Josh Bailed

I’ve been suffering through another Internet blackout — thanks, Time Warner! — so excuse the lack of posts over the last few days. Well, it’s that, but it’s also due to the simple fact that there’s so little going on in this frigid first week of January. It’s so slow, in fact, that this counts as news: Josh Bell has signed with Korea’s LG Twins. This matters only in the sense that last month, it had been reported that he’d returned to the Dodgers, years after he’d been traded away to Baltimore for George Sherrill. Bell never really was going to be anything more than organizational depth this time around — if even that — though he’s now out of the mix for Albuquerque’s third base slot. This has been your “it’s ungodly cold and we need something to update with” post of the day.

(And, of course, it should go without saying to check out Jon Weisman’s new “Dodger Insider,” which launched today, has already been pumping out solid content, and should be considered atop your must-read list going forward.)

Welcome Back, J.P. Howell

howell_atlanta_2013-05-19

Update: Jon Heyman reports the deal is done, and that the third year is actually a mutual option that becomes a player option if Howell makes the 120 appearances.

As usual, I leave the house for a few hours, and things begin to happen. First and foremost, it sounds like J.P. Howell might be on the verge of returning, reports Ken Gurnick. The deal would reportedly be for two years and $11.5 million, with a vesting option for $6.25 million in 2016 if he managed to hit 120 appearances in the first two seasons.

If true, that would seem to be great news for a Dodger bullpen that badly needed a lefty, since Scott Elbert won’t be ready to pitch for a while and Paco Rodriguez has much to prove after flaming out so badly down the stretch. Howell was a very useful piece of the 2013 team, and the reported terms make even more sense when you compare Howell’s 2013 against Boone Logan and the $16.5m he received over three guaranteed years from Colorado last week.

Assuming Howell returns, this leaves the bullpen looking something like this:

CL — Kenley Jansen
RHP — Brian Wilson, Chris Withrow
LHP — Howelll, Rodriguez

With Jose Dominguez, Javy Guerra, and (I guess) Seth Rosin in the mix, and likely one more addition to be made, probably someone with “closing experience” as we talked about the other day. That’s shaping up to not be a bad bullpen at all, isn’t it?

Unrelated but entertaining, the team has also welcomed back old friend third baseman Josh Bell, who gets a minor league deal with an invite to spring training. (Per the team, the six who have invites to camp are Bell, J.C. BoscanSam DemelBrendan HarrisDaniel Moskos, and Clint Robinson, each of whom we’ve discussed previously.)

If you don’t remember Bell, he was a fourth round pick of the team in 2005 who put up some decent stats in the minors before being traded to Baltimore for George Sherrill in 2009. (I liked the trade at the time, for the record, and Sherrill went on to be outstanding down the stretch before being mismanaged by Joe Torre in 2010.) Bell saw time in 100 big league games between 2010-12 for Baltimore and Arizona, but hit only .195/.223/.265, and was released by both the White Sox and Yankees’ Triple-A teams in 2013, not playing after July. He exists only because Albuquerque needs someone to play third base, and even that’s no guarantee at this point, though he is only 27.

In Which We Dissect George Sherrill

Let’s pour one out for Chad Billingsley, who was effective, though hardly electric, in helping the Dodgers shut down the Giants in his return from the DL. With all the talk about Matt Kemp getting benched (he’ll be back tonight) and Joe Torre mishandling Jonathan Broxton, a loss last night, or even just a bad start by Billingsley, could have led to a full-fledged disaster.

But as little as I think of Torre and his bullpen management, there’s one unavoidable truth:  some of the main cogs in the bullpen just aren’t as good as it was last year. I’ve already looked into Ramon Troncoso, but an even bigger culprit is George Sherrill. There’s no doubt that Sherrill’s 2010 has been a complete and total train wreck, to the point where Steve Dilbeck in the LA Times is openly campaigning for him to be sent to the minors. I won’t quite call this a Carlos Santana situation, since Josh Bell has just a .307 OBP for Baltimore’s AAA team, but Sherrill is just about a no-doubt non-tender situation this offseason.

How bad has Sherrill been? Part of me actually agrees with Steve Dilbeck.

Anyway, normally when we do these things I’ll give a bit of an intro about how good a player was, how far he’s fallen, and explain how I’m going to try to figure out what’s happened, including presenting the relevant stats.

But in looking at Sherrill’s game log, one thing jumped out at me so clearly that I can’t possibly bury it any further: George Sherrill hasn’t had a strikeout since May 17. That’s more than six weeks ago, ever since he struck out Houston’s Michael Bourn (who struck out 140 times last year) in the 8th inning of a 6-2 Dodger win in Los Angeles. By (a completely unfair) comparison, Clayton Kershaw has 56 strikeouts since Sherrill’s seen his last one. He’s clearly fooling no one. How can you succeed like that?

Well, you can’t – obviously. But before we discuss how bad he’s been in 2010, it’s important to remember that the fall isn’t as big as it seems, because his 2009 was a bit of a mirage. You’d know this already if you’d purchased the 2010 Maple Street Press Dodgers Annual and read my capsule on him, but Sherrill’s sparkling 0.65 ERA as a Dodger obscured some pretty discouraging truths. For example, did you know that after Sherrill left the brutal AL East to join the Dodgers:

- His strikeout rate decreased. Sherrill whiffed 8.49/9 as an Oriole in 2009; upon reaching LA it was just 7.16.

- His walk rate increased. He’d issued free passes to 2.83/9 in Baltimore, but that jumped to 3.58 as a Dodger.

- He got hit a little harder. In Baltimore, line drives were hit against him at a 15.4% clip. In LA, that increased to a career-high 22.7%.

