The Dodgers held their first workout for pitchers and catchers on Thursday at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Arizona. Along with it came the usual first-day questions for manager Dave Roberts, who did provide at least one expected answer: that Kenley Jansen will start the 2021 season as the club’s closer.
“I believe we’re at our best if Kenley is closing for us,” Roberts said on a Zoom call Thursday. “But with that said, we have a lot of viable options to finish games.”
This wasn’t so much news, both that it was expected and that Roberts has said this on multiple occasions, including during an interview with Jorge Castillo at the Los Angeles Times in December.
Roberts’ caveat is the key here, and shows he’s not inflexible. He turned away from Jansen during the 2019 NLDS, and in 2020 the Dodgers used five different pitchers to save postseason games, including Jansen who had a 5.14 ERA.
That followed a regular season that saw Jansen post a 3.33 ERA and 3.03 FIP, his best FIP in and highest strikeout rate (32.4 percent) in three years. He was also named National League reliever of the month for August.
“Kenley had a really good year last year. I think he led Major League Baseball in soft contact off the bat,” Roberts said (note: Jansen led MLB with a 14-percent hard-hit rate, and was tied for fifth with an 82.7-mph average exit velocity). “I don’t think he was pitching his best in the postseason, but this is the new year. I expect him to have a great year.”
The Dodgers do have other options to close games. Among returnees, Brusdar Graterol throws a 99-mph sinker and saved a game in October, and Blake Treinen has 72 career saves and saved Game 5 of the World Series. The Dodgers in December acquired Corey Knebel, who was one of the best closers in the game in 2017-18 but missed most of the last two seasons after Tommy John surgery.
Julio Urías closed out both the NLCS and World Series with perfect, multi-inning outings. “This is as good physically as he’s looked on day one is spring training,” Roberts said of Urías. “I’m very proud of what he did this this offseason.”
But Urías is a starting pitcher for now, one of “eight viable starters” the Dodgers enter camp with, per Roberts, a group that includes Jimmy Nelson, a non-roster invitee who missed the truncated 2020 season after back surgery.
But for now, it’s Jansen at the end of games, as it has been for the bulk of the last decade for the Dodgers. No matter what role Jansen is in, they need him to pitch well. And the bullpen is built as such that they can turn to alternatives if needed, something Roberts has proven to be comfortable doing.
“I think he’s earned the opportunity to start out as our closer, but at the end of the day, I want the guys that are pitching the best to finish the game,” Roberts said, “and Kenley understands that.”
- Clayton Kershaw reported to camp on Thursday, one day later than originally expected, after dealing with a loss of power at his home in Texas.
- Joe Kelly and Mitchell White are dealing with soreness, though everyone else in camp was a full participant in Thursday’s workout.
- Catcher Keibert Ruiz has not yet reported to camp, dealing with visa issues.
- Roberts has no plans to use a six-pitcher starting rotation to start the season, but isn’t opposed to the idea. “It’s not crazy, given that we don’t know what to expect going from 60 to 162 games. It’s nice to have those eight viable starters, and at some point in time I would expect all those guys to make a number of starts for us.”
- The Dodgers are using both the major league and minor league clubhouses to get dressed, to properly distance the players when indoors per MLB’s health and safety protocols. Thursday’s morning meeting and opening speech from Roberts was delivered outdoors in the batting cage area.