With trades for Manny Machado and Brian Dozier, the Dodgers did more to improve their playoff odds in the weeks before the July 31 trade deadline than any other NL team, at least according to the projections of Dan Szymborski. However, they didn’t do a whole lot to address one area of glaring need, namely their bullpen, instead choosing to rely upon their internal depth despite a host of injuries. After the past four days in Denver, that looks as though it might have been a serious mistake.
In a four-game series at Coors Field that began on Thursday night, the Dodgers (64-55) lost “only” three games to the Rockies (63-55), but all of them came in the late innings, the last two via walk-offs. For as critical as these intradivision contests between contenders are, the team also endured an even more important and unsettling loss, that of closer Kenley Jansen. After Thursday night’s 8-5 victory, which was closed out by Scott Alexander instead of Jansen, manager Dave Roberts told reporters that the latter had been hospitalized before the game due to an irregular heartbeat then sent back to Los Angeles to undergo tests. He was also placed on the 10-day disabled list. The Dodgers subsequently reported that Jansen’s condition had stabilized, that his issues are considered manageable, and that he will have a follow-up appointment with a cardiologist on August 20, the day before he is eligible to return from the DL. Beyond that, the prognosis is unclear; if the 30-year-old righty is put on blood thinners, he could be out four-to-six weeks.
This is the third time during Jansen’s nine-year major league career that he’s experienced an irregular heartbeat. He missed four weeks in 2011 and three weeks in 2012 with a similar problem; the second episode also occurred in Denver. After the latter season, he underwent cardiac ablation surgery to correct the problem. He also had an incident of high blood pressure while in Denver for a 2015 game, but he returned to action a few days later.
Obviously, Jansen’s health is first and foremost in the minds of everyone. “It’s not minor if it’s my heart,” the old saying goes. Particularly with the team’s bullpen depth already depleted by injuries, the closer’s absence was felt acutely during the remainder of the Rockies series, and the team’s struggles in his absence cast a long shadow over over a tight three-way race in the NL West, where the Diamondbacks (65-54) lead the Dodgers by one game and the Rockies by 1.5 games — to say nothing of the Wild Card, where six teams are within 2.5 games of each other.
The Dodgers’ Rocky Horror Show began on Friday night, after starter Kenta Maeda allowed two first-inning runs but survived to gut out 5.1 innings of three-run ball and departed with a 4-3 lead. Lefty Zac Rosscup — the owner of a career 5.53 ERA, and a waiver pickup off the Rockies’ roster on July 11, if you need an idea of just how fringey he is — retired the final two hitters of the sixth inning but served up a two-run homer to Ryan McMahon in the seventh, and the Dodgers lost, 5-4.
On Saturday night, the Dodgers carried a 2-0 lead into the ninth after rookie Walker Buehler turned in seven scoreless innings and fellow rookie Caleb Ferguson — who has pitched very well in a relief role (1.14 ERA, 2.39 FIP in 23.2 IP) — added a scoreless eighth. But despite Ferguson throwing just 15 pitches, Roberts replaced him with Alexander, another lefty, and a solid setup man (3.33 ERA, 3.36 FIP), albeit one who had pitched his way back to Triple-A Oklahoma City in May. Alexander struck out lefty-swinging Carlos Gonzalez, then he allowed a double to righty Trevor Story before yielding to righty J.T. Chargois, a rookie who had earned his own month-long demotion to OKC in late May. Overthrowing like a guy trying desperately to win his girlfriend an oversized stuffed teddy bear at the carnival milk-bottle toss, Shaggy was a mess:
First, Chargois fell behind pinch-hitter Nolan Arenado 3-1 and then hit him in the left hip. He then induced Ian Desmond to hit a chopper up the middle, with Dozier roaming across second base to make a spectacular diving play, saving the run and then glove-flipping to Machado at second for the force out:
Two pitches later, however, it was the lefty-swinging McMahon who again played the hero, driving a 95-mph inside fastball 391 feet to right-center for a walk-off win.
Within the sample sizes of their career numbers, both Alexander and Chargois have fairly wide platoon splits, which would have inevitably forced Roberts to play matchups. But had he not pulled Ferguson, he’d at least have been able to counter McMahon with Alexander. Alas.
On Sunday, Dodgers starter Rich Hill allowed three runs (two earned) in six innings. The Dodger bats, which had been silent for the first six innings, awoke against flagging starter Chad Bettis; the team scored two runs in the seventh and one in the eighth to tie the game at 3-3 while John Axford, the team’s deadline-day acquisition, pitched two scoreless innings. In the ninth, Roberts called upon Dylan Floro, who had pitched well since being acquired from the Reds on July 4. He allowed a leadoff single to DJ LeMahieu, who took second when right fielder Yasiel Puig bobbled the ball. Floro struck out Story then intentionally walked David Dahl to set up the force, but upon getting Desmond to hit a slow chopper to third base, Justin Turner’s only play was to first, and the runners moved up. Roberts ordered McMahon intentionally walked, but then Floro, after getting ahead of Chris Iannetta on a first-pitch slider, threw four straight balls to force in the winning run and complete the lost weekend.
