A year ago, as the Dodgers pondered the free agency of a vital member of their pitching staff, the organization opted for restraint over aggression. The club declined to match Arizona’s offer for Zack Greinke, absorbed the public relations blowback and pieced together a rotation at less exorbitant prices. Their behavior last winter could prove instructive now, as closer Kenley Jansen enters the final stages of his own free-agent negotiations.
Jansen became the best closer on the market just before midnight on Thursday, after Aroldis Chapman agreed to a five-year, $86-million contract with the Yankees. After a week of negotiations, Dodgers executives left the winter meetings still in search of a closer, preparing for the possibility of life without Jansen.
The odds of retaining him did not appear to favor the Dodgers. Miami already had extended Jansen a five-year, $80-million offer, according to a Yahoo Sports report. In the early hours of Thursday morning, representatives for Jansen reconnected in talks with the Nationals, according to people familiar with the situation.
Washington may pose a greater threat than Miami. The Marlins are famed for backloading contracts, deferring money and refusing to grant no-trade provisions. The club also is not believed by many rival executives to be close to playoff contention. But Miami Manager Don Mattingly has tried to recruit his former closer, and the Marlins signed former Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis on Wednesday.
The Nationals tend to be hesitant on the free-agent market, often finishing second in the bidding. The Nationals were considered the runners-up for Mark Melancon, a player the Dodgers did not vigorously pursue, who signed a four-year, $62-million contract with San Francisco. While the Nationals also use deferments in contracts, the team offers a more stable landing place for Jansen and would grant him a place on a World Series contending team.
The Dodgers also can contend for a championship. The group finished two wins away from the Fall Classic in 2016, even after letting Greinke leave, and losing Clayton Kershaw for six weeks with a back injury. Jansen played a significant role in that process, acting as the foundation of one of baseball’s best bullpens.
But the front office of Andrew Friedman understands the volatility of relief pitching. The history of long-term contracts for relievers is not pretty. The organization’s preference is to retain Jansen, but it has spent the previous weeks developing contingency plans.
The Dodgers have engaged in trade talks with the White Sox, who are conducting a fire sale that could include former All-Star reliever David Robertson. In Robertson, there exists an example of the perils of free-agent relief contracts. An elite set-up man with the Yankees, he has regressed into a solid closer in Chicago, across two seasons with a 3.44 earned-run average.
Robertson struggled with his command in 2016, and saw his strikeout rate decline while his walk rate rose. The White Sox owe him $25 million through 2018, making him a more-affordable, less-dominant option for the Dodgers.
The free-agent market also is flooded with pitchers like Robertson, a sizable group of talented but flawed assets. The Dodgers have had talks with former Royals closer Greg Holland, who missed last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Before his elbow reconstruction, Holland was considered one of the best relievers in baseball from 2011 to 2014.
After him, there are myriad options, from Brad Ziegler and Daniel Hudson to Koji Uehara and Jonathan Papelbon to Boone Logan and Jerry Blevins. There is also Joe Blanton, who looked revitalized as Jansen’s set-up man in 2016. None of these men profiles as a dominant closer, and all represent a downgrade from Jansen. But the Dodgers could try to fill that void at a later date.
The past season displayed the availability of elite relievers before the in-season trade deadline. Both participants in the World Series partook in this endeavor. The Cubs acquired Chapman. The Indians dealt for Andrew Miller. The Dodgers continue to stockpile prospects, with a farm system that is one of the game’s richest and deepest.
With the Dodgers looking to trim payroll, team officials have staged an internal debate over the merits of splurging on Jansen or third baseman Justin Turner. The departure of Jansen would clear the team to re-sign Turner, a vital member of the clubhouse and the team’s lone reliable right-handed hitter in 2016. If the team brings back Turner, rival executives believe, they can become more aggressive in trade talks to improve second base, and perhaps land Minnesota infielder Brian Dozier or Detroit infielder Ian Kinsler.
On Thursday morning, a mass exodus of baseball executives occurred at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center. The logistical difficulties of travel made it sound like Jansen would not make a decision until Friday. But the Dodgers departed the Winter Meetings understanding the stakes of the situation.
If Jansen signs elsewhere, the team loses a player it adores. If the Dodgers bring him back, they know they will be signing a contract they might regret.