The Los Angeles Dodgers' bullpen is finally turning the corner.
The front office has been working feverishly to find a solution in the overworked bullpen and recently got some help from the injury Gods with the return of Hong Chi-Kuo and the soon-anticipated return of rookie sensation Ronald Belisario.
Back on July 5, I spoke of the reasons why Belisario and fellow late-innings reliever Ramon Troncoso were heading down a dangerous road with their arms. Troncoso has been fortunate and is yet to run into any issues, but the very next day Belisario went on the disabled list with soreness in his right elbow and is yet to return—so let’s hope I don’t jinx any additional arms with this breakdown of the bullpen.
Manager Joe Torre has made a habit of carrying 13 pitchers on the 25-man active roster to combat his comical over-usage of the bullpen. For example, the Dodgers were leading the Atlanta Braves 8-0 in the eighth inning on Sunday night.
Scott Elbert had tossed 2.2 innings of shutout baseball but faced runners on first and second with two outs. The right handed Martin Prado was coming up so Torre went to Guillermo Mota to get the final out.
Mota proceeded to give up an RBI single through the hole between shortstop and third base, which scored the runner from second and apparently brought the Braves dangerously close at 8-1 according to Torre.
Then, with the switch-hitting Chipper Jones coming to bat, Torre decided that Mota did enough (with his two pitch effort) and it was time to bring on George Sherrill for the last out of the inning. My problem with this is that Jones is known to be more powerful from the right side of the plate and with the southpaw Sherrill entering, they were flipping Jones to his more powerful side.
Sitting on a seven-run lead, the only thing that would really destroy you at this point would be a three-run homer, and Torre was increasing the chances of that happening by switching him to the right side.
The plan worked and Sherrill got a ground out, but why waste all of those arms in a game that was just about decided? As if that wasn’t enough pitchers to use with just four outs left in a blowout, Torre called on Ramon Troncoso to pitch the ninth.
By that point, the Dodgers had added yet another run and led 9-1. Instead of letting Elbert work through the final out, and then allowing Mota, Sherrill, or Troncoso cleanup in the ninth, Torre ran through four arms to get four outs.
If he could have things his way, Torre would have 17 pitchers on the roster and just play the same eight position players every night.
Since that isn’t the case, Torre faces some decision-making. Once he reaches Sept. 1, he can have a month to evaluate who is the most able to be a force in the playoffs.
Torre now has 11 relievers and only eight roster spots with which to maneuver.
I’m here to breakdown what the bullpen will look like for the remainder of August and through the entire stretch run. More specifically, I want to look at how Torre will use each pitcher and the reasons for excluding three potentially worthy arms from the roster.
On the Brink and Fighting for a Roster Spot
Brent Leach already has been relegated to triple-A and will likely stay there until the rosters expand. The biggest problem he faces is a lack of flexibility. Leach can really only be used against lefties, as opposed to Scott Elbert and Sherrill, who can deal to hitters from both side of the plate.
James McDonald appears to be on the outside, looking in. McDonald has spent the season waffling from triple-A back to the Majors because while he can be dominant on the Major League level, he doesn’t possess the ability to take command of a game that he enters.
Inherited base runners seem to disrupt the peace for McDonald and he struggles when entering in tough situations. I think he is far too reliant on an average curve ball when he needs to be more focused on developing his changeup as an effective out pitch. Until he can find a better balance between his array of pitches, I don’t see him being a part of the 25-man unit.
Also vying for the last spot in the bullpen is southpaw Scott Elbert, who has been a pleasant addition when he has headed out on the hill. He tossed a scoreless sixth inning on Sunday against Atlanta and through no fault of his own may be sent back to triple-A.
Considering the addition of the left-handed Sherrill, Elbert could be out of luck when it comes rosters time because of the numbers game.
Reliable Solution for Middle-Relief
Jeff Weaver has staked his claim as the long reliever and emergency starter for the club. If Jason Schmidt’s arm happens to fall off while throwing his vaunted 85-MPH fastball, then Weaver will be the man to assume the fifth spot in the rotation.
Amidst the great stories like Belisario being discovered in a Winter League this offseason by scout Rick Rizzo, or Schmidt’s improbable return from missing two entire seasons with shoulder problems, Weaver’s re-emergence as an effective pitcher has been a great help at times to this Dodgers club.
He has a 3.38 ERA—the first time his ERA has been below 4.00 since ’02 with the Detroit Tigers—and has a respectable 4.11 ERA in 13 games as a reliever. Although I have some doubts about the former Weaver finding his way onto the field as the season progresses, I also must keep in mind that he pitched the clinching game for the St. Louis Cardinals in the ’06 World Series.
