The Dodgers declined a $12MM option on right-hander Joe Kelly in favor of a $4MM buyout after the right-hander suffered a biceps strain during the Dodgers’ NLCS showdown against the eventual World Series-champion Braves. Kelly hit the free agent market for the second time in his career and did not sign prior to the league’s implementation of a lockout on Dec. 2. He’s since been rumored to be a post-lockout target of the Cardinals, Kelly said today in a radio appearance on 570 LA Sports that he hopes to remain in Los Angeles (Twitter link, with audio).
“As with the whole lockout, once it’s over… teams are going to be signing,” Kelly said to host David Vassegh. “The signing period’s going to be like basketball. People are going to be signing at 4:00 in the morning. But obviously, I want to come back and be a Dodger — and the interest is mutual, so we’ve got to make something happen.”
Kelly’s mention of mutual interest — presumably in reference to interest shown by the Dodgers prior to the lockout — is the most concrete indicator to date of a possible reunion between the two parties. Interest on L.A.’s behalf is only natural, as the Dodgers are currently facing the potential of losing not only Kelly but also Kenley Jansen, Corey Knebel (who already signed in Philadelphia) and Jimmy Nelson to free agency. That quartet combined for 167 2/3 innings of strong relief work out of Dave Roberts’ bullpen.
The 33-year-old Kelly, in particular, enjoyed a nice rebound campaign in 2021 after being limited to 10 innings in 2020. Although he missed the first five weeks of the 2021 season due to a shoulder injury, Kelly returned with one of the finest showings of his decade-long big league career. In 44 innings, he pitched to a 2.86 ERA (3.08 FIP, 3.o9 SIERA) with a strong 27.5% strikeout rate, an 8.2% walk rate and a huge 58.9% ground-ball rate. His average heater was down a tick from its 99.1 mph peak, but Kelly’s 98.1 average fastball velocity represented a bump from his 2019-20 levels.
Generally speaking, Kelly is one of baseball’s hardest-throwing relievers. He has, at various points throughout his career, flashed huge strikeout capabilities, strong command and high-end ground-ball tendencies — but rarely all at the same time. Those three traits coalesced in 2021 more than at any point throughout his career, after the Dodgers helped take Kelly’s grounder rate from above-average (49.9% from 2012-18) to outstanding during his time in blue (59.9%).
A pair of IL stints due to shoulder troubles kept Kelly off the mound more than he or the team would’ve liked during his three-year stint as a Dodger, but the overall body of work was sound. In 105 1/3 innings, Kelly posted a 3.59 ERA with a 121-to-44 K/BB ratio (26.9 K%, 9.8 BB%), 21 holds and three saves. Many of this offseason’s top relievers — e.g. Raisel Iglesias, Knebel, Kendall Graveman — are already off the market, so Kelly should be among the more desirable options still left in free agency whenever the lockout lifts.
As for his current health, Kelly noted that he’s already throwing multiple times per week, albeit not off a mound. He’s playing catch and long toss right now but stated that his arm is “definitely going to be ready for the season” — whenever the season begins.