April 24, 2024

The lively sinking fastball that averaged 97.4 mph in his last full season has already touched 95-96 mph in Cactus League play, and the nasty slider that hitters rarely made contact with in 2021 has retained much of its bite.

Blake Treinen is 2 ½ years and one major shoulder surgery removed from a 2021 season in which he was one of baseball’s most dominant relievers, but there are early signs this spring that the 35-year-old right-hander could reclaim a prominent role in one of baseball’s deepest bullpens.

“Watching live batting practice from behind the screen, when our hitters don’t want to face you, that’s generally a good thing,” Dodgers general manager Brandon Gomes said of Treinen, who has thrown two hitless innings with one strikeout in two exhibition games.

“He’s been really sharp. The movement [on his pitches] is ungodly. His command has been good. He really hasn’t missed a beat as far as putting the entire arsenal together and being able to attack the zone.”

While Dave Roberts has been impressed with Treinen’s “strike-throwing, the teeth of the sinker, the cut fastball and the slider,” the Dodgers manager is not ready to herald the return of a 2021-model Treinen.

“He’s not there, but nor is anyone at this point of spring training,” Roberts said. “Could he get there? Absolutely. It’s just a constant build-up and facing hitters, but he’s doing a good job of competing.”

Treinen, a nine-year veteran, had his best season for the Oakland Athletics in 2018, going 9-2 with an 0.78 ERA in 68 games, giving up 46 hits, striking out 100 and walking 21 in 80 ⅓ innings. He went 3-3 with a 3.86 ERA in 27 games in pandemic-shortened 2020 to help the Dodgers win the World Series.

Treinen was nearly untouchable as closer Kenley Jansen’s setup man in 2021, when he went 6-5 with a 1.99 ERA in 72 games, allowing 46 hits, striking out 85 and walking 25 in 72 ⅓ innings and holding opposing hitters to a .179 average and a paltry .512 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.

His 93-mph cutter was effective enough to hold hitters to a .176 average (12 for 68) in at-bats ending with the pitch, but Treinen’s most lethal weapon was an 86.4-mph slider that had 37 inches of drop and 13 inches of break and held hitters to an .074 average (seven for 95) and 57 strikeouts in at-bats ending with the pitch.

“Just dominance,” closer Evan Phillips, who joined the Dodgers in August 2021 after he was claimed off waivers from Tampa Bay, said when asked what he remembered most about Treinen that season. “Dominance and conviction and confidence on the mound. I think when any bullpen pitcher is at their best, they have full conviction in themselves.”

After a grueling, injury-plagued and rehabilitation-filled two years in which Treinen was limited by shoulder problems to five games in 2022 and missed all of 2023 after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff, Treinen is just happy to be in a position to return to the mound in 2024.

“I don’t want my career to end the way that it presumably could have,” Treinen said. “And I want my kids to see [the importance] of hard work and not giving up when things get hard. My whole life has kind of been a testament to that. I’ve worked my tail off, God has opened a lot of doors, and I’m very grateful to have another opportunity.”

Though Treinen had surgery in November 2022 and was expected to miss most, if not all, of 2023, the Dodgers still signed him to a one-year, $8-million contract for 2023 with a 2024 option that could range from $1 million to $7 million based on innings pitched.

Most teams would have cut ties with a 35-year-old reliever who missed most of the previous two seasons because of shoulder problems. The Dodgers exercised Treinen’s 2024 option last November.

“We’ve developed a really good relationship with Blake over the years,” Gomes said. “The talent, the compete, is obviously there, and we knew once he had the surgery and was rehabbing that his dedication to his craft is as good as anyone.

“We bet on Blake to go out and do everything he can to get back to his previous form, which was one of the best relievers in baseball. That was an easy bet for us.”

Treinen nearly made it back to the Dodgers last September but had to abort a minor league rehabilitation stint after three appearances because of shoulder soreness.

“I was fighting myself mechanically, trying to get into positions where I didn’t feel anything, but that’s not conducive to long-term success,” Treinen said. “Other things started to bark a little bit, so we agreed to let the body heal completely and have a 15-month recovery instead of 12 months. That was probably the biggest blessing of all.”

Treinen still has plenty of boxes to check before he returns to a high-leverage role for the Dodgers, but he appears to be trending in that direction.

“He looks good, and I think the velocity will start creeping up a little bit the more game action he gets into,” pitching coach Mark Prior said. “With guys in his situation, it’s really about the workload. The stuff’s been great when there’s plenty of rest. Can he maintain that?

“He’s been throwing the ball really well. Now it’s about building up that tolerance to be able to pitch every third day, two out of three, and obviously in back-to-back games. I don’t think that will be forced anytime soon.”

The Dodgers don’t necessarily need Treinen to regain his 2021 form, but if he can come anywhere close to that, it would add another power arm from the right side in a bullpen that already features high-octane right-handers Phillips, Ryan Brasier, Brusdar Graterol and Joe Kelly.

“His stuff is in a great place right now, and there are a lot of outcomes where he’s an elite pitcher, whether it’s the 2021 form or not,” Gomes said. “He’s been so good in many different ways over his career.

“So our messaging and our conversation with Blake is, ‘OK, whatever comes out of this, which right now is exceptional stuff and command, don’t be pushing for more. If more comes, cool; if not, you’re still one of the best relievers in the game.’”

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