LOS ANGELES — It’s time for Dave Roberts to make a call to the bullpen.
The Dodgers need a new closer.
Craig Kimbrel’s first 25 appearances in a Dodger uniform haven’t gone according to plan.
The Dodgers, who decided not to re-sign longtime closer Kenley Jansen in the offseason, traded A.J. Pollock to the White Sox for Kimbrel six days before Opening Day in a somewhat shocking move.
The Dodgers felt overcrowded with bats, and had no use for Pollock’s glove with Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger and Chris Taylor manning the outfield on an everyday basis.
So away went Pollock’s career .281 average and one Gold Glove, and in came the eight-time All-Star and two-time Reliever of the Year award winner. Kimbrel seemed like the final piece of the puzzle that would return the Dodgers to the World Series.
But instead, the addition of Kimbrel, who has three losses, two blown saves, an ERA of 4.13 and a WAR of -0.1 in 25 appearances, has been costly just over 70 games into the season.
On Sunday, it was more of the same for Kimbrel, who entered a 3-2 ballgame in the 10th inning in Atlanta. Two pitches in, he allowed a game-tying single that scored the ghost runner on second base. Then, after a walk and two strikeouts, Braves catcher William Contreras took Kimbrel 396 feet to dead center on a ball that had an expected batting average of .660, missing a walk-off home run by just a few feet and falling right into Bellinger’s glove on the warning track.
It was Brusdar Graterol who eventually got the save in the 11th inning, leaving the ghost runner stranded with a 1-2-3 inning.
Entering this season, many believed it would be Graterol taking over that closer spot that Jansen held in Los Angeles for the better part of the last 12 seasons. Or maybe Blake Treinen, who the Dodgers loved using in high-leverage spots in the 7th and 8th innings, could have usurped that role. But instead, the Dodgers chose to look externally. They brought in Kimbrel, despite his struggles over the last three years. In 2019 and 2020, Kimbrel’s ERA was 6.53 and 5.28, respectively. In 2021, after being traded to the White Sox, he again had an ERA north of 5.00 with a 5.09.
The Dodgers hoped pitching coach Mark Pryor could help Kimbrel return to his All-Star form. Thus far, he has not.
But fortunately for the Dodgers, there’s a solution.
Despite the rash of injuries to their pitching staff — Treinen, Daniel Hudson, Tommy Kahnle, Caleb Ferguson, Victor Gonzalez, Dustin May, Walker Buehler, Andrew Heaney, Danny Duffy and Jimmy Nelson are all currently on the Injured List — they still have the depth to make a change.
Graterol can take over the ninth for the time being. Although he hasn’t been enjoying his best season in Dodger Blue, he’s put up a ton of zeros in high-leverage situations.
If Graterol struggles, the Dodgers can turn to a closer-by-committee role with Yency Almonte, Reyes Moronta and Evan Phillips. They have ERAs this season of 0.96, 1.64 and 1.88, respectively.
Then, the obvious choice would be allowing Treinen to take that spot when he returns. But he may not even be the Dodgers’ best option sitting on their IL.
In the 2020 postseason, when Jansen struggled in late-game situations, the Dodgers turned to Julio Urias. A starter throughout his career, the Dodgers loved his stuff, and trusted him to close out games. And while Urias isn’t going to move to the closer role this year, they have another former starter with some of the most dominant stuff in baseball, ready to be that guy.
Late last week, Dustin May tossed live batting practice for the first time since he had Tommy John Surgery early last season. Although the Dodgers have said they want to build him back up to be a starter, May would be the perfect candidate to close out games in late September and October.
He has a career 2.93 ERA across 113.2 innings as a starter and a reliever. During the 2020 World Series run, May had four scoreless outings, including five huge outs across the 6th, 7th and 8th innings of a key Game 5 World Series win in a 2-2 series.
The Dodgers waited for the postseason to make the change in 2020.
This year, however, they can’t waste time.
As of Monday morning, the Dodgers held a mere two-game lead over the Padres in the NL West, with the Giants trailing not far behind. The last thing L.A. needs is a divisional race bleeding into October. They need to take care of business now.
And the first order of business for Dave Roberts is making a change at the backend of his bullpen.
So pick up the phone, Dave. It’s time to make that call.