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Monday, October 15, 2012
Grading the bullpen

By Mark Saxon

The day after the Dodgers' season ended, somebody asked general manager Ned Colletti if he was counting on reliever Ronald Belisario being with the Dodgers at the beginning of spring training.

"I’m expecting Ronald to be there," Colletti said. "Ronald has told me to expect him there."

Belisario, you might recall, was late for three straight spring trainings while stuck in Venezuela, then missed all of 2011 after failing to obtain a visa. He missed the start of last year serving an unspecified drug suspension.

Being able to count on him next season would be big for Colletti and the Dodgers. If Belisario can avoid further turmoil and the Dodgers can hold onto perhaps their most crucial free agent, Brandon League, they could have a dominant relief group in 2013.

By the end of last season, you could see it shaping up. League got hot at an opportune time, with Kenley Jansen sidelined because he was taking blood thinners for a heart condition, and moved into the closer role in September. Belisario gave the Dodgers a shutdown seventh-inning pitcher and Jansen came back as good as new to hold down the eighth innings.

Led by that hard-throwing trio of late-inning relievers, the Dodgers bullpen had the fourth-best ERA in the National League last season. Of the three, Jansen might be the least of the Dodgers' worries. He is scheduled to undergo a catheter ablation for his irregular heartbeat next month, a procedure that cures the condition permanently in most cases.

Colletti listed holding onto League among his top three priorities for the off-season, along with strengthening the starting rotation and bench. Given the Dodgers' newfound financial muscle, holding onto League wouldn't seem to present a colossal challenge. He said he wanted to re-sign with the Dodgers, a team just 100 miles from his San Diego home and a relatively short flight from his native Hawaii.

It could come down to whether League and his agents are looking for the kind of deal experienced closers often get or whether they'll take the kind of package commanded by high-level setup pitchers. Take away 2011, his only full season as a closer, and he has just 23 saves over seven seasons. He turns 30 midway through spring training and he might prove to be a better value than an aging closer with declining velocity.

The Dodgers have said they're prepared to enter 2013 with Jansen as their closer if they can't hold onto League. Jansen, 25, was 25 of 32 in save opportunities and had a 2.35 ERA, so that hardly seems like a frightening possibility.

Another promising late development was the arrival of lefty Paco Rodriguez, who became the first player from the 2012 draft to make a major-league appearance. Rodriguez had a 1.35 ERA and 1.050 WHIP and hardly looked overwhelmed by the circumstances.

The emergence of Rodriguez would make it easier to lose Randy Choate, who tends to pitch to only one or two batters a game because he struggles against right-handed batters. Don Mattingly let Rodriguez pitch to 11 right-handed batters last year and they went 1-for-8 with three walks off him.

Once again, Jamey Wright could be looking for work next spring and might have to accept another minor-league deal, but Colletti said he'll explore bringing Wright back. He was a pleasant surprise, pitching 66 games with a 3.72 ERA, though his luck would appear to have been stout, judging by a 1.507 WHIP.

The Dodgers will continue to have jostling to do at the back end of their bullpen among a handful of young pitchers, but that's what spring training is for. Some of those pitchers have the ability to pitch themselves into more prominent roles. Javy Guerra looks like a candidate for a later-inning role, but he needs to get a better handle on his command (4.6 walks per nine innings).

There are some issues to sort through this winter, but 2012 laid a solid foundation.

Grade: A-