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Sarah's Take: Dodgers must shore up 'pen to contend

Since the Los Angeles Dodgers have lost some games in the late innings, many of their fans have concerns about the bullpen. Even before Spring Training began, the Dodgers and many members of the media thought the bullpen would be a strength for the team. So far in this young season, however, it has been a weakness.

The Dodgers have had many off-days in the first two weeks of the season, which has helped the bullpen situation. But on Tuesday, they began a 13-game stretch that could potentially expose the bullpen's weaknesses.

Los Angeles even tried to bolster a bullpen that was a source of pride in 2013, even though it had its struggles during the National League Championship Series. The Dodgers came into the season with five relievers who had experience as closers. No one would have thought the team would have four blown saves already.

What happened to the Dodgers' bullpen?

Though manager Don Mattingly has relied on the 'pen heavily, it isn't unusual for this stage of the season. Few starters go more than six innings in April. Hyun-Jin Ryu has hurled seven innings three times, and Zack Greinke has pitched at least five innings in each of his starts despite missing a large portion of Spring Training. Dan Haren, an offseason acquisition with good control, has been terrific.

Paul Maholm and Josh Beckett didn't last long in their first starts, but they did much better in their second starts against the Giants. Shortened first outings didn't surprise anyone. Maholm didn't have sufficient time during the abbreviated Spring Training to build up arm strength. Coming off thoracic outlet surgery, Beckett should have had more starts during the spring, but the trip to Australia prevented that. Neither of these short outings should have worn out the bullpen.

This will be the last time that I will write about the effect of the journey to Australia on either the Dodgers or the Arizona Diamondbacks. I don't want to make it an excuse for poor play, but it did affect how the teams, especially the pitchers, prepared for the season.

Los Angeles wanted to see the young pitchers destined to go to the Minor Leagues, so Mattingly and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt gave these youngsters opportunities to pitch in a Major League exhibition game while having the proven Major League relievers throw numerous bullpen sessions. In hindsight, this method didn't give the relievers enough work in a competitive environment, but I don't know what they should have done differently.

Brian Wilson didn't have enough appearances to build up arm strength and velocity, and this led to a heartbreaking loss and a trip to the disabled list. Without Wilson active, Mattingly didn't know which reliever to use in the eighth inning.

On Tuesday, the Dodgers activated Wilson from the disabled list. Wilson pitched a good eighth inning Thursday and he should help the bullpen situation, especially if he can pitch like he did when he joined Los Angeles last August.

Chris Perez, a free-agent offseason acquisition, has done well in the eighth, but the Dodgers need him to be the seventh-inning setup man, even though Chris Withrow has done well in that role.

Los Angeles optioned Paco Rodriguez to Triple-A Albuquerque when it activated Wilson. Rodriguez hasn't recaptured the magic that he had before last September, when he developed a mechanical flaw in his delivery. Rodriguez's demotion leaves J.P. Howell as the lone left-handed reliever in the Dodgers' bullpen. Although Howell is a good left-handed reliever, Los Angeles needs another lefty in the 'pen to be competitive with the best teams in baseball.

What worries me about the Dodgers' bullpen is the ineffectiveness of Kenley Jansen. With the abbreviated Spring Training, Jansen didn't have enough work to sharpen his skills. Unlike last season, he hasn't had good control, which has hurt him. Jansen hasn't been using his fabulous unhittable cutter enough.

On Thursday, Jansen was shaky as he earned the save against the Giants, and he seems to have lost confidence in his ability to save games. If Jansen doesn't improve, the Dodgers need to find another closer.

Once again, Brandon League has proven that he has difficulty getting Major League hitters out. The Dodgers need to consider releasing him, regardless of his lucrative contract that began in 2013.

Los Angeles is tied with San Francisco for the lead in the NL West. The Dodgers' bullpen problems have held them back to a spot where the rest of the division could keep up with them.

General manager Ned Colletti didn't want to be forced to revamp the bullpen as he had to do in the middle of last season, so he focused on it during the offseason. But so far, his improvements haven't worked out. The Dodgers hope that the relievers will become more effective soon, or it will be a long season in L.A.

Sarah D. Morris can be reached at [email protected].
Read More: Los Angeles Dodgers, J.P. Howell, Chris Perez, Kenley Jansen, Chris Withrow, Brandon League, Brian Wilson