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Mindful of trying to remain under the $197 million competitive balance tax threshold, the Dodgers let Brandon Morrow and Tony Watson depart via free agency this past winter and went with a bargain-basement approach in front of Jansen, with guys like Alexander (acquired from the Royals in a three-way trade that cost them Luis Avilan and two prospects), Chargois (a February waiver pickup from the Twins), Daniel Hudson (signed in April after being cut by the Rays), and Erik Goeddel (a May waiver pickup from the Mariners) supplementing holdovers Pedro Baez, Tony Cingrani, Josh Fields, and Yimi Garcia. Injuries have been a significant factor, as Baez missed six weeks with a pectoral strain, and Cingrani, Fields, Garcia, Hudson, and Goeddel are somehow now all on the DL, respectively due to a rotator cuff strain, shoulder inflammation, forearm inflammation, lat inflammation, and forearm tightness. Can somebody check that card for Bingo?
Even with Jansen overcoming a dreadful April (5.59 ERA, 5.94 FIP) with a much more characteristic performance since (1.41 ERA, 2.50 FIP), Los Angeles’ bullpen — which is tied with the Braves for using an NL-high 25 pitchers (not including position players) — ranks eighth in the league in both ERA (3.92) and FIP (4.01). While the unit is third in strikeout rate (24.9%) and K-BB% (16.1 points), their 1.16 homers per nine allowed is tied (with the Rockies) for third. Jansen’s 0.99 HR/9 is the second-highest of his career, though, to be fair, he allowed as many homers in 9.2 innings in March/April as he has in 44.2 innings since (three apiece). The relievers’ 2.0 WAR ranks eighth in the league, but 1.2 of that belongs to Jansen, with Cingrani and Alexander the only other relievers who even have half a win above replacement level thus far.
While the Dodgers rotation has the league’s lowest ERA (3.30) and FIP (3.48), they’re 10th in innings per start (5.40), and as such have the circuit’s fifth-highest innings total out of the bullpen (436), and the added exposure isn’t helping. Including Friday and Saturday’s losses, they now have the league’s fourth-lowest winning percentage in games in which they led after six innings, and they’re tied for the third-highest loss total:
It’s against this backdrop that the team’s relatively muted response in adding to their relief corps in July stands out. Granted, Zach Britton, who was traded to the Yankees, has been rough, and Brad Hand would have probably cost them a blue-chip prospect, but other options such as Jake Diekman, Jeurys Familia, Keone Kela, Seung-Hwan Oh, Ryan Pressley, and Joakim Soria all changed hands, as well; with their deep minor-league system, the Dodgers could have traded for any of them. The 35-year-old Axford, acquired from the Blue Jays on July 31 in exchange for Double-A reliever Corey Copping, is a fine Instagram follow and a great Oscars night companion, but he hasn’t been a particularly effective reliever since 2016; this year, he owns a 5.33 ERA and a 4.09 FIP, and he has allowed a .351 wOBA against righties. To be fair, the 27-year-old Floro, though he doesn’t carry the same name recognition, has been far more effective (2.50 ERA, 3.11 FIP), but the team had ample time to stockpile reinforcements.
Now, with Hyun-Jin Ryu and Alex Wood both coming off the disabled list, the apparent plan is to shift both Maeda and Ross Stripling to the bullpen. It’s not that the move can’t work, but the latter pair have been stellar in the rotation, ranking 10th and sixth in the NL in FIP (3.27 and 3.10, respectively), among starters with at least 90 innings. Both have experience as effective relievers, including during last fall’s run to the World Series, and Stripling, who threw just 80.2 innings last year including the minors and postseason, is already at 110 this year. But with one-quarter of the season remaining, such a move could compromise the rotation, and the financial ramifications of depriving Maeda — who has made 20 starts and thrown 109 innings — of the incentives he was on track to earn (a bonus of $1.5 million for getting to the 25-start threshold, and $250,000 for every 10-inning increment to 190 innings, for a hit that could total $2 million) is unseemly. There’s no guarantee Ryu can maintain his early-season effectiveness (2.12 ERA, 3.16 FIP in 29.2 innings before suffering a severe groin strain), and Wood, who missed time due to cramping in his adductor muscle, simply hasn’t been as sharp since the beginning of June (23.1% K and 4.0% BB through May, 18.7% K and 6.7% BB since).
Meanwhile, the pressure for Julio Urias to rejoin the staff in time to pitch meaningful innings has just been ratcheted up a notch. Working his way back from a June 2017 tear in his anterior capsule, the 22-year-old wunderkind lefty has all of 3.1 competitive innings in two rehab appearances thus far, and while he reportedly touched 95 mph on Friday while pitching for the team’s High-A Rancho Cucamonga affiliate, our own Eric Longenhagen expressed his concerns after seeing Urias’s previous outing.
Having the depth to move effective starters to the bullpen does seem like an embarrassment of riches, and the Dodgers are nothing if not rich. Nonetheless, the fragility of a rotation where all of the top seven starters (including Clayton Kershaw and Hill) have served at least one DL stint this year — even given the team’s tendency to take advantage of the shorter stints — can’t be overlooked. The Dodgers are taking a big gamble here, one only magnified by the loss of Jansen, and nothing less than their entry into the 2018 postseason is on the line.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.