The Dodgers pen just might be one of the more interesting in the league. For the second year in a row, their best reliever will not be opening the season as closer and they have three former top-30 fantasy pitchers “fighting” to be the long-reliever on a team of all-stars and massive contracts. Tremendous roster turnover (at least amongst the relief corps) might have been lacking during the offseason, but that doesn’t mean the pecking order doesn’t offer the potential for intrigue.
After initially coming over from the Mariners mid-season last year, League was rewarded with a 3-year, $22.5 million contract (not including a vesting option plus incentives) and promptly decreed “closer” by general manager Ned Colletti. This came as somewhat of a surprise as it displaced ballyhooed youngster Kenley Jansen. Jansen performed admirably last season after wrestling the ninth-inning role away from Javy Guerra, but had heart issues down the stretch. These limited his workload in September and resulted in him undergoing a cardiac ablation procedure in October. There are few people who argue that League is the better pitcher. Jansen has only trailed Craig Kimbrel in K% the last two years, and, as Mike Petriello pointed out a few months ago, further improvement might be in store with an improved fastball/cutter combination that he showcased late last year. In his defense, League hasn’t been a bad pitcher; he has had a sub-4.00 xFIP the last five years running. Not Jansen good, but might be good enough for him to stick in the ninth inning even if he is technically the inferior option. There’s also the Jamesian argument that using your best reliever in high-leverage situations (versus saving them for the ninth inning) is actually the optimal solution, so it’s not outlandish to see the Dodgers stumbling into an effective situation where League is “good enough” finishing games and Jansen is one of the league’s lights out relief aces. So draft Jansen in all leagues (even if he’s not closing, he should still have a major rate contribution), but he won’t be as likely to topple the incumbent in short order this year.
Belisario is a guy better known for his off-the-field antics, but when he’s been on the field, he’s been pretty effective. Last year was his best major league season yet, as he put up a 2.54 ERA thanks to a healthy bounce in his K% (24.1%). His xFIP was slightly higher at 3.10 (thanks, .243 BABIP), but he should still be a solid option at the back end of the Dodger pen. He probably won’t back into any save opportunities with big money and skills in front of him, but his late inning job should be pretty secure, meaning he’s a worthwhile late-round selection in leagues that count holds.
Guerra is the once-and-former closer who was eventually exposed as a pitcher without swing-and-miss stuff (career 19.2% K%) who relied on BABIP/LOB% to keep his ERA well under his predictors (4.18 xFIP) the last two seasons. He has real-life value, but the odds of him seeing the ninth inning are slim and he doesn’t offer much outside of a couple holds for fantasy owners. Los Angeles signed Howell to be their main lefty reliever, however, his rates have tailed off a bit since his 2008-2009 seasons in Tampa so he’s creeping closer to “just league-average.” Elbert (also known as lefty number two) is working his way back from elbow surgery and might not be ready until late April or May. Guerrier put up an ugly 5.41 xFIP in an injury-marred 2012 and correspondingly watched his K% fell and BB% rose after already sitting at mediocre levels the last few years. He might be the best bet for first reliever exiled from Dodger Island.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the Dodgers pen (even given their closing situation) is how the back half of the rotation and long-relief will shake out. With starting spots virtually guaranteed to Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Josh Beckett, newcomer Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Chad Billingsley (provided his arm remains attached to his body), there isn’t a lot of other room for the rest of the Dodgers’ established major leaguers Ted Lilly, Chris Capuano, and Aaron Harang. Lilly hasn’t not started a game in almost a decade and Harang has only come in in relief six times during his entire 200+ appearance career. Capuano has the most (and most recent) experience out of the bullpen, only a couple years removed from his 2010 where he worked in relief during the majority of the season, so he seems to be a natural fit for a long/swingman in the Los Angeles pen. However, Dodger aficionado Mike Petriello thinks Lilly’s untradeable contract gives him the leg up in the battle for who “wins” the battle to stay on the Dodgers big league roster in a relief capacity. While the demotion of one of these formerly big-name pitchers (and what Colletti does with the other two) is certainly an fascinating storyline, fantasy implications are likely reserved for very deep leagues where picking up one of these guys as a speculative play in the event that Billingsley finally goes under the knife or Ryu strains an oblique trying to keep up with the “fast Americans.”
Down the minor league pipeline, the Dodgers might one of the more interesting collection of names in the big leagues and two of them of them (Chris Withrow and Paco Rodriguez) crack Mark Hulet’s top 15 Dodgers prospect list. Rodriguez saw limited time in the majors last year, becoming the first guy from last year’s draft class to quickly climb the ladder. He doesn’t have tremendous upside and profiles a bit more as a mid-inning specialist, but has a decent shot to join J.P. Howell as the second Dodger lefty when the break camp (assuming Elbert doesn’t make a speedier-than-expected recovery). Former first-round pick Withrow has more tantalizing swing and miss stuff (24.2% K% in a split starter/reliever season in Double-A last year) but back-to-back seasons of 13.6% BB% are not helping him make it to the big leagues. Soon-to-be 24, there’s a good chance he starts the season at Triple-A, and, while he still has a long way to go, has an outside shot of being a moderately impactful arm in the big league bullpen if he can really focus on cutting the walk rate. Dynasty leaguers looking to fill a couple minor league reliever slots with a long time horizon could do worse.