- The Dodgers' 2017 World Series breakthrough probably would have never transpired had the team not retained three vital free agents last offseason: Kenley Jansen, Justin Turner and Rich Hill.
“Rich [Hill] was the one I was optimistic about,” said Andrew Friedman.
The Dodgers’ 40-year-old Director of Baseball Operations was standing next to the cage during batting practice prior to Game 1 of the World Series, remembering the three pivotal free agent signings he’d helped orchestrate during an 18-day stretch in December 2016. The goal of those deals—a World Series title—would be brought one win closer that evening, thanks to the other two signees, third baseman Justin Turner, who would hit the deciding home run in LA’s Game 1 win, and closer Kenley Jansen, who’d notch his third postseason save.
Friedman remembered sitting with Hill, L.A.’s then-36-year-old second starter, at Hill’s locker at Wrigley Field, after the Cubs eliminated the Dodgers in Game 6 of the 2016 NLCS. “I expressed our strong desire to bring him back,” Friedman said, “and he talked about how much he wanted to be back. He didn’t want to wait for the market to develop. He was happy to engage with us.”
“There were other opportunities out there,” Hill remembered before his Game 2 start against one of his suitors. “Houston, the Yankees, a few other teams. But after making the decision to come back to L.A., then seeing Kenley get signed, then JT, I knew it was going to be something special.”
The story of how the Dodgers retained three of their most important players in a span of less than three weeks last winter is not about dollars and sense and luxury tax as much as it’s about the three Everymen at its center. Hill, Jansen, and Turner had all been considered fringe players well into their pro careers before turning things around in Los Angeles.
Hill had pitched in the independent Atlantic League in 2015 after two seasons of uninspiring relief work for five big-league organizations. Today he looks back on his stint in indie ball “as a great opportunity to get back to starting.”
Turner, of course, had been non-tendered by the Mets in 2013. Then he reinvented his swing, got invited to Dodgers’ spring training, worked his way into the lineup, and finished ninth in the NL MVP voting in ’16.
Jansen was a light-hitting minor league catcher for five years, until his 2009 slash line (.198/256/276) finally convinced the Dodgers to try something else. That something else turned out to be a cut fastball that enabled Jansen to save 180 big-league games for L.A. between 2012 and 2016. Those 180 saves were what placed Jansen at a fancy lunch with Nationals GM Mike Rizzo last December, where he was offered a 5-year, $85 million contract to lock down games for Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer instead of Hill and Clayton Kershaw.
Jansen’s fiancée, Gianni, didn’t want to leave L.A., but as Jansen flew from the Rizzo meeting to Curacao, where he would marry Gianni that Saturday, Dec. 10, the closer was intrigued by the Nats’ offer, which his agent Adam Katz—in a moment of loquacious clarity—called “exceptional and generous and for more money” than the one the Dodgers presented.
Turner was invited to the wedding, so the third baseman, coming off a breakout season of 27 homers and 90 RBI, flew to Curacao with his fiancée Kourtney Pogue. For two days, Jansen showed them around the south Caribbean island.
Roberts, their manager, was home in L.A., “holding my breath that they could convince one another that it was smart to come back.”
Finalizing Hill’s three-year, $48 million deal had accomplished the unique feat of transforming his first and last name into accurate descriptions of his financial standing and his workplace. That deal had also been expected. “Kenley’s deal,” Friedman said, “that was the one I was concerned about.”
In mid-December at MLB’s Winter Meetings in National Harbor, Maryland, Friedman had a “couple of phone conversations” with Jansen, and took time to explain to the assembled media why the notion of investing nine figures in his three free-agent priorities didn’t scare him off. “If you’re always rational about every free agent,” Friedman said that week, “you will finish third on every free agent.”
“With guys who are entering free agency,” Friedman recalled before Game 1, “I like to give them as much room as they want. It’s an achievement to reach that point in your career. … We wanted to let [Jansen and Turner] do whatever they needed to do, while letting them know that we were going to be there for them and we were going to be aggressive in keeping them here so we could all win a championship together.”
