How the Dodgers Made Their Great Bullpen

It would be easy to assume that the Dodgers bullpen is just another part of the club bought and paid for by means of the organization’s massive and unrivaled resources. With the team’s payroll and competitive-balance expenses coming to roughly $250 million this season — itself a substantive decrease over the $300 million outlays of the 2014-16 campaigns — the Dodgers clearly have the capacity to spend with little restraint. And they’ve certainly utilized some of that financial might to the end of bullpen construction: the club, for example, brought back free-agent closer Kenley Jansen by guaranteeing him $80 million over five seasons.

For the most part, however, the Dodgers haven’t built their bullpen on high-salaried free agents or top prospects. Instead, they’ve mostly cobbled it together with a series of low-risk trades and signings, addressing needs in-season when needed without giving up prospects of significance.

Los Angeles opened up this season with a payroll of about $235 million. Close to $50 million of that total was designated for players no longer on the roster. Of the remaining money, half went to the starting rotation. Another 40% was earmarked for Andre Ethier, Adrian Gonzalez, Yasmani Grandal, Yasiel Puig, and Justin Turner. As far as the bullpen, there was Kenley Jansen and his big salary, of course. The second-highest salary in the bullpen at the start of the season went to Sergio Romo, though, who was guaranteed $3 million by the club in February. That figure was the third-highest guarantee the Dodgers have made to a reliever since Andrew Friedman took over operations after the 2014 season. That’s three full offseasons, and the second-biggest free agent guarantee the team has made to a reliever was the $4 million for Joe Blanton a few years ago.

We projected the Dodgers to have the best bullpen in baseball before the season began, with Jansen expected to do very well, Grant Dayton forecast to back him, and everyone else falling into line. Here’s what the main contributors looked like at the beginning of the year:

Dodgers Bullpen Projections Prior to 2017 Season
Name IP ERA FIP WAR Salary Service Time
Kenley Jansen 65 2.38 2.22 2.6 $11.30 M 6.073
Grant Dayton 65 2.92 3.02 1.5 $0.54 M 0.074
Pedro Baez 55 3.44 3.49 0.7 $0.55 M 2.059
Sergio Romo 55 3.48 3.61 0.5 $3.00 M 8.097
Ross Stripling 45 4.21 4.11 0 $0.54 M 0.115
Chris Hatcher 40 3.49 3.53 0.3 $1.25 M 3.146
Josh Fields 35 3.45 3.21 0.1 $1.05 M 3.092
Luis Avilan 30 3.66 3.98 0 $1.50 M 3.146
Salary and Service Time from Cot’s Contracts

Before we get to the results, here’s a quick look at how those players were acquired.

Dodgers Projected Bullpen, Opening Day 2017
Name How Acquired
Kenley Jansen Signed as an amateur in 2004, 5/$80 M in 2017.
Grant Dayton Trade for Chris Reed with Marlins, July 2015.
Pedro Baez Signed as an amateur in 2007.
Sergio Romo Signed for 1/$3 M in 2017.
Ross Stripling Drafted (5th round) in 2012.
Chris Hatcher Trade with Andrew Heaney, Enrique Hernandez, and Austin Barnes for Dee Gordon, Dan Haren, Miguel Rojas and cash before 2015 season.
Josh Fields Trade for Yordan Alvarez with Astros, July 2015.
Luis Avilan Trade with Mat Latos, Jim Johnson, Mike Morse, Alex Wood, Jose Peraza, and Bronson Arroyo for Jeff Brigham, Kevin Guzman, Victor Araujo, Hector Olivera, Paco Rodriguez, Zack Bird in multi-team trade, July 2015.

None of the pitchers here required a terribly large acquisition cost. The Dodgers certainly paid a lot to retain the services of Kenley Jansen, but every player above was available at some point over the past few years at a pretty reasonable price. Luis Avilan and Chris Hatcher were minor players in bigger deals. Chris Reed was a former first-round draft pick, but wasn’t a major prospect at the time. Yordan Alvarez is now a top-100 prospect, but at the time of the trade, he had only just been signed as a free agent with a $2 million signing bonus out of Cuba and entered this season outside of the Astros’ top-20 prospects.

