The Dodgers’ bullpen looks very different to last year, with three key senior pieces leaving in free agency. Kenley Jansen, the long time established closer, Joe Kelly, a high-leverage flame thrower and famed Astros hater, and Corey Knebel, the most versatile of the three, who ended with a 169 ERA+.
Who are the guys we will be relying on to see us through the messy phases of the games? Starting pitching is glamorous and very important, but more often than not, it’s a relief arm that’s on the mound to secure a win. When the going gets tough, these men become the beacon to smoother sailing.
Because of the sheer numbers of this unit, these projections will be a bit shorter and more target and expectations driven along with some visual aid from “Pitching Twitter” king, @PitchingNinja. So who are the characters in the pen this season?
- Dustin May
- Tyler Anderson
- David Price
- Justin Bruihl
- Daniel Hudson
- Victor Gonzalez
- Tommy Kahnle
- Phil Bickford
- Alex Vesia
- Caleb Ferguson
- Brusdar Graterol
- Blake Treinen
- Craig Kimbrel
Dustin May (RHP)
Last year Dustin May was announced as the fifth man in one of the most contested opening rotations ever. He beat out Tony Gonsolin and Cy Young winner David Price to fill a spot next alongside Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw, Trevor Bauer, and Julio Urías.
Last season in Milwaukee, May asked to be hooked from the game after severe discomfort in his elbow. This later revealed to be an ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) tear, and to recover; he’d need Tommy John surgery which would keep him out for over a year. Before then, in a small sample size, he had more than justified his spot. May posted a 2.74 ERA and struck out 35 in 23 innings.
With the depth in the pen this year, Roberts will be under no pressure to rush May back, so my target for him is simply 15 innings. I want to see him healthy and rested and back, ready to attack the 2023 season. We need not worry about the talent; we just need to worry about getting him back healthy.
Tyler Anderson (LHP)
Tyler Anderson was picked up in free agency at the start of spring training and was set to fight for the fifth spot in the rotation alongside Andrew Heaney and Tony Gonsolin. An NL West veteran having previously pitched in San Francisco and Colorado, Anderson will be ready to step into the rotation whenever necessary or, if needed, take three or more innings out of the pen.
Last season at two clubs, he had a 4.53 ERA earning him a less than average 93 ERA+. What we’ve seen in spring has been minimal but composed. Seven innings pitched, seven hits, one walk, one earned run, and 10 strikeouts. I am not confident at all in Andrew Heaney, and I don’t think it will be long before the Dodger fans are questioning if Anderson should make some starts instead. I’m expecting 80 innings and an ERA ~3.85, just south of four.
David Price (LHP)
Acquired in the trade alongside Mookie Betts from the Red Sox, David Price is a former Cy Young winner who hasn’t quite reached the heights he might have set himself for his time in LA. After sitting out the entire first year on his contract due to COVID concerns, Price’s 2021 season was his first in LA. Used in long relief or the occasional start, Price had a rocky first couple of outings but soon found his rhythm.
Price pitched 74 innings to the tune of a 4.03 ERA, a workload higher than go-to fireman Treinen. While his innings may not be as high leverage, they are still valuable, and with his experience, he is no doubt one of the leaders in the dressing room. David Price still has a role to play in this team. If he reaches 65 innings and a sub 4 ERA and I’m very happy with his contribution.
Specialists and Middle Relief
Justin Bruihl (LHP)
One of the fastest risers in the Dodgers last season, Justin Bruihl started down in Double-A and quickly got his promotion to Triple-A, and it wasn’t long before Roberts called him up to the big leagues in early August. Batters struggled against him, posting a .203 batting average, which was as low as .150 for left-handed batters.
While Bruihl was extremely solid and hard-working, he struggled to sit batters down with his stuff. He struck out batters at a 5.03 K/9, striking out just 1.57 batters for every walk issued. For Bruihl to progress, I’d expect his ERA to raise a little with a larger sample size, but I’d want to see some better underlying metrics. My challenge for Bruihl isn’t punishing, as it’s hard to improve on such a positive first introduction in the Major Leagues: 37 Innings pitched with a 3.4 ERA striking out at a rate of 6.8 K/9.
Daniel Hudson (RHP)
A Major League veteran with 12 years experience and a career 3.86 ERA, Daniel Hudson joined the Dodgers through free agency this winter for his second spell after being part of the pen that went all the way to World Series defeat in 2018. Hudson was traded at the deadline from the Nationals to San Diego in a move that quite clearly didn’t work for either camp. Posting a 2.20 ERA before the switch, this leapt up to a 5.21 in southern California.
