During the coming winter, Kenley Jansen will compete with Aroldis Chapman in a contest to sign the most expensive contract in baseball history for a relief pitcher.
The Dodgers are expected to act as an accelerant in the bidding, plunging into negotiations with both pitchers while competing with other big-market teams such as the New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants.
The internal calculus for the Dodgers is complex, a process complicated by the team’s familiarity with Jansen, the checkered off-field history of Chapman and the lure of adding a first-round draft pick.
During a conversation at baseball’s general managers meetings here, Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi declined to reveal whether the organization had established a favorite.
“They will both be considerations,” Zaidi said.
Although the Dodgers will talk with both, the streams are not expected to cross. Despite nearly acquiring Chapman in a trade last off-season, and planning to pair him with Jansen, it is unlikely that the team will try to sign both.
No reliever has received more than the four-year, $50-million pact Jonathan Papelbon signed with Philadelphia heading into 2011. Jansen and Chapman will shatter that. Some executives, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about the situation, speculated that each would receive a contract that lasts four or five seasons, and perhaps fetches an overall value of $100 million.
“Going back to last off-season, there was a possibility of us winding up with two guys that were traditional closers, and being able to use both of them,” Zaidi said. “I don’t think it’s something we would rule out. It’s more of a question of devoting that level of resources [to those players].”
With Andrew Friedman as baseball boss, the Dodgers have never consummated a free-agent contract worth more than the $48-million deals to Brandon McCarthy before the 2015 season and Scott Kazmir before 2016. The Dodgers will likely need to top that to find a closer in free agency this off-season, even if that means settling for a slightly more affordable alternative such as Mark Melancon.
But at the outset, the focus will be on Jansen and Chapman. In terms of production, there is negligible difference between the two. In 2016, Jansen saved 47 games with a 1.83 earned-run average and 13.6 strikeouts per nine innings. Chapman saved 36 games with a 1.55 ERA and 14 strikeouts per nine innings.
During the last four seasons, Chapman was considered the most valuable reliever in baseball, according to FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement (WAR). Chapman was worth 9.7. The No. 2 reliever during that period? Jansen, at 9.4.
Chapman, 28, is a year younger than Jansen. Jansen has shown a greater aptitude for flexibility; Chapman prefers to only throw in one-inning increments. Chapman can fire a fastball beyond the velocity of 100 mph, but Jansen devastates opponents with his cutter. In projecting the future, some scouts prefer Chapman’s sleek, muscular build to Jansen’s mountainous bulk.
The difference may be in the details. Earlier this week, the Dodgers made a one-year, $17.2-million qualifying offer to Jansen, ensuring that if he signs elsewhere the Dodgers would receive a compensatory draft pick. The collective bargaining agreement forbids the Cubs, who acquired Chapman from the Yankees during the summer, from making the same offer. This quirk will play a role in the Dodgers’ thought process.
If the Dodgers sign Chapman, they will also reap the benefit of the draft pick, in exchange for Jansen’s departure. For a club focused on maintain a pipeline of minor-league talent, that is no small thing. The Dodgers raised Jansen and developed him. But their interest in Chapman is long-standing.
Chapman would arrive with more baggage than an extra pick. The Dodgers backed out of a trade with Cincinnati for Chapman last winter after allegations he was involved in an incident of domestic violence. Unaware of the scope of Chapman’s issues and wary of a potential suspension by Major League Baseball, the Dodgers stepped away from the negotiations.
Cincinnati eventually dealt Chapman to the Yankees. Chapman received a 30-game suspension. It is unclear how his history might factor into the Dodgers’ pursuit this off-season.
At this point in the off-season, so much is unclear. The Dodgers may enter a bidding war with the Yankees for Chapman. They may prefer a slightly less expensive deal for a more familiar face like Jansen. Or they may look elsewhere.
“We have interest in both guys,” Zaidi said. “But it’s no certainty that we would be able to sign either. So we have to be open to alternatives.”