Mattingly more confident in bullpen this spring
Guerra, Jansen, MacDougal will be critical pieces in late innings
LOS ANGELES -- Entering his first Spring Training in charge of the Dodgers a year ago, Don Mattingly made all the customary supportive statements about a bounce-back season from closer Jonathan Broxton, despite the red flags of 2010.
Mattingly, however, concedes that his confidence level in his bullpen is higher this year with Spring Training starting next week.
"We don't have the established closer in Broxton, but he was coming off a rough year," said Mattingly. "We have a combination of guys. Javy Guerra didn't do anything wrong after taking over for Brox. We've got Kenley Jansen knocking on the door.
"And we've got Mike MacDougal back, a veteran who has closed before, to go with the two young guys. I feel good about the bullpen, and we'll see if another left-hander pops up in Spring Training. We've got depth, and I feel really good about where we are for the eighth and ninth innings."
Who could blame him? Last year, Broxton tried to pitch through a sore arm and eventually needed season-ending elbow surgery. Now he's with Kansas City. Fellow 2010 All-Star Hong-Chih Kuo was the left-handed setup man, but he had a relapse of the yips and spent the rest of the year dealing with anxiety disorder. He's now with Seattle.
During the first half of the season, Broxton had a 5.68 ERA and Kuo had an 8.71 mark. Guerra was promoted in mid-May and Jansen, after a demotion and a tender shoulder, put it together by mid-June. Scott Elbert then took over for Kuo in mid-May. The result: Through June 17, the Dodgers bullpen's 4.58 ERA was 27th in baseball, and the opponents' batting average was .269, good enough for 27th in baseball. After June 17, the 3.23 mark was third in the Majors, and the .211 opponents' batting average was first.
Guerra, whose career was slowed by Tommy John surgery in 2006, became a closer in 2009 at Class A, and that accelerated his arrival. Having already earned Mattingly's confidence during the previous Arizona Fall League, he was called up from Double-A Chattanooga. Quickly given the chance to close, he converted his first 10 opportunities and 21 of 23 total, demonstrating a fearless approach.
Jansen's first half of 2011 was marked by inconsistency, a demotion and shoulder soreness, but in the second half all he did was rewrite the record books as a stunning strikeout machine. He fanned 96 in 53 2/3 innings, an average of 16.1 per nine innings, breaking Carlos Marmol's all-time record. Jansen, whose first-half ERA was 4.40, had a microscopic 0.78 ERA after the All-Star break.
Along the way, he posted a remarkable 0.55 ERA over his final 31 appearances, with an opposing batting average of .094. Only one of 21 inherited runners scored off him. He even kept up the turnaround despite a July interruption for an irregular heartbeat that put him on the disabled list.
Elbert, the former first-round Draft pick, rebounded from a 2010 season in which he left Triple-A Albuquerque for two months to deal with stress. Called up last year in mid-May, he responded with a career-high 47 games and held left-handed hitters to a .191 average and no home runs. His ERA was 5.25 before the break and 0.84 after it.
MacDougal, a one-time closer taken off the scrap heap on a Minor League contract, revived his career with a 2.05 ERA in 69 appearances. Matt Guerrier was something of a disappointment after signing a three-year, $12 million contract, but was overused in the first half with the failures of Broxton and Kuo, and seemed to lose his confidence.
He'll have help -- or competition -- in the middle innings with the signing of free agent Todd Coffey. There will also be a cattle call for a second left-hander to step up, with John Grabow and Wil Ledezma the best-known southpaw non-roster candidates.
Blake Hawksworth's elbow surgery might open a spot for non-roster veteran Jamey Wright, who is coming off a solid season with Seattle and could become this year's Jeff Weaver as a long reliever.
"He's a veteran presence who has been through a lot of situations and can handle anything," Mattingly said of Wright.
If it's not Wright, the role could go back to Josh Lindblom, whose impressive debut season was overshadowed by the emergence of Guerra, Jansen and Elbert.
And the ultimate wild card is Ronald Belisario, who missed 2011 with all kinds of personal problems and still has a 25-game suspension to serve for violating MLB's drug program.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.