Yesterday, ESPN’s Buster Olney dropped this seemingly out-of-nowhere tidbit:
The Dodgers have quietly put together what could be a pretty good bullpen, with Javy Guerra, Kenley Jansen, Matt Guerrier, Mike MacDougal, Todd Coffey and others. It’s possible they will open the season with 13 pitchers on their roster — and it’s the flexibility of Jerry Hairston, who can play infield and outfield, that makes this a possibility.
I’m assuming that is just Olney speculation, since we haven’t seen any indications or reports from the team that they’re really considering such a thing. Even so, that didn’t stop ESPN’s David Schoenfeld from beating me to the punch by pointing out how carrying that many pitchers is not only inadvisable for most teams, it’s especially so for a club built like this one:
But the bigger problem is it limits your flexibility in managing your bench. If you carry 13 pitchers, that means four bench players — two hitters you need to keep handy to pinch-hit for pitchers, your backup catcher, and a utility guy like Jerry Hairston who can double-switch into just about any position. It leaves manager Don Mattingly with essentially no ability to hit for a player in the starting lineup. That means no pinch-hitting for James Loney, who hit .213/.254/.307 against left-handers in 2011. It means no hitting for Andre Ethier, who hit .220/.258/.305 against lefties (and is just .242 with little power in his career). It means you can’t really hit for Tony Gwynn Jr., Juan Rivera or Adam Kennedy with an opposite-side hitter except in maybe the eighth or ninth innings, and even then only if you haven’t already hit for the pitcher.
It basically means opposing managers will always get the matchup they want against the Dodgers. The tactical advantage for carrying 13 pitchers is so small it actually becomes a tactical disadvantage, especially for a team like the Dodgers that should be hitting regularly for its starting eight.
As a long-time proponent of the eleven-man staff who has reluctantly accepted the world of twelve-man staffs, I think Schoenfield is completely on-target there - though I suppose you could make the point that if your team is already carrying Treanor, Kennedy, and Gwynn on the bench, then you’ve acknowledged that your inability to obtain quality backups means that keeping an additional bat around isn’t all that likely to add much more value.
Diving deeper, it makes even less sense for the Dodgers to start the season with thirteen pitchers because it’s not going to be Opening Day where they’re hit with a roster crunch, but more like May 1. The Dodgers have, barring injury, six stone-cold locks for the pen right now: Guerra, Jansen, Guerrier, MacDougal, Coffey, & Scott Elbert. Most of us want Josh Lindblom to be the 7th man, but are expecting a non-roster guy like Jamey Wright or John Grabow to claim the final spot, and that makes for a relatively low-key battle for that last job, since Lindblom has options remaining. However, Blake Hawksworth & Ronald Belisario do not, and after they return from injury & suspension, respectively, near the end of April, the Dodgers are going to have some tough roster decisions to make in the bullpen. (Assuming no one else has been injured or that Belisario hasn’t started a cock-fighting ring or something, which is probably an iffy proposition.)
Still, this is taking on more relevance with the increasing talk of Loney & Ethier being allowed to play against lefties, potentially pushing Jerry Sands off the bench and back to the minors. That might open up a spot for a surprise entry like Josh Fields, or it might allow that additional pitcher Olney is talking about to sneak onto the club. Though it’s rare, the Dodgers have had thirteen active pitchers on the roster for at least a few days in recent years. Let’s hope that the flawed idea of giving more high-pressure at-bats to Kennedy or Gwynn, or not having a righty to spot for Ethier or Loney in the late innings, doesn’t get pushed through in the name of letting Wright, Grabow, or someone like them stick around.
Speaking of Ethier, well, this was a fun quote from Bill Shaikin’s story this morning:
“I think we’ve definitely got players as good as we’ve ever had here in the seven years I’ve been with the Dodgers,” Ethier said Sunday.
Granted, you never expect or want a player to come out in camp and complain about how unimposing his club seems, so keep that in mind. But I like to think he was really saying, “I think we’ve definitely got players.” Or perhaps it was, “I think we’ve definitely got players who were as good as ever when I came to the Dodgers seven years ago.” I’m sure it was one of those.