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The Dodgers missed their chance to fix their bullpen problems

Baseball's richest and most creative team made a minor bullpen move at the deadline. It looks like they might regret their confidence.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

On Sunday night, new Dodgers setup man Jim Johnson had a rough outing. Historically speaking, it was one of the worst relief outings ever. He allowed eight runners to reach base in two-thirds of an inning, and all of them scored. It was just the 62nd time a reliever has allowed eight or more runs in an inning or less.

This outing stands apart from most of the other 61 games, though. The relievers stayed in most of those games because they were already decided. There was a 22-1 game, a 23-1 game, and, oh goodness, there was even a 30-3 game. The managers in those games didn't feel like walking 80 feet to get the pitcher who was screwing up, and it's hard to blame them. In baseball language, it's known as letting the pitcher wear it.

Don Mattingly wasn't letting Johnson wear it; he was trying to win the game. The Dodgers were leading 5-3 at the start of the inning, and they were down 9-5 when Johnson was pulled. It's fun to play the hindsight game and see when a typical manager might have made a pitching change.

  • Strikeout looking (everything is fine)
  • Hit by pitch (don't do that, reliever)
  • Line drive single (stop that, reliever)
  • Sac fly (okay, no problem, still up by a run)
  • Line drive single (uh, is there a reliever up?)
  • Walk (get him out)
  • Infield hit (get him out)
  • Single through the left side (get him out)
  • Line drive single (whatever)

Let's fix that intro, then. On Sunday night, old Dodgers manager Don Mattingly had a rough outing. Historically speaking, it was one of the worst managerial outings ever.

Eric Stephen of True Blue LA took a look at the tipping points of the game, suggesting that J.P. Howell turning Neil Walker around was the best move that wasn't made. Mattingly kept chasing one ... more ... out from Johnson, and it never came.

This is starting to be a thing.

The Dodgers still hold the record for the most expensive bullpen in history, with former GM Ned Colletti using his powers to throw as much money as possible at a host of costly, janky arms like Brian Wilson and Brandon League, both of whom are still making millions of dollars to not pitch for the Dodgers. When the new regime came in, they had a much different idea about how to build a bullpen, using a more traditional patchwork approach and nabbing low-cost free agents and waiver claims. In theory, the plan had a shot.


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In practice, it's been a minor mess. The Dodgers have used 21 relievers this season, a lot of whom are the kind of relievers you would expect to find on a small-market team looking for a bargain or a rebuilding team looking for a miracle. Chin-Hui Tsao, one of baseball's best prospects over a decade ago and a phantom since, logged a few innings. One-time White Sox and Blue Jays closer Sergio Santos slipped into a few close games. Wily veterans like Joel Peralta and David Huff have made (mostly disastrous) cameos.

Those are relievers you would expect the A's to mess around with this season, hoping to build on something surprising for next year. Instead, the Dodgers tinkered with the reverse-Colletti ray just a little too much, and things are getting out of hand.

What can the Dodgers do? Not much right now.

Throw money at the problem (offseason only)

The problem with Colletti's gambit is that he chose the wrong relievers. League showed up to sign his contract wearing nothing but a red flag, and he'll continue to wear it for the rest of his baseball career. Same goes with Wilson. While it's not a brilliant idea to give long-term deals to relievers, the Dodgers have proven they're not too worried about a financial mistake here and there. They still didn't pursue a true bullpen difference maker like Andrew Miller or David Robertson, relying instead on Kenley Jansen and a cornucopia of assorted pitchers.

Some of them have worked. Most of them have not. They'll probably make a splash in the offseason, but that's not going to help them right now.

Finally make the huge deadline trade we've been expecting for the last two years (next deadline only)

For the last two years, the Dodgers have played it relatively safe at the trade deadline, and this year they acquired Jim Johnson as a part of the larger Alex Wood trade. They didn't go after Aroldis Chapman, at least not enough to blow the Reds away and force them to deal. They also couldn't talk the Padres out of either Craig Kimbrel or Joaquin Benoit. They made minor moves and crossed their fingers.

This makes absolutely no sense. The Dodgers have the prospects to get almost any reliever in baseball, and that's without dealing Corey Seager or Julio Urias. But they have a death grip on their prospects, proving that they would rather eat money and deal away someone like Hector Olivera instead of trading any of them. With those top two prospects, I get it. They could be special, dominant players. With everyone else, though, it's an odd strategy.

You: So what's so special about prospects?

Dodgers: Oh, they're the currency of baseball. They're very, very valuable.

You: How so?

Dodgers: If they pan out, they provide production at below-market rates for six or seven years.

You: How does that help the Dodgers?

Dodgers: By allowing the Dodgers to sign more players.

You: But wouldn't you sign those players anyway, regardless of how much help you're getting from the farm?

Dodgers: Ha ha, you're cute. That's not how baseball works. Prospects are inherently valuable. You just don't get it.

Dodgers: Boy, I sure am hungry. Feelin' a little peckish.

Dodgers: /eats sandwich made entirely from Honus Wagner cards

Dodgers: Now where were we?

If there's one team in baseball that should be watering baseball's metaphorical lawn with prospects, it's the Dodgers. They're built to win now, and the advantage of a low-cost player means less to them than it would to other teams. Let the rest of baseball develop the relievers, then take them.

It's too late now, of course. We'll see if the strategy changes in the offseason. Just note that instead of crowing about a new-look Dodgers team with Johnny Cueto and Chapman, we're talking about Alex Wood and Jim Johnson.

Start using Kenley Jansen like the save was never invented

Bingo. Jansen is one of baseball's best relievers, a strikeout god forged from the fires of a volcano made out of strikeouts. He would not have allowed eight runners on Sunday night. But in a three-game series decided by bullpens, he barely pitched. Here's how the Dodgers have used him

Tie game (2)
One-run lead (3)
Two-run lead (2)
Three-run lead (5)
Four-run lead (3)

One of the tie games was an effort to clean up another reliever's mess, too. And while those one-run saves were critical situations, they're not all created equal. One of them came against Freddy Galvis, Andres Blanco, and Domonic Brown. Two of them were against the Brewers' 5-6-7 hitters. The Dodgers are using Jansen in a way that they could use Johnson without seeing any significant difference. The Dodgers have the boxer with the best knockout punch in baseball, and they're sending him in when the other boxer is already on the canvas. Just ... I don't know ... jump on him and keep hitting him. Make sure he doesn't get back up, or something.

Using Jansen in the old Goose Gossage kind of way, though, would instantly make the team better. This is true for a lot of teams with a super-reliever, but it's especially true for the Dodgers, who can't exercise their other two options right now.

It's not going to happen, of course. Mattingly isn't a mad scientist like that, and the tyranny of the save is just too oppressive. So the solution is for the Dodgers to cross their fingers even harder. They Dodgers should have run away with the NL West this weekend, but they remained vulnerable instead. If you're looking for something that money and smarts can't always buy, here's another reminder that the bullpen is one of baseball's remaining unsolved mysteries.

If it's killing one of baseball's most impressive collections of talent right now, just wait until the postseason. Keep crossing those fingers, everyone.

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