Brandon League represents a test for the Dodgers. He's already overpaid. Will they pay him even more?
September might have been a nightmare for the Dodgers in that it was when they fell out of the postseason derby, but they probably still don’t want to wake up from the marvelous dream they had that month compliments of their bullpen. They received inning after inning of zeros, strikeouts, and saves—in stark contrast to the helpless REM-state horror of watching the playoffs, it was peaceful. In the last 29 games of the season, Dodgers relievers held their opponents to a .197/.305/.280 slash line, and gave up just three home runs. It was the kind of performance that teams often dream about, though one that is typically short-lived before the rude awakening of regression.
It makes sense that the Dodgers are doing everything they can to stay asleep and have a repeat performance next season. There’s no sense in fixing something that isn’t broken, and that’s why the Dodgers want to work out deals with Jamey Wright, Randy Choate, and Brandon League to keep the dream ‘pen in tact. Wright and Choate should be inexpensive one-year deals that are easy to justify, but since the Mariners officially branded League with giant letter "C" before trading him to the Dodgers in July, the likely parameters of his deal are a lot harder to rationalize.
It’s something that we don’t like to talk about, but a pitching caste system has been created through the advent and glorification of the closer. For pitchers like League, it’s akin to winning the lottery. His peripherals weren’t any better than those of his many bullpen contemporaries, but he was in the right place at the right time and the Mariners gave him an opportunity and a prematurely large paycheck. League made $5 million this season despite a mediocre 3.24 FRA and 0.7 rWAR. Another way of looking at it: League was the 18th highest-paid reliever last season, but his 3.24 FRA didn’t even put him in the top 100 relievers as far as performance.
Still, many teams will want League on their roster next season. It’s going to cost them. The Dodgers will likely have to offer League a three-year deal in the $10-15 million range to keep him out of free agency, a considerable payday for an unremarkable pitcher, especially one on a team whose payroll is already at $193 million for next season and likely to keep growing.
League’s birth into the closer role began much in the same way others begin: He inherited it through injury. The Mariners’ previous closer David Aardsma had Tommy John surgery. It’s likely that if the Mariners had been a contending team with a stronger bullpen League never would have been selected for the role. He doesn’t fit the closer mold that teams salivate over and it’s surprising that the Dodgers aren’t questioning some of his more obvious flaws in that role. Perhaps they are just convinced by his closer-issued whacky haircut and tattoos -- a prerequisite for many trying to intimidate during late innings --but he certainly doesn’t pitch like most closers, and less than a year after he made the All-Star team as their closer, the Mariners decided he wasn’t one after he had blown eight saves by late May.
League doesn’t have a 100-mph fastball; he relies most often on his 96-mph sinker. He has a league-average strikeout rate (6.7 per nine innings career) and averages 3.1 walks-per-nine, high for a consistently successful closer (though even greater wildness hasn’t been an impediment to pitchers like Carlos Marmol, at least at times). League’s most outstanding attribute is his extreme groundball rate (50.2 percent career), a quality that might make him a better fit for starting, long-relief, or even as a specialty pitcher brought in to induce double plays. None of these qualities necessarily make League a bad closer or render him ineligible to try again, but he’s certainly an unconventional choice for high-leverage situations and doesn’t seem like an upgrade over what the Dodgers already had in hand.
If you total up the salaries of the relievers that saw the most innings for the Dodgers last season—Kenley Jansen, Ronald Belisario, Randy Choate, Jamey Wright, Josh Lindblom, Javy Guerra, and Scott Elbert—they made a combined $4.8 million, $200,000 less than League, while Matt Guerrier, a $3.75 million property in 2012, was made irrelevant by injury. But for two seasons of his nine-year stay in the majors, he had been largely a replacement-level proposition anyway. With the addition of League, they nearly doubled their bullpen expenditures in one pitcher.
League’s presence turned out to be a benefit as Jansen was sidelined with an irregular heartbeat for the second season in a row, and he pitched very well down the stretch, allowing just one run in his final 21 games. Jansen should be back in good health next season following a procedure that is expected to cure the problem. He pitched well as the closer, though his save conversion rate was on the low side. Still, he was in his first season in the role and has the closer’s traditional arsenal of swing and miss stuff; he should improve.
The Dodgers’ bullpen was 11th in the majors this season as measured by FRA, but Ned Colletti has shown himself to be capable of building a bullpen in the past; the Dodgers were in the top ten in reliever FRA every year from 2006 to 2011. While the Dodgers could certainly benefit from having a better setup man to work in conjunction with Jansen, that doesn’t have to be a pitcher that comes with a price tag, and it might be better to find someone who doesn’t let batter put the ball in play quite as often as League typically does.
Offering League a three-year, $10-15 million dollar deal would be nothing more than the Dodgers buying into the hype that they need someone in the bullpen who has worn the closer crown; it certainly wouldn’t be because of League’s track record. His success at the end of the season just isn’t indicative of his larger career performance, and even though he’s worked on fixing his mechanics and credits that for his success late in the season, there’s no guarantee that continues into 2013. The Dodgers already have good arms, and even if they need to look to the free agent market to make the bullpen stronger, there are certainly better ways to do that than overspending on the closer pedigree just because it’s en vogue to do so.
Cee Angi is one of SBN’s Designated Columnists, one of the minds behind the Platoon Advantage, and the author of Baseball-Prose. Follow her at @CeeAngi.