Kenley Jansen has been one of baseball’s best closers for a decade now. He recorded 25 saves in 2012 and hasn’t been below that number since, which the exception of his 11 saves in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. He’s thrown at least 50 innings in the last ten full seasons and threw 24 1/3 in 2020. He’s never had an ERA higher than 3.71. His 350 saves rank him 13th on the all-time list.
There are some reasons to be bearish, however. For one, he just turned 34 years old, meaning it will become more challenging for him to maintain his previous levels of success in the future. He also just posted a walk rate of 12.9% in 2021, his worst such mark since his debut in 2010. But on the bullish side of things, he diversified his arsenal last year, reducing his cutter usage from previous levels of around 90% to just 58% in 2021. Despite the increased walk rate, he was largely effective, putting up an ERA of 2.22 and strikeout rate of 30.9%.
In MLBTR’s annual list of the Top 50 Free Agents, Jansen was one of seven relievers to make the grade, coming in at #29 overall with a predicted contract of $26MM over two years. Five of those seven were able to secure deals before the lockout, as Raisel Iglesias, Kendall Graveman, Corey Knebel, Hector Neris and Mark Melancon are all off the board. That means Jansen and Ryan Tepera are the two best options remaining for teams that wish to upgrade their bullpens without having to give up anything in a trade. Jansen was ineligible to receive a qualifying offer by virtue of having previously received one in his career, meaning it will only take cash to land him.
Jansen would certainly upgrade any bullpen in the league and should garner plenty of interest given it likely won’t require a lengthy commitment to sign him. Even a team that doesn’t jump out as a slam-dunk contender can make a surprising splash on a reliever, such as when the Diamondbacks snapped up Melancon on a two-year deal, despite winning just 52 games last year. Still, the most logical suitor for Jansen would be a team in win-now mode with enough money to spend that they can afford paying him around $13MM per year. Let’s consider some speculative fits.
The last time Jansen was a free agent, he re-signed with the Dodgers, the only organization he’s ever known. Perhaps the most sensible prediction is that he just sticks with the team he’s played his entire career with. However, the Dodgers already have a strong bullpen and more urgent needs elsewhere on the roster, particularly the starting rotation. It can’t be ruled out that they let Kenley walk and dedicate their resources elsewhere.
The Cardinals have some uncertainty in their bullpen, as Alex Reyes led the team in saves last year but may be converted to the starting rotation in 2022. They already have a strong rotation and lineup, and seem content to not pursue shortstop upgrades. Perhaps upgrading the bullpen is the best avenue for improving the team as a whole.
The Red Sox seemed like they had their closer situation resolved when they extended Matt Barnes in July. At the time, Barnes was enjoying an excellent season, sitting on an ERA of 2.68. However, things went badly for him down the stretch and he ended up with an ERA of 3.79 by season’s end, even being left off Boston’s playoff roster at times. Adding Jansen could potentially stabilize a bullpen that’s fairly short on experience, though the club is also going to be looking to replace Hunter Renfroe’s offensive production once the lockout is over.
The Astros are loaded in the rotation and their lineup. They could use a shortstop, either by bringing back Carlos Correa or some other option. However, they seem comfortable letting Jeremy Pena step forward as Correa’s heir apparent. The bullpen is already in good shape, but would certainly benefit from adding someone of Jansen’s caliber.
The Blue Jays had some bullpen issues in 2021, as their reliever corps finished 16th in ERA, 20th in FIP, 12th in xFIP, 12th in SIERA and 25th in fWAR. The club is reportedly planning to spend after the lockout, but they still could use upgrades elsewhere, particularly the infield.
The Giants have lots of payroll space and apparently want to spread it around, as opposed to making one big splash. This approach to team roster construction mirrors that of the Dodgers, the previous team of both Jansen and Giants’ president Farhan Zaidi. Perhaps they could spread their money around on another starter, an outfield bat and a reliever like Jansen. Jake McGee was the team leader in saves in 2021 with 31. Although he’ll be back with the Giants this year, he’s even older than Jansen, as he’ll turn 36 in August.
The Tigers have already been busy this offseason, upgrading their lineup with Javier Baez and Tucker Barnhart, and adding Eduardo Rodriguez to the rotation. If there’s still more cash in their wallet, going after Jansen would be an intriguing next step as their pitching staff is largely composed of younger players. Gregory Soto led the team in saves in 2021, though he has concerning walk rates.
The Rangers have spent even more than the Tigers, adding Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Kole Calhoun and Jon Gray. If they still have more left to spend, the bullpen could definitely use an upgrade. In 2021, the club’s relievers finished 17th in ERA, 16th in FIP, 21st in xFIP, 21st in SIERA and 19th in fWAR.
The Mariners have been similarly aggressive recently, adding Robbie Ray and Adam Frazier thus far. But with some really good relievers already on hand, if they do have another big move left, it might be going after a big bat such as Kris Bryant.
The Marlins went into the offseason needing offense, but they’ve already added Avisail Garcia, Joey Wendle and Jacob Stallings to their group of position players. Although they haven’t been big spenders in recent years, Jansen shouldn’t be prohibitively expensive. However, their deal for Garcia and the extension of Sandy Alcantara already went beyond anything else they’ve done recently.
The Mets have already gone absolutely wild this offseason, spending big bucks to upgrade their lineup and rotation. Although they already have a fine closer in Edwin Diaz, if they still have money left to spend, the bullpen is one area they haven’t targeted yet.
The Rockies could certainly use the help in their bullpen, but they have work to do on their lineup and rotation as well. It also has to be said that convincing pitchers to spend their time in the Colorado’s hitter-friendly atmosphere is always a challenge.
You never want to sleep on the Yankees, but they already have a great bullpen and have greater uncertainty elsewhere, particularly the infield.
The Guardians are currently set to run a very low payroll, even for them. However, their bullpen is already in pretty decent shape, and if they make a splash anywhere, it’s most likely going to be the outfield.
The Twins signalled their desire to bounceback from a nightmare season by spending big on an extension for Byron Buxton, but their starting rotation is a more obvious area of improvement.
The Angels probably already made their big bullpen move when they re-signed Iglesias, ditto with the Phillies and Knebel and Diamondbacks and Melancon.
The Brewers are already projected to have a payroll just $2MM shy of their franchise record and already have an excellent pitching staff all around.
Teams like the White Sox, Rays, Padres and Braves are already set to run franchise-high payrolls, which could make it challenging for them to win the bidding for Jansen’s services.
The Orioles and Pirates are deep in rebuilds and unlikely to beat the market on a top reliever like Jansen. The Royals are a bit closer to emerging from rebuilding status but still seem to be a long shot. The Athletics and Reds are reportedly more likely to subtract payroll after the lockout than add. The Nationals are retooling and haven’t yet shown any inclination towards spending big this offseason. However, as we saw with the Diamondbacks signing Melancon, surprises do happen. Perhaps a non-contender could sign him with the goal of trading him later.
A case could be made for any team in the league to add a talent like Jansen, but where do you think he will wind up? Have your say in our poll below.
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