Saved by a timely bit of luck (BABIP in LA dropped to .243) and the sudden and unsustainable ability to keep the ball in the yard (HR/9 rate half of his career average), it’s no surprise that his “real” ERA (by xFIP) as a Dodger last year was 3.98. That’s still far better than this year’s debacle, but it’s also not the startling Bob Gibson-to-Debbie Gibson transformation people think we’re seeing now, and that’s important.

There’s no such tomfoolery with the numbers this year, though. The fact that his ERA (6.75), FIP (6.19), and xFIP (6.55) align so closely show that his struggles this year have nothing to do with luck. Sherrill’s just been that bad.

It’s not that hard to see what’s causing this, either. He’s not throwing as hard (88.3 MPH average on his fastball, lowest of his career). He’s not getting anyone to chase junk out of the zone (swings on just 21.1% of his pitches outside the strike zone, tied for his lowest ever). He’s not avoiding bats on any pitches (85.1% of his pitches are met with contact, and he’s getting just 5.5% swinging strikes, each worst of his career).

So is he hurt? He claims no, despite missing time this season with a bad back. There’s been questions all year about his mechanics, theories that his offseason was too short, and stories about being “cured” by watching Billy Wagner on TV. Obviously, none of it has worked. Maybe it’s all of the above. Or none.

But here’s where I differ with Dilbeck, because I don’t think the minors are the right answer here. First of all, no pitcher has ever gone to Albuquerque to feel better about themselves, but also because his departure would leave the Dodgers with only one lefty in then pen, Hong-Chih Kuo, who can’t be used on consecutive nights. Now, I know you’re thinking that Sherrill is so bad that at this point it doesn’t matter if he throws lefty, righty, or with a cannon attached to his torso, but as long as he’s used in only certain situations, he can still be useful.

Sherrill has been unfathomably terrible against righties this year, allowing them to abuse him at a .405/.509/.714 clip. Despite the homer to Robinson Cano on Sunday – and let’s not forget, Cano’s probably the AL MVP at this point, so there’s not much shame in that – he’s held lefties to .206/.333/.353. I realize this is somewhat grasping at straws here, but unless you’re dying to see Juan Perez or Jack Taschner called up from ABQ, there’s not a lot of viable alternatives.

In the meantime, you pitch Sherrill only against lefties, preferably in low-pressure situations, and you pray. Because there’s not a whole lot else you can do right now.

Welcome to the Playoffs, George Sherrill…

georgesherrillbaltimore.jpgI’ve re-written this intro about four times, ranging from “This trade rules!” when I thought it was just Josh Bell, to “holy hell no!” when I thought it was Bell and Scott Elbert, to “yeah, that’s fair” now that we know it’s Bell and Steven Johnson.

As far as relievers go, Sherrill’s basically the best on the market, and we’ve heard that up to eight teams were after him – so for the Dodgers to get him is a pretty nice feather in the cap. He’s a little older than you might think – 32, since he didn’t make his MLB debut until 27 – but he’s been one of the best relievers in the American League for the last several years. After some quality years in Seattle (dig that 2.36 ERA in 70 games in 2007), Sherrill was dealt to Baltimore in the disastrous Erik Bedard trade, and has put up 51 saves as the O’s closer the last two seasons. Clearly, he’s not coming to LA to be the closer, but if you can put up a 191 ERA+ and strike out nearly a man per inning in the toughest division in baseball, he’s still a pretty nice addition to the pen.

Sherrill has an absolutely absurd platoon split in 2009 – while righties are OPS’ing .731 off him, which is a little better than average (88 OPS+), lefties have no prayer whatsoever, OPS’ing just .356. That’s an OPS+ of 3. THREE. His career numbers haven’t been quite that crazy, but he’s still holding lefties to a good 250 points of OPS worse than righties.

As far as what he adds to the bullpen, a strength just got stronger:
CL Broxton
LH Sherrill
LH Kuo
RH Troncoso
RH Mota (I know, but he’s been incredible over the last few months)

That’s a top five in the ‘pen that you can put up against anyone else in the league, and that doesn’t even count the imminent return of Ronald Belisario, the quality long relief of Claudio Vargas and Jeff Weaver, and the hope you still hold for Cory Wade. Who needs the starters to go more than 6 innings when you’ve got guys like that holding down the last three?

For the guys going to Baltimore, it’s not exactly a cheap price. Josh Bell’s a third baseman who’s been steadily progressing through the system since his drafting in the 4th round in 2005, and Kensai thinks he might even have a 30-35 homer peak in the bigs ahead of him. As a 22-year-old in AA this year, he’s more than held his own, putting up a line of .296/.386/.497 with 11 homers. Steven Johnson (hey, he’s a native of Baltimore! congratulations, kid) was a 2005 draftee like Bell, but was on no one’s top prospect list. His first shot at advanced A ball last year as a 20 year old was a disaster (7.10 ERA in 11 games), though he’s bounced back to strike out more than a man per inning repeating that level before a recent promotion to AA.

And really, it’s the fact that it’s Steven Johnson, and not Scott Elbert, who’s joining Bell with the O’s that makes this trade a win and not a disaster. Bell’s a solid prospect, but not a superstar-in-waiting, and you have to expect to give up at least that much. Johnson’s intriguing, but hardly someone you lose sleep over. Elbert’s already shown success at the major league level, and losing him would not only cost his services as a Dodger, but his availability in any possible Roy Halladay trade.

I say that I hate things so often around here that I’m thrilled to be able to take the other side: this is a good, solid trade that’s going to help the Dodgers without killing them in the future. Even better, Sherrill’s only arbitration-eligible, so he can’t just walk away. Job well done by Ned Colletti on this one.