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Closing time for Kenley Jansen and the Dodgers

Dodgers closer: “I know who I am. I know what I’m capable of doing.”

Arizona Diamondbacks v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The player with the longest tenure with the Dodgers is entering the final season of his contract, and Kenley Jansen is trying to savor the moments in what could be his last year in Los Angeles.

“Seventeen years in this organization, and I can’t take any one of them for granted,” Jansen said Wednesday. “The love that I got from this organization, I will always have, no matter what happens in the future.”

The present looks pretty good for Jansen. You can never put too much stock in spring training statistics, but he’s looked dominant to date, striking out nine of his 16 batters faced in five scoreless innings. That included striking out all three White Sox hitters he faced on Wednesday, on 12 pitches.

“That was his best outing of the spring,” Dave Roberts said. “The location of the cutter, the location of the two-seamer, the breaking ball for swing and miss below the zone, the tempo, all that was good.”

This is a familiar dance for Jansen, who last year struck out 12 and walked none in eight spring innings, allowing a single run. From 2018-20, Jansen in the Cactus League had a 1.42 ERA with 23 strikeouts in 19 innings, against only one walk. His ERA in those three regular seasons combined is 3.34, and his FIP is 3.66. Among the 141 relievers with at least 100 innings since the start of 2018, Jansen ranks 49th in ERA and 58th in FIP.

Nothing terribly alarming on its face, but not necessarily the type of performance that comes with entrance music. A gradual loss of three miles per hour off his peak cutter coupled with declining command made Jansen a riskier proposition in crunch time.

Roberts gave Joe Kelly a second inning in a tie game in Game 5 of the 2019 NLDS, a spot that would have normally gone to Jansen. Last year, Blake Treinen saved Game 5 of the World Series one day after Jansen suffered the blown-save loss in Game 4, then in Game 6 it was Julio Urías who got the final seven outs to clinch the championship, in lieu of a rested Jansen.

“It’s a team sport. When someone fails, someone picks you up. Most of the time, I’ve picked everybody up, most of my career,” Jansen said Wednesday. “We all want a championship. Of course, I wanted to be out there and get the last out, but Doc kept riding Julio because he was throwing really well in the playoffs and that game.”

Jansen said he didn’t go to Curacao this winter to see his family, opting instead to stay in his Los Angeles home to work out and prepare for the season.

“Basically how good of shape can you be?” Jansen said. “This spring training is how efficient, how can I keep repeating my delivery over and over again, so I can continue to attack the zone and throw strikes where I want to, instead of missing the ball on the plate, and you know, flat, so it can get hit.”

Most relief strikeouts, National League history

Pitcher NL relief K
Pitcher NL relief K
Billy Wagner 1,174
Trevor Hoffman 1,133
Tug McGraw 1,109
John Franco 975
Kenley Jansen 936
Lee Smith 914
Jansen is 64 strikeouts shy of becoming the fourth pitcher with 1,000 relief strikeouts in the National League Source: Baseball-Reference

The Dodgers will have other options to finish games should Jansen falter, including 22-year-old fireballer Brusdar Graterol, Blake Treinen who returned on a two-year contract, and former Brewers closer Corey Knebel, who was acquired in December and like Jansen threw a scoreless inning on Wednesday. But Roberts has said multiple times this offseason and during spring training that the optimal Dodgers bullpen has Jansen closing games. He elaborated why on Wednesday.

“[Jansen’s] a guy that’s done it time and time again. He gets left and right out. It also just frees up a lot of other guys to get the right matchups we need,” Roberts said. “Certainly to have the guy at the back end that’s stable, that’s consistent, I just think that makes everything work the right way. But again, it’s about performance, and that’s the way it should be.”

Jansen will make $20 million in 2021, the final season of a five-year, $80 million contract. He’s the Dodgers all-time leader in relief appearances, relief strikeouts, and saves. Regardless of what happens this year or after, when Jansen is a free agent, moving the former catcher to the mound will go down as one of the best decisions in franchise history.

“I want to go out there and compete, and get better each day, knowing what I’m capable of doing,” Jansen said. “Whenever the ball comes into my hand, whatever outs, I’m just going to go out there and get the job done, and try to help us win another championship.”