A pitcher with the experience like that cannot be forgotten on a team of young players that is in the hunt for a World Series title.
Guillermo Mota can be a reliable option for short-relief situation in the middle innings. The 36-year old veteran has relied heavily on his changeup when he gets ahead in the count to keep hitters off balance.
Mota is sometimes used to get one or two outs, but can also be stretched to go a full inning or possibly two if the situation is right. He has turned into a quality option after having a terrible April, when he had an ERA of 7.71, lowering that number to 2.98 ERA in 51.1 IP this season.
General Manager Ned Colletti is happy to make a run at the postseason with the assembled crew of late-inning relievers, “With Kuo and Wade and Belisario, I'll take my chances.”
The first of the late-inning relievers in line is Cory Wade. The 26-year old has been on the DL since July 11 with a right-shoulder strain but is nearly ready to come back but it was his second stint on the injured list this season. He was great as a rookie last season but has faced similar issues of being overworked that Kuo and Belisario have encountered.
He has been inconsistent at times with the big league team his electric arsenal keep the organization wanting more from the youngster. Posting a 5.53 ERA, Wade needs to be able to refine his approach to hitters but just can’t seem to get the time in the Majors to work out all of the kinks.
Wade did pitch a scoreless inning on Friday night with the Albuquerque Isotopes and it as if looks he will be back with the big league team once his rehabilitation is complete.
The long awaited return of Hong Chi-Kuo finally occurred and he has looked very good on the mound. He pitched a perfect seventh inning on Saturday and since returning from the DL, Kuo has made four appearances and has not allowed a hit while striking out four in 3.2 IP.
One of the main points I have harped on is the return of Kuo to the mix. He brings a powerful left-handed attack and just a month ago it was largely in doubt that he could make it back to the Majors and be effective day-in and day-out.
Ronald Belisario is reportedly close to making his return to the team. He threw a 20-pitch simulated game on Saturday and felt great. Belisario seems to think that he is ready to go right now, without any rehab assignments.
"I'm ready for games now," said Belisario, "My arm feels fine, no problem. All my pitches, no problem. I'm good to go. I told them I'm ready."
Although the arm seems to be in good working order the club will most likely stick to the routine and send him through the minor leagues for a few appearances before his return.
Dodgers’ left-fielder Juan Pierre stood in the box against Belisario in the simulated game and was impressed by what the rookie had to offer.
"He's nasty. It's the first time I've been on the other end. I'm sure he's more dangerous to right-handers, but it looked like he was good. If his arm isn't hurting, he's ready to come back, “ said Pierre.
Ramon Troncoso has been far-overlooked for the majority of the season. He has a sub-2.00 ERA (1.99) and has yet to take a loss (4-0). Before the injury to Belisario, many praised him for the workhorse approach he demonstrated in his rookie season; as good as Belisario was, Troncoso has been all of that with a little extra on top.
Troncoso has nearly untouchable breaking pitches, with opponents hitting just .105 off his curveball and .127 off his slider. The only time he faces trouble is when he works from behind and has to turn to his fastball. He has good velocity on it but the fastball isn’t his strength if his breaking pitches can’t offset it.
He appeared in 32 games last season and gave up 18 earned runs; in ’09, he as entered the game 48 times and seen just 14 earned runs cross the plate. More impressively, in 12 appearances on zero days rest, Troncoso is yet to allow a run. This guy is seriously overlooked not only by the Los Angeles fans, but by the national media.
Good Morning, Good Afternoon, and Good Night
The team now has the blessing of two shutdown relievers with experience closing games and the mental approach needed to dominate in the late innings.
George Sherrill will be used in the seventh and the eighth inning to setup Jonathan Broxton, so no talks of a closer controversy need be considered; but he provides an excellent compliment to the right-handed Broxton and can take some of the pressure off the young arm of Troncoso.
Sherrill made his debut with the club on Friday night in Atlanta in impressive style and struck out the side after inheriting two runners on base with no outs from Troncoso.
"I wanted to go after them, get ground balls or put them away when you get two strikes and not let them make a game of it,” said Sherrill after his first outing since being traded for from the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for prospects Josh Bell and Steve Johnson.
The Tennessee-born Sherrill must feel right at home with fellow Volunteer-state native and Dodgers’ pitching coach Rick Honeycutt also in Los Angeles.
