The Dodgers arrived at the winter meetings seeking, among other objectives, to solidify the bridge to closer Kenley Jansen, a dicey mission given the widespread volatility of relievers. But the Dodgers were intent and struck late Wednesday night, reaching an agreement with right-hander Joe Kelly on a three-year contract worth $25 million, according to people with knowledge of the situation. The deal is pending a physical.
Kelly, 30, spent the last two-plus seasons as a reliever for the Boston Red Sox after beginning his career as a starter. He struck out 9.3 batters per nine innings and posted a 4.39 earned-run average in 73 appearances in 2018, his performance drastically fluctuating for stretches; he had a 1.73 ERA through May, an 8.35 ERA between June and July, a 1.42 ERA in August and an 8.31 ERA over the final month of the regular season.
Kelly rebounded in the playoffs, allowing one run and striking out 13 in 11 1/3 innings as the Red Sox went on to defeat the Dodgers in five games to claim the World Series. Kelly compiled a 2.73 ERA in 54 relief appearances in 2017 — his first full season working out of the bullpen.
The $25-million investment is the largest that Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, has ever made for a reliever not slotted to close. Friedman has insisted the Dodgers have made significant offers on established relievers in recent years, but were outbid and have often opted to populate their bullpen with converted starters and cheaper relievers with high ceilings.
This time, Los Angeles had to outspend the Red Sox, who acquired the hard-throwing righty from the St. Louis Cardinals at the non-waiver trade deadline in 2014. Off the field, Boston valued Kelly’s presence in the clubhouse. On it, Kelly features a fastball that reached 101.2 mph last season and a wicked wipeout slider. When he harnesses the explosive stuff, he can dominate, something the Dodgers witnessed when he tossed six scoreless innings and struck out 10 batters without a walk in the World Series. He will become the second pitcher in history to win a World Series and begin the next season with the losing team, joining Don Gullett, who went from the Cincinnati Reds in 1976 to the New York Yankees in 1977.
Kelly already had history against the Dodgers in the postseason before this fall, most notably plunking Hanley Ramirez in the ribs in the 2013 National League Championship Series. Ramirez sustained a hairline fracture and the Dodgers lost in six games. They were teammates with the Red Sox two years later.
A Southern California native and UC Riverside product, Kelly figures to serve as one of the Dodgers’ primary set-up men alongside Pedro Baez. Dylan Floro and Josh Fields are two other righties at the Dodgers’ disposal. Their left-handed options include Scott Alexander, Tony Cingrani and Adam McCreery. Ross Stripling and Alex Wood could also end up in the bullpen if they don’t make the starting rotation and aren’t traded before opening day.
Kelly effectively replaces Brandon Morrow, who left in free agency after a dominant 2017 season, but arrives at a higher cost. Morrow was signed to a minor-league deal. He was a failed starter with limited experience as a reliever. It was a low-risk expenditure, the kind the Dodgers usually prefer for their bullpen, but they went another route this week to address their need.
Dodgers lose two in Rule 5 draft
The Dodgers lost two minor leaguers, Connor Joe and Drew Jackson, in Thursday’s Rule 5 Draft. Joe, 26, primarily played first and third base for double-A Tulsa and triple-A Oklahoma City last season, but the Cincinnati Reds selected him as a catcher. Joe batted .299 with 17 home runs and a .935 on-base-plus-slugging percentage between the two levels.