERA below 5.00 since 2005. I don't think he's a priority for the team. Pass.

Luis Vasquez - A 24-year old on the 40-man roster who has never pitched above A-ball, he's been shellacked so far this spring.

Jon Link - Link came over with Ely from the White Sox in the Juan Pierre trade. He's looked good in sporadic big league stints but, like most of the guys fighting for spots, has had a rough spring so far. He's heading to Albuquerque. It should be noted that he also has the ability to start.

Oscar Villareal - Not happening.

Tim Redding - A veteran journeyman starter who has been featured quite a bit so far this spring, he's another longshot and it seems like his only hope of making the team is if one of the starters goes down. It's not beyond reason that if he continues to pitch all right he might swipe the bullpen spot from the flailing others.

Where we stand now, the final bullpen spot is wide open. Depending on Padilla's ETA, it could be that the guy who eventually gets it will have his days numbered unless he pitches like Bob Gibson. For now, since this is really just a guessing game, I'll get behind Tony Jackson and pick MacDougal, though Huber, Mahay, or even Redding could potentially make it in. If I were to bank on which of these guys was going to have the biggest effect on the 2011 Dodgers as a whole though, I'd have to go with either Schlichting and Link.

Broxton - Closer
Kuo - 8th Inning
Guerrier - 6th and 7th
Jansen - 6th and 7th, 8th on Kuo's off days
Troncoso - 6th and 7th
Hawksworth - early-middle and long relief
MacDougal - mop up duty


C - Rod Barajas
1b - James Loney
2b - Juan Uribe
3b - Casey Blake
SS - Rafael Furcal
LF - Jay Gibbons
CF - Matt Kemp
RF - Andre Ethier

C - Dioner Navarro
OF - Tony Gwynn Jr.
OF - Marcus Thames
IF - Ivan De Jesus
UT - Jamey Carroll

SP - Clayton Kershaw
SP - Chad Billingsley
SP - Hiroki Kuroda
SP - Ted Lilly
SP - Jon Garland

RP - Jonathan Broxton
RP - Hong-Chih Kuo
RP - Matt Guerrier
RP - Kenley Jansen
RP - Ramon Troncoso
RP - Blake Hawksworth
RP - Mike MacDougal

So there's my predicted 25-man roster. Here on March 9, I still stand by all my guesses even though Aaron Miles, a late sign, looks to be building steam to take that final spot on the bench. I think the Dodgers were rooting for the versatile Russ Mitchell to earn a spot but he's only mustered two singles and a walk in sixteen plate appearances. Justin Sellers has been given a number of chances as well, but he hasn't impressed at the plate nor in the field. My sleeper prediction, Ivan DeJesus Jr., is hitting a cool .313 and playing solid defense. Juan Castro, gunning for a fourth Dodgers stint, has a homer and a double.

But like I said, spring stats mean nothing, though Jerry Sands hitting .462 has been nice to see.

1 comment:

  1. I have to come to the defense of Tom Niedenfuer. He was not the choke champ you made him out to be. Niedenfuer was a victim of Lasorda. Back in those days, Niedenfuer and Steve Howe shared the closer duties and they were very successful. Then one day, Howe tried to snort the left field line. Niedenfuer was left to carry the load himself. Lasorda used him like a government mule and by the end of the season he was done.