Reinvented Blanton finds fit with Dodgers

Previously retired pitcher embraces new role in bullpen

February 22nd, 2016

PHOENIX -- Like the grapes in his Napa vineyard, pitcher Joe Blanton went dormant, only to reawaken as a surprising new varietal.

Ineffective with the Angels in 2013, released the next spring and foundering in the Minor Leagues for Oakland, he retired to seemingly end a career that included a couple of nondescript months with the Dodgers in 2012.

But after sitting out most of 2014, he got the pitching itch and was reinvented last year as an effective reliever.

Which brings him back to the Dodgers, playing this spring for a manager who also doubles as a Napa vintner -- a trendy diversion for ballplayers past and present when you consider that Blanton's celebrity winemaker, Thomas Rivers Brown, is also winemaker for (Tom) Seaver Vineyards.

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The Dodgers and manager Dave Roberts see Blanton as at least part of the elusive bridge to get the game to closer Kenley Jansen. The club hasn't had a lights-out setup man since Brian Wilson's ridiculous and miraculous five weeks straight off the Tommy John shelf in 2013.

Management nearly solved the problem in a huge way until the Aroldis Chapman trade was nixed. Blanton is no Chapman, but in the two months after his purchase from Kansas City by Pittsburgh, Blanton went 5-0 with a 1.57 ERA and the highest strikeout rate of his career.

He signed a one-year, $4 million deal to pair with Chris Hatcher as the likely right-handed setup to Jansen, with J.P. Howell and Luis Avilan from the left side. Hard-throwing youngsters Pedro Baez, Yimi Garcia and Carlos Frias are also in the mix.

As a side benefit for the native Kentuckian who lives in Tennessee, returning to California makes visits to his three-acre vineyard of cabernet grapes more convenient. But at 35 with one retirement already in the books, Blanton isn't ready for full-time farm life.

The baseball flame was rekindled by accident. Pitcher Zack Duke moved down the street from Blanton after the 2014 season and needed a partner to play catch.

"I just did it as a favor," said Blanton. "But when I walked away from the game, I was healthy and I felt good throwing and my body had changed in a good way, putting back some pounds that I needed. Then I went to L.A. and met with [pitching consultant] Tom House and we worked on some mechanical things to correct."

Teammates Ryan Madson, Wade Davis and Chris Young were among those who counseled Blanton on the tricks of the relief trade, and the transition from starter was made easier than most.

"I didn't have to overcome the ego of a starter going to the bullpen because I had already thought I was done," he said. "I had decided I wouldn't play anymore, had taken it to the house, cashed it in for good. My heart wasn't in it anymore after 2013. So when I came back, I just wanted to get back to the big leagues. I embraced a new chapter."

And the Dodgers present a new subchapter within that new chapter.

"I just wanted to be on a quality team with a chance to win a World Series," he said. "I think I'm a fit for what they need, and the Dodgers are a good fit for me."