Dodgers spend big to keep elite closer Kenley Jansen and boost title hopes
- The Dodgers are shelling out record amounts of money to keep Kenley Jansen in the fold, but it's a move Los Angeles had to make for the team to remain World Series contenders.
Case closed for the Dodgers, at least when it comes to Kenley Jansen. On Monday, the reigning National League West champions returned their All-Star closer to the fold via a reported five-year, $80 million deal. Los Angeles is also reportedly closing in on a four-year, $64 million contract with third baseman Justin Turner. When combined with last week's signing of Rich Hill to a three-year, $48 million deal, that means that the Dodgers will retain all three of their top free agents—each among the top options at his position amid a generally barren free-agent market—and can now turn their attention to fine-tuning a squad that came just two wins from reaching the World Series for the first time since they won it all in 1988.
The 29-year-old Jansen is coming off his most dominant season, having set career bests in saves (47, second in the league), ERA (1.83), FIP (1.44) and strikeout-to-unintentional-walk ratio (11.6). He came within an eyelash of doing so in both home-run and walk rate (0.5 and 1.4 per nine, respectively) as well, and on a per-batter basis, he posted his best strikeout rate (41.4%) since 2011, his first full season in the majors. Jansen further boosted his stock by making the NL All-Star team for the first time, then sparkled in the postseason via an expanded role. Only two of his seven appearances were combined to the ninth inning; he had five scoreless appearances of at least four outs and three of at least seven outs.
A Curaçao native who spent nearly five full seasons as a light-hitting but rifle-armed catcher before transitioning to the mound, Jansen has been remarkably effective for the Dodgers since debuting on July 24, 2010. Relying almost exclusively on a mid-90s cut fastball, in 408 2/3 career innings he's pitched to a 2.20 ERA and 1.93 FIP with 13.9 strikeouts per nine. Among relievers with at least 375 innings since then, only Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman have been better in those categories.
The Dodgers explored acquiring Chapman both last winter before his domestic violence incident came to light and this winter as an alternative to Jansen, but he returned to the Yankees last week via a five-year, $86 million deal. That contract set records for a reliever in terms of both total value and average annual value; both belonged to Mark Melancon, who had signed a four-year, $62 million deal with the Giants just days earlier. Jansen—who unlike Chapman and Melancon received a qualifying offer and would have cost another team its top draft pick—drew significant interest from the Yankees, Nationals and Marlins. ESPN's Marly Rivera reported that Jansen "had a better financial offer from the Nationals [but] decided to 'go with his heart'" and stay in Los Angeles. The Washington Post's Barry Svrluga reported that the Nationals' offer included deferred money, as have some of their other recent big-money contracts. As for the Marlins, Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan reported that Miami "made a monster offer … more than $80 million" for Jansen. It's not known whether either the Nationals’ or Marlins’ offers included an opt-out clause; Jansen's deal with the Dodgers contains one after the 2019 season, as does Chapman's deal with the Yankees.
Sixteen million dollars a year is a whole lot for a closer, mainly due to the injury risk and year-to-year variance in performance for most relievers across a limited number of innings. At the going rate of $7–8 million per Win Above Replacement, the annual salary isn't entirely out of line, but such a salary incorporates no likelihood of regression or injury. Jansen, as good as he's been, has averaged 1.8 WAR over the past five seasons; a similar performance would basically make the deal a win, but any significant injury or dropoff in performance could make it look terrible.
All of which is to say that the Dodgers paid a premium to retain a pitcher with whom they're particularly comfortable. President of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi have plenty of work still to do on the bullpen's supporting cast: Top setup man Joe Blanton and longtime lefty workhorse J.P Howell are free agents; Yimi Garcia, Chris Hatcher and Adam Liberatore are among those coming back from injuries; and Pedro Baez remains erratic. Assuming Turner joins the fold, Los Angeles will still have to fill its second base vacancy, sort out its outfield situation and perhaps add another starter given the number of injury risks within its current stable.
What’s more, the Dodgers will have to do all of that while paying an additional premium in the form of the luxury tax. With Turner and Hill in the fold, they’re already projected to be upwards of $235 million for 2017, which means they’ll pay a 50% premium on every dollar they spend beyond the current threshold of $189 million. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement will hit them even harder: Though it raises the annual payroll threshold—which is based on average annual values of contracts—slightly ($195 million in 2017, then $197M in '18, $206M in '19, $208M in '20 and $210M in '21), it also imposes steep surtaxes for going past certain additional thresholds. For example, they could be paying a 92% premium for being a third-time offender who’s more than $40 million above a threshold.
Still, the current regime has committed to keeping together a core that for the second time in four years played to the sixth game of the NLCS before bowing out. The message is clear: So long as their window to win a championship remains open, the Dodgers will spend top dollar in an attempt to make it a reality.