After concern and consternation that three of their best players were going to leave for riches elsewhere, the Dodgers are whole again. Rich Hill is back, and Justin Turner is probably back. Meet the new Dodgers, same as the old Dodgers.
Most importantly, Kenley Jansen is back after signing a five year, $80 million contract. This was the one player the Dodgers absolutely had to keep, and I’m not sure why any of us thought there was a chance it might not happen. Of course they retained their outstanding closer. They’re the Dodgers, the biggest spenders in baseball. Teams like that don’t let their best players leave.
And you were so worried.
There was a chance that one or all of those free agents were going to leave because the Dodgers were supposed to have a spending limit. They’ve always had a plan to ratchet down spending after their initial post-McCourt splurge, and there was even a suggestion that some of it had to do with MLB’s rules on just how much debt a team can carry. They wanted to transition to be merely the biggest spenders in baseball instead of the greatest financial behemoth in professional sports. A trio of multi-year contracts isn’t going to help them get under the salary-cap tax this year or next year.
Jansen is one of the clearest advantages the team has over just about everyone in baseball, though. The Dodgers’ closer is better than your closer, and that’s been true for about six years. It doesn’t read like the biggest advantage, but it sure takes some stress out of the season.
More than the regular season, the Dodgers figured out that Jansen’s value is almost unparallelled when it comes the postseason. He averaged more than two innings per outing in the NLCS, including a marathon three-inning stint in a losing effort in Game 6, in which he faced nine batters, struck out four, and allowed exactly zero baserunners. The team was clearly committed to the idea of Jansen throwing 22 percent of their postseason innings if they needed him to, and it almost helped them get to the World Series. It’s a plan without an expiration date.
Which would have made it very, very odd if the Dodgers had let him leave. Just a couple of months after The Postseason of Bullpen, they couldn’t just reverse course and make do with Plan B, C, D, E, or F. Greg Holland might be just as good as Jansen, unless he can’t throw 90 mph anymore. Brad Ziegler might end up with the same save percentage as Jansen this year, but he’s not exactly the kind of super-closer who will make the postseason bend to his will, which is exactly what the Dodgers need right now. Alex Colome would have cost their best prospects, which they’re keen on hoarding for deadline deals and low-cost supplements to the major league roster.
No, it was always Jansen for them. If the Dodgers had lost Turner, they would have made do. It wouldn’t have been easy, but they would have made a deal for Ian Kinsler, Brian Dozier, or Evan Longoria. It would have been a messy, expensive trade, but they would have figured something out. The lineup wouldn’t have been worse on paper next year.
If the Dodgers had lost Hill, they would have made do. It wouldn’t have been easy, but they would have made a deal for Jose Quintana or Chris Archer. It would have been a messy, expensive trade, but they would have figured something out. The rotation wouldn’t have been worse on paper next year.
There was never a perfect replacement for Jansen, though. Colome would have been close, perhaps, but the Dodgers wouldn’t have known if he was the kind of postseason bulldozer they needed until they tried him out in October. Theirs isn’t a franchise that likes guesswork and maybes. Not this far into their championship drought.
Jansen’s cutter is a unicorn of a pitch, and you’re probably not appreciating it enough, if only because none of us are. It’s not only fair to compare it to Mariano Rivera’s famous cutter, but it’s necessary to do so. It’s the only possible comparison. Jansen throws one pitch 90 percent of the time, and it’s a cutter with unpredictable movement that he can command. It almost seems like an oxymoron when you type it out. That’s an awfully familiar description.
Or to put it another way, Jansen has faced nearly 1,600 batters in the majors. All of them had a pretty good idea of what he was going to throw, and almost all of them still failed. You can make a very short list of pitchers who could claim something similar — Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, R.A. Dickey in his Cy Young season — and it would also double as a list of pitchers who stayed effective into their 40s. Maybe that’s a coincidence. Or maybe there’s a strong correlation between a unicorn pitch and longevity.
The Dodgers should have signed him for 10 years, really.
If the Dodgers had lost any of their top three free agents, it would have been so, so easy to judge the $145 million two different front offices spent on Yaisel Sierra, Erisbel Arruebarrena, Hector Olivera, and Alex Guerrero, which is about as much as Jansen and Turner will combine to make over their new contracts. Man, how I was looking forward to that.
There’s still a chance those contracts will help sink the rest of the offseason. The team is bringing back their own free agents, but the question now is if they can add to the roster. Bringing the NL West-winning roster back, just a year older, certainly gives them another great chance to win in the regular season and postseason, but there is always danger in treading water. Does this spending mean that the Dodgers are out on Justin Verlander, one of the most obvious fits in baseball?
It’s a fair question, but letting Jansen walk to upgrade the roster was never a realistic option. Side-eye the Turner or Hill deals if you must, but leave this one alone. The Dodgers previewed their evergreen strategy of allowing Clayton Kershaw and Jansen to pitch the bulk of their postseason innings, and it almost worked. They’ll get another shot at it this season, if not the next five.
Jansen is a special pitcher who figured prominently in the Dodgers’ plans for winning a pennant and World Series. Rich teams don’t let players like that go, so there was no way the richest team was going to, either. We’ll see if the ripples from these contracts prevent them from upgrading the rest of the roster, but if they had to choose just one player to retain, it seems obvious in retrospect. This current iteration of the Dodgers needed a super-closer. There was one left on the market.
He’s back, and woe be to the teams that face Kenley Jansen in the postseason. The Dodgers should be at least as good as they were last season, and that might be plenty good enough.