Kenley Jansen is one of six Dodgers eligible for salary arbitration this winter, but with one year remaining before free agency should be a primary target for a multi-year contract extension.
Sure, relief pitchers are risky and have a short shelf life. But elite pitchers are worth paying for, and Jansen has been just that. He had a 2.41 ERA and 36 saves in 2015, to go with 80 strikeouts and just eight walks. His 2.14 FIP was the second-highest of his career.
Among relievers with at least 200 innings from 2011-15, Jansen ranks 10th in ERA (2.42), third in FIP (2.04), second in xFIP (2.19), first in SIERA (1.60), third in strikeout rate (39.6 percent), tied for first in K-BB% (32 percent), tied for third in fWAR (9.8) and 11th in rWAR (7.9).
There are at most two closers in baseball that can match or top the pedigree and current production of Jansen - Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman, both with new homes in the American League East in 2016, with the Red Sox and Yankees, respectively.
As it stands now, both Jansen and Chapman will enter free agency after 2016 heading into their age-29 season. Chapman does have the better track record, and is 151 days younger than Jansen. But what makes Jansen unique is the relative freshness of his golden right arm.
Jansen was converted to the mound in 2009, and including the minor leagues has only 414⅔ innings on his odometer to date. Chapman, who pitched four seasons in Cuba before defecting, has been pitching since 2005, with 761 innings in his career, counting majors, minors and his time in La Serie Nacional.
There have not been a closer or closers this good and this young to reach free agency since Francisco Rodriguez, who was a free agent entering his age-27 season in 2009. At the time, Rodriguez had 769⅓ innings in the majors and minors combined, which will likely be more than 50 percent more than Jansen will have after 2016.
Kimbrel is the same relative age as Jansen and Chapman, but already signed an extension - two teams ago, with Atlanta - that has him under contract for two more seasons, plus a club option for 2018.
Jansen is not without risk, certainly. He missed a month in 2011 with an irregular heartbeat, then missed three weeks in 2012 with the same injury, followed by offseason surgery to correct the problem. He was unavailable for a game in 2015 in the high altitude of Denver with high blood pressure, though it turned out to be a short-term instance.
Jansen also missed six weeks at the start of 2015 after surgery to remove a bone growth in his foot. But in his 6½ seasons since converting to pitching Jansen has not had any serious arm injury. The one related injury was missing nearly three weeks with right shoulder inflammation back in 2011.
If there was ever a relief pitcher worth investing in, it is Jansen right here and right now.
Building the deal
The only question now is what kind of contract would it take to sign Jansen beyond 2016?
The cream of the crop in reliever contracts is $15 million per year, which has been reached by only one person - Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer in history. He earned $15 million per year on a three-year deal from 2008-10, then did so again on a two-year deal that followed it, from 2011-12.
Rafael Soriano got reasonably close in 2013 with his two-year, $28 million contract with the Nationals, but because half of the money was deferred the actual average annual value was something less than $14 million.
Kimbrel's contract extension was signed when he only had three years of service time, so he gave up some money in exchange for long-term security, but the potential two free agent seasons that deal bought out included salaries of $13 million each.
Just last offseason David Robertson, a year older than Jansen is now but with only one year of closing experience, signed a four-year, $46 million deal with the White Sox, an average annual value of $11.5 million. One would have to think any free agent years for Jansen would have to beat Robertson's deal.
Papelbon had a longer track record than did Jansen at the time he hit free agency, but was also two years older than Jansen is now. But given that Papelbon signed that deal four years ago, inflation will bump that $12.5 million average into something comparable for Jansen.
Jansen made $7.425 million in 2015, and is projected by MLB Trade Rumors to make $11.4 million through salary arbitration in 2016. We'll get to his single-season analysis later today, but for now let's focus on the multi-year deal.
A multi-year contract for Jansen probably involves three free agent years, at an average of somewhere close to Papelbon ($12.5 million per year) and Kimbrel ($13 million). So including the 2016 arb year and three free agent years, plus maybe an option year, let's say four years and $50 million as a reasonable deal for Jansen, taking him through ages 28-31.
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Thanks as always to the great Cot's Baseball Contracts for help filling in some of the gaps.