A television producer reached across the expansive chest of Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen and affixed a microphone to his T-shirt. A crowd of cameras surrounded him inside a ballroom at the Manchester Grand Hyatt. For years, Jansen believed he belonged in the spotlight of the All-Star game. Now he found himself smiling among his peers.
“Man, it feels great,” Jansen said. “It’s a blessing to be here. My first one.”
It is his first All-Star appearance as a Dodger, the organization that signed him out of Curacao 12 years ago, converted him from light-hitting catcher to smoke-throwing reliever eight years ago and entrusted him as a closer four years ago. It also could be his last.
Four months away from free agency, Jansen has cemented his place as one of the game’s finest closers. He ranks second among relievers in FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement. He owns a 1.16 earned-run average. He has batted aside any anxiety about the coming winter with ease.
“I really don’t care about [it],” Jansen said. “At the end of the day, the way I see it, I’m going to play somewhere, anywhere next year. It’s either with the Dodgers or not with the Dodgers. At the end of the day, if God helps me to stay healthy, I’m going to play this game that I love.”
That game should reward him handsomely this winter. Mariano Rivera set the bar for relievers in average annual value when he signed a three-year, $45-million contract in 2008. Jonathan Papelbon established a new benchmark for a lump sum with his four-year, $50-million deal with Philadelphia after the 2011 season. Jansen will face competition from fellow free-agent closer Aroldis Chapman, but he could break both records this winter.
Among major league executives and talent evaluators, the debate is not whether Jansen will eclipse Papelbon’s financial haul this winter. It is by how much.
Several executives suggested Jansen could receive a five-year contract, given his age and sustained dominance. In the three seasons before he signed with the Phillies, Papelbon posted a 2.89 ERA with 1.119 walks plus hits per inning, 10.8 strikeouts per nine and a 3.85 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Before David Robertson inked a four-year, $46-million contract with the Chicago White Sox in 2015, he had a 2.59 ERA, 1.087 WHIP, 11.9 strikeouts per nine and a 4.23 strikeout-to-walk ratio from 2012 to 2014.
“He’s about as close to a one-trick pony as you can get, and that speaks to his dominance,” Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said. “You don’t see closers turn over year after year in the same division without the rest of the division catching up. He’s been able to do it, which speaks to how unique he is.”
Added Dodgers reliever Joe Blanton, “It’s a devastating pitch. You know it’s good when the best hitters in the world know it’s coming and they can’t do anything with it.”
Which is why Papelbon’s contract is not a goal. It is, in the words of multiple rival executives, “the floor.” Jansen will turn 29 in September, making him a year younger than Robertson was at the time of his free agency and two years younger than Papelbon was.
All this leads to a question the Dodgers, in allowing Jansen to creep so close to free agency, have yet to answer: Will the organization that raised Jansen meet his price this winter?
“We don’t comment on specific negotiations, but our hope and expectation is that Kenley is in a Dodger uniform for a long time,” said Andrew Friedman, the team’s president of baseball operations.
During his time in Tampa Bay, Friedman proved capable of building bullpens at a discount. But his teams often scrambled to find roles within the group, much like the Dodgers did earlier this season. Friedman acknowledged how elite talent can stabilize the situation.
“The volatility among relievers is greater than it is than any other position on the field,” Friedman said. “That being said, I do think there are bellwethers that can ride through that.”
Under Friedman, the Dodgers have shown more than passing interest in procuring that type of player. The team struck a trade with Cincinnati for Chapman last winter, only to back out after his domestic violence incident came to light. Friedman came close to signing Darren O’Day before he decided to re-up with Baltimore for a four-year, $31-million contract.
Jansen will command a higher price this winter. So will Chapman. The Dodgers may pursue both men.
On Monday, Jansen reiterated his disinterest in worrying about the future. After his media session, he retrieved the identifying plaque hung behind him. Underneath his name resided the Dodgers’ logo. As the group pushes for another playoff birth, Jansen insisted his sole focus is contributing to the team’s pursuit of its first championship since 1988.
“At the end of the season, a decision has to come,” Jansen said. “Either them, or someone else.”