Sarah's Take: Losing Withrow a blow to Dodgers
In 2014, 20 Major League pitchers have needed Tommy John surgery, and Chris Withrow, a young Dodgers reliever, has been diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament, which means he, too, probably needs the operation. Of course, Withrow is seeking a second opinion, but it will probably conclude the same thing.
Although most pitchers recover triumphantly from the elbow reconstruction and some can even throw harder than they could before the surgery, others can't return to pitching at the Major League level. The rehabilitation process is grueling and painful, and it is sometimes lonely. The determined pitcher goes through the therapy and hours of anxiety to return to the mound.
Last June, when general manager Ned Colletti transformed the Dodgers' bullpen from a soft-tossing veteran group that had been ineffective to a hard-throwing young group capable of mowing down the opposition, Colletti promoted Withrow from Triple-A, and immediately Withrow proved to be a highly effective reliever.
Manager Don Mattingly used Withrow as his seventh inning setup man. As Withrow proved to be reliable, Mattingly used him more. Withrow was excellent -- whatever assignment was given to him. Without Withrow's reliable brilliance coming out of the bullpen in 2013, the Dodgers wouldn't have gone to the NLCS.
This Spring Training Withrow didn't look as dominant as he had the previous year. His velocity was the same, but he didn't have the outstanding control he demonstrated last year. Since Withrow was an established reliever in 2013, he had a place on the active roster.
When the Dodgers' bullpen, supposed to be the strength of the team, struggled to hold onto leads, Withrow was still one of the club's most reliable relievers. Yes, sometimes he walked one or two batters, but he usually wriggled out of the jam without allowing a run.
As the season progressed, Withrow became increasingly ineffective, so Mattingly used him less frequently and in less important situations. Withrow hadn't lost any of his velocity, but he had developed wildness, which the Dodgers attributed to a mechanical problem.
When the Dodgers activated Hyun-Jin Ryu from the disabled list they demoted Withrow to Triple-A. This would allow Withrow to iron out his mechanical problems without the media spotlight. No one questioned whether Withrow would return. The Dodgers would need Withrow at some point during the hot summer to achieve their goal of reaching the postseason.
Losing Withrow for a year or up to 18 months will hurt the Dodgers. Sure, they have other brilliant young relievers who can fill in -- though they aren't as advanced as Withrow. But they don't have the same experience as Withrow, so they may be prone to panic under pressure.
For the past two weeks, despite Thursday's hiccup by Brandon League, the Dodgers bullpen had been faring better. Yet it still gives Dodger fans and most players heartburn to watch the toiling relievers. Brian Wilson has been regaining his great control, yet he still issues an occasional walk. If the Dodgers continue winning, Wilson will get enough appearances to hone his control.
Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers' closer, had been struggling earlier this season, even though he has an unhittable cutter. People compared Jansen's cutter to the legendary Mariano Rivera's, even when Jansen had just arrived in the Majors. During the last three years, Jansen had refined his cutter along with the rest of his arsenal. Last season when he assumed the closer's role after League faltered, Jansen was almost automatic in the ninth inning.
This season, most believed Jansen would continue his dominance right away. However, the easygoing closer appeared to lose his confidence in April. Finally, in May, Jansen seemed to recover and regain strength and confidence in his assigned role.
The Dodger offense must do more to help the pitching staff. At no time during the season, including Spring Training, has the offense performed up to expectations. Yes, both Dee Gordon and Yasiel Puig are performing better than anyone thought. But Hanley Ramirez, among others, hasn't hit well, with a lower batting average and fewer home runs than everyone expected.