Should the Dodgers Be Looking For A Lefty Bullpen Arm?

Ponder this: it’s the first week of January, yet there may not be a single pitching spot up for grabs when camp starts in roughly six weeks. While the offensive side may see mild competition at backup catcher and the possible addition of a low-cost righty outfielder (and as I have been for months, I’m still on board the Lastings Milledge train), the pitching staff seems to be entirely set, barring any unexpected trades.

The rotation is obvious, as Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, Ted Lilly, and Jon Garland will head up one of the more solid starting groups in the game. Then, assuming the Dodgers carry seven relievers – as they almost always do – it seems pretty obvious that the seven are going to be Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo, Kenley Jansen, Vicente Padilla, Matt Guerrier, Ronald Belisario, & Blake Hawksworth. You can quibble about Belisario and Hawksworth, I suppose, but each are out of options and I doubt either is exposed to waivers, particularly with Belisario reportedly throwing well in winter ball. Behind them, there’s familiar names like Travis Schlichting, Jon Link, and Ramon Troncoso in the mix as well, ready to start at ABQ and come up when depth is needed. It’s a solid group.

Yet the question must be asked: should the Dodgers try to ensure that there’s another lefty in the bullpen alongside Kuo? If so, who?

Kuo may be the only southpaw in that group, but he’s of course hardly your typical lefty reliever. He may well end up with part of the closer’s job again, and since he’s dominant against all batters there’s no need to restrict him to just lefties anyway. Now, you don’t have to have a second lefty, but since Kuo generally doesn’t pitch on back-to-back days and may be held back for the 9th inning anyway, there’s a real risk that the team would almost never have a real situational lefty available for big spots in the 7th and 8th innings.

Unless you’ve really got your heart set on Dana Eveland, the only viable internal candidate is Scott Elbert, who has begun to make the transition from starter to reliever. Elbert was impressive in the AFL, his power stuff (10.4 K/9 in the minors) would play well in the bullpen, and I’d love to see the longtime prospect finally break through. Elbert comes with obvious risk, of course; not only was there the well-known leave of absence that cost him much of last season, but until he harnesses his control (5.0 BB/9 in the minors) relying on him in late-inning situations may be dicey. Considering that he didn’t pitch in the minors last year after June, starting him off back at ABQ may not be the worst idea in the world.

If you’re willing to look outside the organization, there’s several veteran options who may come at a reasonable cost – and no, I’m not talking about Brian Fuentes, who is overrated and reportedly wants a three-year deal. There’s a few familiar names out there, including several former Dodgers. Let’s take a look at who’s out there with their 2011 ages, 2010 K/BB stats, and 2010 performance against lefties…

Will Ohman, 33 (9.2 K/9, 4.2 BB/9, .636 OPS vs. LHB)
Ohman’s 2009 in Dodger blue was nothing less than an injury-filled disaster, as he pitched just 12.1 terrible innings before being non-tendered. Yet Ohman had several successful seasons before that and bounced back with Baltimore and Florida last year, starting his year with 25 straight games without being charged with a run. Though his walk rate was certainly higher than you’d like, he’s still getting lefty hitters out; his 2010 OPS is nearly identical to his career mark of .646.

Joe Beimel, 34 (4.2 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, .653 OPS vs LHB)
Beimel was something of a fan favorite in LA during his three seasons as a Dodger (2006-08), and was vocal in his preference to stay with the team. He had to wait until March of 2009 to sign with Washington, and made it only until July before being traded to Colorado, where he’s been ever since. Though he was successful against lefties in 2010, it was significantly lower than his career mark of .720, and the declining K rate is a concern.

Dennys Reyes, 34 (5.9 K/9, 5.0 BB/9, .862 OPS vs LHB)
Yep, that’s the same Dennys Reyes who was signed as an amateur by the Dodgers in 1993 and pitched in 25 MLB games before being included in the horrendous “Paul Konerko for Jeff Shaw” debacle of 1998. Though the loss of Konerko is obviously the most egregious, Reyes has made a career for himself as well, pitching in over 600 games for 9 teams since leaving LA. Reyes very nearly signed a $1.1m deal with the Phillies last month before it fell through, so we know what his price range is. That awful line against LHB last year may be an aberration, since he’s been very good against them over his career (.669), yet it’s not promising, and he fell apart in the second half last year after a good start.

