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Dodgers decline Joe Kelly’s $12 million option for 2022

LA instead pays $4 million buyout to Kelly, who is now a free agent

NLCS: LA Dodgers vs. Atlanta Braves

The Dodgers on Saturday declined Joe Kelly’s $12 million option for the 2022 season, and will instead pay the right-handed relief pitcher a $4 million buyout.

Kelly, 33, is now a free agent, joining the 11 other Dodgers who became a free agent on Wednesday, the day after the World Series. The Dodgers have 36 players currently on the 40-man roster.

Signed to a three-year, $25 million contract after the 2018 season, Kelly made $8.5 million in 2021, when he posted a 2.86 ERA and 3.08 ERA in 48 games, with 50 strikeouts and 15 walks in 44 innings. Opposing batters hit just .174/.258/.286 against Kelly this season.

He was one of the most-trusted Dodgers relievers in high-leverage situations, appearing in seven of the 11 postseason games in which he was active. But in his final appearance, starting a bullpen game in Game 5 of the NLCS, Kelly allowed a two-run home run in the first inning and walked off the mound with a right biceps strain that ended his season.

“I feel very bad for Joe because he’s done so much for us,” manager Dave Roberts said after Game 5. “For him to not be able to see this thing through this year is very disappointing.”

The biceps strain was significant enough to put Kelly’s availability at the start of the 2022 season in doubt, but as Jorge Castillo of the Los Angeles Times reported on Saturday, Kelly is expected to begin throwing in six weeks and should be ready for the start of next season.

Kelly’s Dodgers tenure was filled with notable moments. Vaulted ahead of closer Kenley Jansen on the bullpen depth chart at the end of 2019, Kelly allowed a grand slam to Howie Kendrick in the 10th inning of Game 5 of the NLDS, ending the Dodgers’ season. Any sort of ill will from Dodgers fans all but disappeared the next year, when Kelly buzzed Alex Bregman and taunted Carlos Correa in LA’s first game against the Astros after details of Houston’s 2017 sign-stealing scheme surfaced. Kelly was suspended five games for the incident, but the act was so well-received locally that a mural of Kelly was painted in Los Angeles.

Kelly’s popularity continued in 2021, such that his appearances at Dodger Stadium featured an entrance video — a rarity for a non-closer — depicting Kelly and the Mariachi jacket he wore to the Dodgers’ White House visit in July.

2021 was Kelly’s best season as a Dodger, including career bests in FIP, WHIP (0.977), strikeout rate (27.5 percent) and strikeout minus walk rate (19.2 percent) as well as stranding 18 of his 20 inherited runners. But it was also his healthiest and most stable stretch with the team.

Kelly wasn’t placed on the injured list in 2019, but finished the year throwing his four-seam fastball with only one finger, something he corrected with an offseason trip to Driveline. Kelly missed six weeks of an already-shortened 2020 season with right shoulder inflammation, then had offseason shoulder surgery — describing the pain as “fire ants eating his arm from the inside out” — which knocked him out until this May.

After he was activated on May 7, Kelly’s 48 games ranked fourth on the Dodgers, trailing only Blake Treinen, Kenley Jansen, and Phil Bickford.

Kelly joins Jansen, Corey Knebel, and Jimmy Nelson as free agents, but the Dodgers head into the offseason with trusted relievers Treinen, Alex Vesia, Bickford, and Brusdar Graterol on the roster as well as left-handers Victor González and Justin Bruihl, plus the expected returns of Tommy Kahnle and Caleb Ferguson from Tommy John surgery.

“Bullpen, I think we’re in a really strong spot to start the winter. That being said, we’re going to be open minded to continue to reinforce it,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said on October 27. “I’ve never in my career been in this good of a position regarding the bullpen when the offseason starts.

“It allows us to be a little more selective in terms of who we’re targeting.”

Kelly in three seasons with the Dodgers had a 3.59 ERA and 3.46 FIP, with 121 strikeouts and 44 walks in 105⅓ innings. He saved three games in the regular season and one in the postseason with Los Angeles.