Looking at the Dodgers payroll, one finds them easily papering over investments in Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy, and Hyun-Jin Ryu with acquisitions of other capable pitchers. Large commitments to Ethier, Gonzalez, and Carl Crawford have been evened out by great play from younger players like Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager. The high cost of non-performing players didn’t prevent the club from re-signing Justin Turner or trading for Logan Forsythe, nor were the Dodgers compelled to dump a bad contract to make room for a roster addition. For the most part, the Dodgers just ate the money.

That hasn’t been the case in the bullpen. Even the bigger moves for players now absent from the roster — Blanton, Jesse Chavez, Jim Johnson, Juan Nicasio, and Joel Peralta — have all been executed at a relatively low cost.

As one might expect given the volatility of relievers, not all of the pitchers expected to play major roles this season for the Dodgers worked out.

Dodgers Projected Bullpen and Actual Peformance
Kenley Jansen 68.1 1.32 1.31 3.5
Ross Stripling 69.1 4.02 3.78 0.5
Josh Fields 57.0 2.84 4.18 0.3
Luis Avilan 46.0 2.93 2.96 0.7
Pedro Baez 64.0 2.95 4.44 0.2
Chris Hatcher 36.2 4.66 4.28 0.1
Grant Dayton 23.2 4.94 5.74 -0.2
Sergio Romo 25.0 6.12 5.76 -0.3
Orange rows denote player on NLCS roster.

Sergio Romo was dumped on the Tampa Bay Rays. Pedro Baez made it as far as the National League Division Series. Luis Avilan was good this season and was hopeful of making the NLCS roster after sitting out the NLDS with a shoulder injury. Hatcher was traded to Oakland for international signing bonus space. Grant Dayton struggled before undergoing Tommy John surgery.

To compensate for those losses, the team has gotten good production from minor-league signing Brandon Morrow, as well as trades for Tony Cingrani and Tony Watson.

Dodgers Bullpen Moves
Name IP ERA FIP WAR Acquired
Brandon Morrow 43.2 2.06 1.55 1.6 Minor-league deal in January, $1.25 M.
Tony Cingrani 19.1 2.79 1.86 0.6 Traded from Reds for Scott Van Slyke and Hendrik Clementina, $600 K left in salary.
Tony Watson 20.0 2.70 3.86 0.1 Traded from Pirates for Angel Guzman and Oneil Cruz,
$1.9 M remaining salary.

The Dodgers didn’t throw a lot of money or prospects to make their bullpen better. Maybe they got lucky with Brandon Morrow, but they signed Jair Jurrjens and Justin Masterson, too. Scott Van Slyke is a proven major leaguer, but isn’t of great value, and the three prospects the team gave up were ranked No. 46, 49, and 65 out of the 69 prospects traded at the deadline this year. The team has the added benefit of having a fifth starter who translates well to the bullpen in Kenta Maeda. The righty is making a base salary of just $3 million. Due to starts and innings pitched, he made another $4.75 million this year.

Kenley Jansen is going to give any team a big head start when it comes to the bullpen, but he’s the only high-priced — either in terms of salary or cost in prospects — pitcher whom the Dodgers have in relief. In the last three offseasons, 31 free-agent relievers have signed contracts of at least $10 million. Despite running the league’s highest payroll and possessing plenty of assets, the Dodgers are responsible for only one of them. The club has avoided the Brandon Leagues and Brian Wilsons of their past in favor of letting low-cost free-agents and trade acquisitions supplement their stars. This model worked in both the regular season and the playoffs and allowed the team to invest their vast resources in other areas of need.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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6 years ago

Overall the Dodgers have done a fantastic job getting bullpen arms at minimal cost. The only move i am still on the fence about the Fields trade. He has been excellent and had 3 years of control when they got him, but Yordan Alvarez is turning into a major trade asset for the Astros.

6 years ago
Reply to  ShowTime98

For some reason, I feel like Josh fields will make the difference in the World Series and make us forget about Alvarez

Dave T
6 years ago
Reply to  ShowTime98

I think a good way to look at it is a portfolio approach. After making a lot of those deals, one of the lottery ticket prospects traded away may end up having value down the road. Most of them will decline in value, however, so the comparison is value of the bundle of prospects (and Scott Van Slyke) compared to value of the bundle of relief pitchers acquired.

We’ll also see how Alvarez develops, because at the time of his signing Baseball America wrote that “scouts who followed him since he left Cuba said his defense will need improvement at first base, where he plays upright with limited flexibility” ( ) If that view is still accurate, I think that he’ll need to keep hitting a ton to remain a legitimate prospect.