His five-year average going back to 2017 reads an impressive 61 innings pitched on average (per 162 games) with an ERA of 3.7. In this Dodger bullpen, there is much less relying on Hudson as there has been in other squads, so I don’t see him pitching close to the 61 innings.
One thing that is present on his resume is that he’s pitched in many high leverage innings. He’s been present in deep playoff runs and has pitched multiple times in World Series. If the Dodgers find themselves in a tricky one-inning spot, Roberts might look to Hudson before a lot of younger names in this pen. For Hudson, I’m expecting 48 innings pitched, and if he keeps his ERA below 3.85 and strikes out more than 2.4 batters per walk issued, this season would be a success.
Victor González (LHP)
One of the brightest sparks of the 2020 season, last year Victor González fell back to earth. The Mexican featured in eight games in the 2020 playoffs but made no appearances in any October game last season and instead ended last year back at Triple-A. What was notable about Victor was his control. In his 2020 season, he issued only two walks from 80 plate appearances resulting in 0.9 walks/9. Last year when umpires were cracking down on foreign substance use, González’s control plummeted, and he was walking batters at a rate of 4.8 per nine innings.
Once he was heralded as the next left-handed specialist for the Dodgers, but by the close of last year, two pitchers leapfrogged him and don’t look likely to give their spots back. González will probably be an option for a trade considering his talent and what he’s given in high leverage moments, but for Victor to stick around in Dodger Blue, he’s going to need to fight for one of the coveted spots in the bullpen fast. Unfortunately, I don’t think he will with just too much left-handed traffic in his way.
Tommy Kahnle (RHP)
Requiring Tommy John surgery midseason with the Yankees in 2020, Tommy Kahnle was granted free agency and signed a two-year contract with the Dodgers, while we knew that any contribution in 2021 would be a bonus. So what can he do? From 2017-19, Kahnle was a key reliever for the Yankees for the three years until his injury. Traded from the White Sox in 2017, Kahnle pitched an average of 49 innings per season, striking out a total of 214 batters from 611 faced at a rate of 13.1 K/9. His control was reliable, striking out more than four batters for every walk.
Kahnle won’t be ready for the opening roster and will look to make his impact later in the season. With another period of free agency looming, if Kahnle wants to stay in LA or make himself an attractive option for another club, I think 28 innings pitched with a 3.7 ERA, striking out more than 3.8 batters per walk would be an attractive stat line for any inquiring club.
Phil Bickford (RHP)
A two-time first-round draft selection who was claimed off waivers from the Brewers in May, Phil Bickford had a quietly exceptional first major league season in his name. 50.1 innings pitched was by no means a light workload, and Bickford ate up some key innings collecting some nice stats, striking out 59 of 200 batters faced with a 164 ERA+. Often in the game, for four or five outs, Phil could come in relief for the starter and close out the inning and pitch another one of his own.
Bickford is returning from an injury and won’t make the opening roster, but after his 2021 season, you can expect Roberts to have him back in there as soon as possible. If I could project his development it would be that he specialises in that long relief role and averages 1.2 innings per appearance. With Price and Anderson both in their final/only year of their contracts, a space in this role might open up for Bickford next season.
I doubt he’ll have as good a 2022 as batters in the NL West start to recognise him more, but if he keeps his ERA+ above 120 and increases his innings to over 40, considering he’s missing the start of the season, then that will be two solid years in a row which is more than fair to ask of him.
Alex Vesia (LHP)
Alex Vesia was my biggest surprise of last season. Arriving at the Dodgers through trade from Miami, Vesia established himself as one of the more reliable inning eaters for Roberts. He missed the Opening Day roster and then struggled on his debut, earning the loss in extra innings.
As the season concluded, Vesia ended with 40 innings pitched and a brilliant 2.25 ERA earning him an excellent 183 ERA+ among relievers. After a sticky start, by October, he was Roberts’ go-to left-handed specialist. The most lovable attribute of his, however, is that he pitches with such emotion. While some relievers are ultra professional, it’s nice and easy to support a guy who really lives for the passion. If Vesia can continue to eat innings and get himself to 50 innings while keeping the ERA under 4.10, I’d say it would be another successful season for the Californian.
High Leverage and Closers
Caleb Ferguson (LHP)
Caleb Ferguson didn’t pitch at all in 2021, so 2022 will be a re-introduction year for the pitcher as he returns to the mound following his UCL tear and Tommy John surgery. Although he will miss the opening roster, Ferguson won’t be wanting to hang around on rehab assignments in Triple-A for too long. In 2020, most of Ferguson’s appearances were of high leverage, often entering the game in the eighth inning with the score tied or with the Dodgers leading.
