The Dodgers enter 2014 with the most expensive bullpen in franchise history. But even surrounded by an ever-growing gaggle of relief pitchers with late-inning experience, Kenley Jansen is more secure in the closer role than he has ever been.
Jansen went into spring training in each of the last two seasons as clearly the best pitcher in the Dodgers bullpen, and each time he began the regular season in a setup role. In both years, Jansen was the closer by June.
Coming off his greatest year to date, Jansen enters 2014 with a firm grip on Dodgers closer duties and now further removed from the irregular heartbeat that sidelined him briefly in both 2011 and 2012. Jansen will also begin to make some real money, now that he is eligible for salary arbitration for the first time.
Even if Jansen were to go to an arbitration hearing and lose, his $3.5 million salary is a hefty raise over the $512,000 he earned in 2013. Not bad for a former catcher who couldn't hit and only briefly advanced past Double-A.
Jansen switched from behind the plate to the mound in mid-2009, and within a year he was on a major league mound. He hasn't looked back since.
Since his major league debut on July 24, 2010, Jansen is second in the major leagues in relief strikeouts with 347, just 19 behind Craig Kimbrel during that span. Jansen is also sixth in ERA (2.10) among relief pitchers with at least 150 innings, second in FIP and (2.03) and xFIP (2.33).
Jansen's rise to prominence is truly remarkable, and continues an amazing run of elite relief work from the Dodgers for over a decade. As good as Eric Gagne was during his "Game Over" heyday, the Dodgers have been able to very capably replace him and continue what has developed into quite a relief tradition.
In 10 of the last 11 seasons, the Dodgers have had a reliever finish in the top 10 in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP, a statistic that strips down to things a pitcher can control most: strikeouts, walks, and home runs), including eight years in the top three.
Jansen has been in the top 10 in each of the last three years, clearly one of the top bullpen aces in baseball. Including 2014 Jansen still has three years of team control left before he's eligible for free agency. While a multi-year contract extension might seem ideal in this situation, the volatile nature of the position suggests proceeding with caution.
Then again, Brandon League got three years and $22.5 million guaranteed based on two good months, so it's not like the Guggenheim Dodgers are risk averse.
Eric Gagne had three elite years before he started breaking down, at age 29. Jonathan Broxton was pretty great for four years (outside of a pair of Game 4 gaffes against the Phillies) until he went south at age 26, the age Jansen is now.
A couple factors work in Jansen's favor for continued success going forward. He has performed at an elite level for three solid years, and shouldn't be subject to the normal "don't pay a ton for relievers" maxim that might be out the window all across baseball anyway in this new era of increased television revenue across the sport.
Secondly, given Jansen's late transition to the mound the wear and tear on his arm isn't nearly as much as someone who has been pitching since age 18 or younger.
But even if Jansen doesn't get a long-term extension with the Dodgers, it's not like he's going anywhere for three seasons. The team might just be content at playing the arbitration game year by year and see if Jansen can keep up his stellar performance and stay healthy while doing so.
Jansen in three career major league plate appearances has a walk and a single. His one out at the plate came in his only at-bat of 2013, a ground out against Mike Dunn of the Marlins on May 12. At .667, Jansen is tied for the fifth-highest on-base percentage in Dodgers franchise history (minimum three plate appearances).
Jansen filed for salary arbitration, asking for a salary of $5.05 million while the Dodgers seek to pay him $3.5 million in 2014. If the two sides can't come to an agreement, some time in the next two weeks there will be a hearing in which both player and team will present their case to a three-person panel, who will decide one salary or the other with no in-between.
The Dodgers haven't had an arbitration hearing since 2007 (with reliever Joe Beimel).
2013: Best arm in the bullpen
2012: One-man heatwave
|2014 projections - Age 26 season|
All the projection systems see Jansen as an elite reliever, and who am I to argue? I'll guess a 2.09 ERA in 69 innings, with 107 strikeouts. What's your guess?