Ron Mahay, 40 (6.6 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, .520 OPS vs LHB)
How old is Ron Mahay? He tried to make it as an outfielder in the Boston system in the early 90s, briefly appearing as a replacement player in 1995, before converting to pitching and getting back to the bigs several years later. Despite his age, Mahay was death on lefties in 2010. That’s not a rate he’s managed for his entire career, but he’s still sub-.700 against them over 14 seasons, and he did strike out three times as many as he walked last year.

Randy Flores, 35 (5.8 K/9, 4.4 BB/9, .888 OPS vs LHB)
Yep, .888. I almost didn’t include him, but figured I might as well just to be complete, and it is at least down to .780 for his career. Still, Flores doesn’t seem like the right kind of fit here.

So does anyone here interest you? Reyes and Flores are non-starters for me, and though Beimel was fun to have around, his performance has been decent at best. I’ve always been a big Ohman fan – yes, I’ll admit that part of that is because he’s perhaps the funniest guy in the league – though I wonder if his poor 2009 experience has soured the relationship on both sides. That leaves Mahay, who signed just a minor-league deal last season and was excellent.

Of course, if you do sign any of these guys to a major league contract, then one of the current seven has to go. Perhaps that’s the long-rumored trade of Broxton for an expensive left fielder. (Unlikely.) Or perhaps they want Jansen to gain more experience in the minors. (Very unlikely.) Maybe “being traded for Ryan Theriot” isn’t enough to guarantee Hawksworth a spot. (Possible.) Or maybe Belisario takes a wrong turn on the way to Arizona and somehow ends up in Siberia. (Even odds.)

So your choices are:

1) Go with just one lefty in the bullpen.
2) Add Elbert, find a way to dump someone else.
3) Add one of the free agents, find a way to dump someone else.

Me? If it’s cheap – less than $1m, or even better a minor-league deal – I’d try to get Mahay and see if Hawksworth slips through waivers. If not, then let Elbert and Hawksworth battle it out in camp.

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I, for one, will be so happy when Adrian Beltre finally signs somewhere so Dodger fans can stop hoping that he’s coming back. Beltre’s a fine player, but he’s not a superstar, and he wants superstar money. Not that signing him for 3B and pushing Blake to LF wouldn’t be fun and all, but the Dodgers have to be at or near their payroll limit, and I just can’t see how fitting Beltre in would work – especially when you don’t know if you’re getting awesome Beltre (2004, 2010), or average-to-slightly-above Beltre (most other years).

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I should have mentioned this the other day when I noted that Ivan DeJesus didn’t make John Sickels’ top 20 Dodger prospect list, and that I didn’t align with people who are hoping that he’d claim the 2B job in camp, thus pushing Juan Uribe to 3B and Blake to LF. The Dodgers recently announced the roster for their offseason development camp, which starts later this week in LA and features some of the brightest prospects in the system, like Jerry Sands, Dee Gordon, Trayvon Robinson, Rubby de la Rosa, and Chris Withrow. Seven attendees of last year’s camp saw big league time in 2010 – Carlos Monasterios, John Ely, Jon Link, Travis Schlichting, Kenley Jansen, A.J. Ellis and Russell Mitchell.

Ken Gurnick describes it as…

This will be the fourth year of the developmental minicamp, which is designed to take the best and brightest of the farm system, accelerate their Major League arrival and aid acclimation to what they will encounter when they get there.

Yet DeJesus wasn’t invited. Nor was he given a token call-up last September, like Mitchell and several others were. It’s not that I don’t like DeJesus - far from it – it’s just that all the signs seem to be pointing in the wrong direction for him, and that he won’t be the second baseman in 2011. We’ll learn more about how he’s percieved when Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus prospect expert, publishes his Dodger system review on Tuesday.