Turner’s agent, Greg Genske, a fellow southern Californian who had ridden with Turner through every peak and valley in his pro career, was in a unique spot. “Justin had truly found a home, at home, in Los Angeles, but this was also his first opportunity at free agency, after years of grinding and hanging on. So we had to explore other opportunities, too.”
On the afternoon of his wedding, Jansen got a haircut from his personal barber, whom he’d flown to Curacao for the occasion. He invited Turner to get a trim as well. “It was just me, Kenley, and the barber [in Jansen’s room at the Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort],” Turner told SI’s Stephanie Apstein earlier this season. “I’d been there for three days and we hadn’t said a single word about baseball.
“[Jansen] started talking about other [teams] and the money and all that stuff, and I told him, ‘Look, man, the Dodgers are the only team you know. This is my fourth organization, and this is by far—by leaps and bounds—the best organization I have been in.” Teammates Yasiel Puig and Scott van Slyke joined them in Jansen’s room as Turner continued his soft pitch:
“The money’s going to be great wherever you go,” he told Jansen, “but you don’t know how it’s going to be in the clubhouse.”
That night, during the gap between the wedding and the reception, Turner got a call from Genske, his agent, who was 450 miles north, at Carlos Correa’s charity event in Puerto Rico. Together, they decided to tell Turner’s other suitors No thanks, and seal the deal with Friedman.
As Jensen danced with his new bride at the reception, Turner cut in and told the groom the news. “I said, ‘Hey man, I’m coming back to be a Dodger.’”
The 6’ 5" closer beamed. “Really?” he said.
The next night, Friedman sat on the sofa in his Los Angeles home, where he reeled Jansen in for good. “We kind of relived the last six weeks, the NLCS. We talked about looking ahead… I remember it very vividly. That was the night we got it done.”
The next morning, the Dodgers announced the Jansen deal—five years, $80 million. Turner and his fiancé were on the beach in Aruba, where they’d headed straight from Curacao to extend their vacation. Turner’s fiancée glanced at her phone and said, “‘Oh my God, Kenley just signed back with the Dodgers,’” Turner recalled. “I was like, ‘What?’”
“At his wedding on Saturday, I think something pivoted for him,” Jansen’s agent Andy Katz told MLB Network radio that day. “I think it was being with his teammates and his family. He got a jolt of how important family and continuity [are].”
Roberts recalled, “I kind of let it be, and let the situation play out. Fortunately, he decided this is where he wanted to be.”
Finalizing Turner’s contract—four years, $64 million—was mainly a matter of waiting for him to return from his tour of the Caribbean. The last of the three pivotal deals was completed two days before Christmas. The results? Hill won 12 of his 25 regular season starts in ‘17, holding opponents to a .203 batting average. He has made three quality starts this postseason, with an ERA under 3.00.
Jansen notched 41 regular-season saves and had the lowest ERA of any reliever in baseball (1.32). The home run he gave up in Game 2 of the World Series was the first earned run he’d allowed this postseason.
Turner was the NLCS co-MVP, the deliverer of the city’s greatest baseball moment in 29 years (his walkoff home run in Game 2 of the NLCS), the producer of an MLB-best 14 postseason RBI.
As if retaining their closer, their best hitter, and their number-two starter weren’t enough to push past last year’s NLCS loss and contend for a title, L.A. also signed middle reliever Brandon Morrow and utility man Logan Forsythe, two more critical parts of the Dodgers’ historic regular season and 8-2 playoff run.
The adage Championships are won in the offseason usually refers to physical training, the unwitnessed hours spent honing one’s body or craft. Should the ’17 Dodgers win the eleven postseason games required for a World Series title, that maxim will apply more directly to the collaboration between its front office and the three players it wanted to retain. And they didn’t need a whole offseason. Just 430 hours or so.