Torre has also stated that Sherrill will be used for no more than one inning at a time. He certainly has the arm to be used for a full inning and not just as a situational lefty, but with the other late-inning relievers on the roster there is no need to run Sherrill out there for multiple frames.
The big toe of Jonathan Broxton still appears to be causing some level of discomfort. The big righty just doesn’t have the zip on his fastball that we have come to expect and that resulted in his first blown save since May last week in St. Louis.
He recorded two outs and then proceeding to allow a base hit, wild pitch, and another base hit to tie the game in the ninth. Granted, the game-tying hit came on a broken bat flare into shallow centerfield,
Both hits came on sliders that Broxton left out over the plate and arrived at the hitter as merely spinning hangers. It could have been an isolated occurrence but I think Torre needs to keep a close eye on Broxton to avoid any lingering injuries into the stretch run.
Torre has come out and said that Sherrill won’t be the closer, but they could turn to him if the toe continues to bother Broxton.
Setting Up for the Stretch Run
The strengthening of the bullpen in time for the final two months of the season could be a key turning point for this Dodgers’ club. Coming off a week in which we saw two separate one-run leads go to waste in a 15-inning loss at St. Louis, it was becoming glaringly apparent that some new blood needed to be injected into the unit.
The potential resurgence of bullpen arms can also dismiss one of the major knocks on the Dodgers this season.
Critics and skeptical fans alike have been questioning whether or not they have the pitching to make a run at the World Series. The main argument that wiggles through states that the starting pitching doesn’t go deep enough into games to control the opposing team.
It puts extra stress on the bullpen, which has thrown 357 innings this season, and is one of the reasons so many arms in the ‘pen have found the DL in the past two season.
Colletti stayed grounded in the fact that they still need to make the playoffs before worrying about a starting rotation in the playoffs. He knew that Kuo and Belisario would eventually return and he acquired Sherrill to shore up the shortage of arms.
Responding to the naysayers about the lack of an “ace”, Colletti said, “If October shows up and we're still playing, we'll figure it out then. Everybody says, 'You don't have a No. 1 or a No. 2,' but we've still won a lot of games.” On this point I agree with him—maybe the arms have been run thin, but things only get better from here.
Clearly, the Dodgers were looking to acquire a top-end starter through a trade but Colletti still feels comfortable with the team he has built to this point. He added about the state of the team and more specifically the pitching staff, "We still have a decent lead in the division and one of the best records in baseball, and we've done it with injuries to the pitching staff and we've played through it.”
Should the Dodgers maintain that lead in the division (currently seven games over Colorado and San Francisco) and make the postseason, their starting rotation would look like so: Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw, and (in my opinion) Randy Wolf. I would rather have Wolf on the mound than Hiroki Kuroda in an important playoff game.
Kuroda has looked much better as of late and things could change over the next two months, but Wolf has shown a high level of consistency and the ability to limit the other team to three runs or less (17 of 23 starts of three earned runs or less). Kuroda has been iffy at times and his sinker just hasn’t had the bite it usually does on a regular basis.
In his past two outings he has struck out 14 and allowed just four runs in 12 innings, but previous to that he was struggling.
Perhaps it just took him a full two months to regain his strength after returning at the beginning of June from an oblique injury, and if that is the case then the Dodgers will have another good problem on their hands. They will have to make the decision between Wolf or Kuroda for the third spot in the rotation for the playoffs, and also have to decide if the balance should go to the righties or lefties in the rotation.
My point is that with Billingsley and Kershaw at the front-end of the rotation anchored by one of the other two options, that gives the team a great chance to have the starting pitcher go through the sixth or seventh inning each night and then turn things over to the ‘pen.
Consider this rundown of the bullpen and think about how dominant they can be in October.
They have a bountiful amount of setup men to reach the big guns for the ninth inning. Kuo, Belisario, and Troncoso all have shown through past and present performance that they can hold an opposing offense off until Broxton comes in at the end of the game.
Both Broxton and Sherrill can be dominant closers. If one throws too many pitches on night, you can go to the other the next. Neither has a big ego to deal with and Sherrill’s adjustment to be the second-in-line to Broxton should be a smooth transition within the club.
The beginning of the season brought questions of how the young bullpen would respond to heavy usage. The group began strong and set the doubters in place while displaying a hard-nosed tone for the rest of the team to follow. Then injuries struck and they took some severe hits, raising questions about the durability of the ‘pen and the overall ability of the pitching staff.
Now, the situation has flipped once again and is turning what had emerged as the club’s fault line into a formidable force.
PJ Ross is a Featured Columnist for the Los Angeles Dodgers