Key to a better 2012 starts and ends in pen for Dodgers

The Dodgers need a big season from relievers like Kenley Jansen. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Bullpens are often underrated in Major League Baseball. Everyone wants to talk about starting pitchers and closers, but middle relievers and set-up men aren’t exactly exciting topics.

Unfortunately, the pitchers who are called into games to protect leads or keep tied games tied in the middle innings are like the offensive linemen in football. They play vital roles in a team’s success (or failure), but they often don’t get the respect or recognition they deserve.

According to MLB records, 28 percent of the games pitched during a particular season in the mid-1970s were of the complete-game variety. Care to guess what that percentage dropped to during 2005? A whopping 3.1 percent!

Over that 30-year period, the number of complete games in MLB dropped from 1,089 to 150. What does that mean, and why is it important to the 2012 Los Angeles Dodgers?

It means starting pitchers today rarely pitch nine innings. So, no matter how good Clayton Kershaw is for the Dodgers, he’s more than likely going to need some bullpen help in order to be successful.

What a perfect segue back to my original drivel about the importance of middle relief pitchers!

The Dodgers finished third in the National League West in 2011 with a record of 82-79. The Dodgers’ bullpen was tagged with 18 of the team’s 79 losses last season. If the bullpen had just pitched well enough to eliminate half of those 18 losses, the team would have beaten out the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals for the NL Wild Card spot!

St. Louis won the Wild Card with a 90-72 record. A Dodgers bullpen with only nine losses would have resulted in a Los Angeles record of 91-70.

Hmmmm …

Will the 2012 Dodgers be able to count on better production from their bullpen? I think so. Why? Because three of the four biggest “culprits” in the pen in 2011 won’t be back in Los Angeles this season.

Gone from the Dodgers this season is Jonathan Broxton and his 5.68 ERA (and his tight uniform that was about to explode at the buttons!). Also “missing” from the Los Angeles bullpen in 2012 is Hong-Chih Kuo, his noodle-elbow and his lofty 9.00 ERA. I also don’t think any fans will miss Lance Cormier and his stellar 9.88 ERA from 2011.

Besides subtracting those “relief” pretenders, the Dodgers have added a big veteran presence in the bullpen. Literally! The Dodgers signed 6-foot-4 Todd Coffey away from the Washington Nationals this offseason.

Coffey posted a 5-1 record in 2011 and had a 3.62 ERA. Los Angeles has also invited 6-foot-6 Jamey Wright to spring training as a non-roster player. The 37-year-old Wright went 2-3 with the Seattle Mariners last season and had a 3.16 ERA.

With young pitchers, who have another year of experience under their belts like Javy Guerra, Kenley Jansen, Scott Elbert and Josh Lindblom, the Dodgers should improve upon their 18 bullpen losses from last year.

Will it be enough to give the Dodgers a legitimate shot at the National League West title or a wild card playoff spot? That remains to be seen.

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