Dodgers Begin the Year of Tough Roster Decisions

The 2016 Los Angeles Dodgers were not built around a 25-man roster. That team, due mostly to a record number of disabled list trips, had 55 different players (including 31 pitchers) make at least one appearance for the team, plus at least two others who spent time on the active roster but did not get any playing time.

This year’s version of the Dodgers might not match that 57-player number, but it’s clear that they’ve come into the season with the same mindset, that the active roster is a fluid concept and the Los Angeles-to-Oklahoma City shuttle will be active. The new collective bargaining agreement, which changed the minimum disabled list stint from 15 days to 10, only reinforces that concept.

Last year, the Dodgers front office (led by general manager Farhan Zaidi, team president Andrew Friedman, and about a half-dozen former general managers in assistant roles) made great use of every roster rule and loophole they could find. One notable example came when the team optioned starting pitcher Kenta Maeda to the minor leagues even though he was scheduled to start in just a few days. According to the rules, a player who is sent to the minors can’t be recalled for at least 10 days unless there is an injury on the big-league team. But the Dodgers identified a loophole: The rule actually said a player had to be in the minors for 10 days or until the end of the minor-league season. The Dodgers happened to have a team in the Arizona League — a rookie-level team — that was ending its season that weekend. So they “sent” Maeda to the Arizona League on Friday — he never actually left the big-league team — then recalled him in time for his scheduled start that Monday.

The new CBA actually addressed and closed that loophole, but the new 10-day disabled list seems like a likely candidate to replace it as the roster loophole of choice. For starting pitcher, a 10-day stint on the disabled list really just means missing one start. So any time a team is planning to skip a time through the rotation for a starter for any health-related reason, it makes sense for them to stick them on the DL and replace them on the active roster.

We’ve seen this play out for the Dodgers already this season. After his first start of the season, lefty Rich Hill felt some tenderness on his finger, the same tenderness he felt last season that eventually turned into a major blister that cost Hill a couple months on the DL last season. The Dodgers opted to skip one time through the rotation for Hill, placing him on the 10-day DL and calling up reliever Josh Fields to bolster the bullpen with Alex Wood temporarily moving from long-reliever to spot-starter.

When the Dodgers re-signed Hill this past offseason, they understood that they were unlikely to get 32 starts from the 37-year-old, who hasn’t started more than 20 games in a decade. The goal with Hill is to get 20-25 high-quality starts, which would easily make him worth the $18 million they are paying him. The point being: If you’re a Dodgers fan, get used to seeing “Rich Hill” and “10-day disabled list” in the same sentence, because he will be skipping some starts this year.

All of that is a long preamble to say that the Dodgers are going to be making roster decisions constantly this year, and this weekend marks the first really tough ones. Hill is throwing a bullpen session today, and if all goes well he will be activated and start for the Dodgers on Sunday. In addition, relief pitcher Pedro Baez, who injured his hand in spring training, has completed his rehab assignment and is scheduled to come off the disabled list in time for tomorrow’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. That means the Dodgers need to remove to players — probably pitchers — from the active roster.

The two Dodgers relievers with the highest ERAs this season — Kenley Jansen and Sergio Romo — obviously aren’t going anywhere. That means the candidates to be demoted are:

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Stripling began the season in the long-relief role, if for no other reason than his extensive experience as a starter, but he pitched the seventh and eighth innings of a 1-0 game against the Chicago Cubs last night, so it’s safe to say he has moved into a high-leverage role. Manager Dave Roberts was asked specifically about Stripling this morning, and he indicated that Stripling is not a candidate to be sent to the minors this weekend despite his two remaining option years. So we can cross him off the list.

Hatcher has had his struggles the past two seasons and this spring, but he has allowed only one run this year (in a blowout victory against the San Diego Padres on opening day) and has no options remaining. Removing him from the active roster would require a much more permanent change, and with his current success and his dominant stuff, right now does not seem a likely time to make that call.

Wood has the worst numbers of the group, but all of the bad numbers came in his spot-start as Hill’s replacement earlier this week. His 2.0 innings of relief work have been nearly flawless, with one walk the only blemish. But he has three option years and is one of three lefties in the bullpen, so he is a possibility.

The other two lefties are Avilan and Dayton, who have nearly identical (and impeccable) numbers this year. Neither is a typical bullpen lefty, as both are effective against both right-handed and left-handed hitters. Avilan has no options remaining, and Dayton has been nothing but excellent in his big-league career. Based on the merits, there’s nothing to justify removing either of these guys from the roster.

Finally, we have Fields, who was called up to replace Hill on the roster. Based on the last-in, first-out philosophy, he’s an easy call. But then there’s the pesky fact that he has faced eight hitters and struck out six of them. His FIP is -0.90 (that’s a negative sign at the beginning of that number).

Simply put, there is no one in the Dodgers bullpen who has earned a demotion. There are times when roster decisions have almost nothing to do with on-field performance, and this is one of those times.

Now that the analysis part of the article has delivered a big ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, it’s time for the author’s wild guess. I think it’s likely that one of the three lefties goes down, and I guess I think it will be Wood. Whether the justification is to stretch him out as a starter at Oklahoma City or to get him more experience coming out of the bullpen, you can make a case that he could benefit from time in Triple-A. Or at least enough of a case to separate him from the other impossible options.

Then we have a right-hander, which means Stripling (who they said isn’t going anywhere), Hatcher (who has no options), or Fields (whose only parenthetical remark has to do with performance, which we already determined isn’t really a factor). It’s Fields by default.

Of course, there are the two dark-horse possibilities: Baez has two option years remaining, so they could change course and option him to the minors instead of one of these guys. And then there’s the old standby that has made many Dodgers roster decisions easier the past few years: maybe someone else will get hurt and go on the DL.

But it looks like this is the first of many tough roster decisions for the Friedman/Zaidi crew. Once they get through this one, they might not have to make another until Julio Urias is ready to join the rotation in two weeks.

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