When he rejoins the team, I doubt he’ll be re-introduced right back into high leverage situations and instead will get some innings in the fifth and sixth innings of games. When he gets back to his best though, it’s worth remembering what a player we have. In almost exclusively high-leverage innings, Ferguson struck out 27 batters from 75 faced at a rate of 13 K/9 with an ERA as low as 2.89. The hope for Ferguson this season is that he rejoins the team and gets a few innings in the back end of games. If he pitches 20 innings and gets two saves with an ERA below 3.5 then that would be a positive return post-Tommy John surgery.
Brusdar Graterol (RHP)
The most relaxed rocket launcher in all of baseball, Brusdar Graterol, is looking for a bounce back after a small slump in his short young career. Graterol, who averaged 100.0 MPH on his sinker and 99.5 MPH on his four-seam, has all the talents to be a key reliever for the Dodgers for years to come.
In 2021, his ERA rose to 4.59; his troubles last year started with his walks. In 2020, he struck out 4.33/walk; in 2021, that fell to just 2.08. In the shortened 2020 season, Brusdar pitched 23.1 innings. In 2021, he pitched only ten more innings with 102 more games. Graterol must solidify himself as a key piece of the bullpen this year, and for that, he needs innings. My target for Graterol stands at 45 innings with a sub 4 ERA.
Blake Treinen (RHP)
Fighter of fires Blake Treinen was the multi-purpose muscle relaxer for Dodger fans last year. He was used at any time in a game if the situation was tricky enough. Treinen came in, settled the storm and threw some of the nastiest pitches in baseball and sat back down. He had a 1.99 ERA only pitching in high-leverage situations, which collected him a stellar 206 ERA+.
The question facing Roberts was would Treinen move from an all-purpose fireman to the closer? Roberts replied that the ninth would be seen as a situation rather than a set inning. “It’s not necessarily the inning. It’s more of who they match up best against. That’s more of the conversation that we have. So as long as we feel like we’re putting whatever reliever it is in the best chance to dominate those hitters, then all guys are accepting and understanding of them.” It’s hard for Treinen to get any better, so his target for this season, become recognised league-wide as one of the best relievers in baseball.
Craig Kimbrel (RHP)
How on earth does one replace a player with the impact as Kenley Jansen, a leader in the clubhouse and a reliever who’s racked up 350 saves? Well, if you’re the Dodgers, you trade for a player with 372 saves instead. Craig Kimbrel was swapped with the White Sox for AJ Pollock in a late spring trade that we didn’t see coming.
All the noise out of the Dodgers was that there would be no closer, and instead we’d use a multitude of guys in a multitude of situations. Now Kimbrel walks into that everyday closer role that was left empty for him by Roberts. An eight-time All-Star and a five-time Cy Young top ten finisher, Craig Kimbrel really is the elite of all-relief talent. Last year Kimbrel struck out 100 batters of the 235 he faced, at a rate of 15.1 K/9 and striking out 4.35 for every walk allowed.
Kimbrel was traded at the deadline last year after arguably his best first-half performance of his career with the Cubs. He had a 0.49 ERA in 36.2 innings, allowing .709 WHIP. These numbers got massively inflated when he moved south side to play for the White Sox. The Sox already had an established All-Star closer in Liam Hendricks, so Kimbrel took his place in a set-up role in the eighth inning.
With Hendricks on the books, signing Kimbrel seemed more of a luxury addition rather than one that made sense. It was one of his worst career periods, with a 5.09 ERA for the conclusive two months of the season. Considering just how elite his April-July was, I’m not too concerned that his August-September form was much worst. We all know what Kimbrel can do; if he pitches to his All-Star calibre level while taking down the ninth inning in one of MLB’s hardest divisions, then this surprising trade will be a success.
Wow, I am exhausted. Writing about all that talent is just so tiring! The Dodgers clearly have one of the best bullpens in all of baseball. Lots of hardened veterans like Treinen, Hudson and Kimbrel, but countless young arms chomping at the bit to take up the mantle. When one of the biggest question marks surrounding a contending team is the starting pitching, it is a true comfort writing out just how strong and deep the bullpen is.
This concludes the player profile and projections from this series which will wrap up with part seven which will be my team predictions and awards, Best Pitcher, Best Batter, Most Surprising and so forth.
Featured image by Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Getty Images
Freddie Law-Keen is one of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @FLK_Sports