Dodgers to focus on bolstering the bullpen with Kenley Jansen a question mark
The footage will be replayed in Los Angeles for decades. Julio Urías firing a fastball past Willy Adames for the 27th out and howling in celebration. Austin Barnes pocketing the baseball and tossing his mask in the air. The two bearhugging as their teammates rush to pile on them to celebrate the Dodgers’ first World Series championship in 32 years. The scene will be remembered for that.
But one footnote is impossible to ignore: Kenley Jansen was available to pitch and wasn’t on the mound.
Jansen entered to pitch the ninth inning in seven of his eight of his playoff appearances, but his usage depended on matchups and the score. He wasn’t the automatic choice in a save situation. And in Game 6 of the World Series, with a chance to win it all, the Dodgers went to someone else.
Will they go to someone else for the job as Jansen enters the final year of his five-year, $80-million contract?
“The best-case scenario is Kenley is our closer,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said this week, “but that is solely dependent on him.”
Jansen’s days as a dominant reliever are over, but he did not have a bad 2020 season. He allowed 11 runs, nine earned, in 24 1/3 innings across 27 appearances during the regular season. His ERA, ERA+, strikeout rate, and FIP all improved from 2019. But he suffered from vast inconsistencies in velocity and command. Those produced fluctuations in performance. His bosses decided they needed to be more careful with him in October.
The Dodgers acquired former All-Star closer Corey Knebel from the Milwaukee Brewers and tendered contracts on several players.
The Dodgers don’t have an obvious internal replacement at closer for the 2021 regular season. Brusdar Graterol, the young hard-throwing right-hander, doesn’t miss enough bats yet. Joe Kelly is erratic. Blake Treinen is a free agent. Dustin May and Urías will continue on the starter track — at least until the postseason.
Adding two high-leverage relievers was one of the Dodgers’ two top priorities this offseason. Figuring out their third baseman is the other. Justin Turner is a free agent. He’s a clubhouse leader, a fan favorite, and still a very good player even though he just turned 36. But his return isn’t automatic.
Treinen and Pedro Báez, two right-handed relievers the Dodgers relied on heavily, are free agents. Treinen joined the club in a one-year deal last winter after the Oakland Athletics nontendered him and rebounded from a subpar 2019 season. He has expressed his desire to return in preliminary talks with the club. He’s likelier to come to terms on a deal than Báez, who is seeking a three-year contract after seven seasons as a steady performer in Los Angeles. Chances are the Dodgers won’t go to three years for him.
“I think it’s safe to say that as we sit here in the beginning of December, that we still have some work to do in the bullpen,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said Tuesday. “We like the guys who will be returning next year, but, obviously, we got some work to do there and fortunately there are a number of guys on the market — both in the free agent market and trade market — and so that’s where a decent amount of our attention is being spent right now. And I expect us to add at least a few guys before we get to [spring training].”
The next day, minutes before Wednesday’s nontender deadline, the Dodgers added a guy.
The Milwaukee Brewers decided they weren’t going to tender a contract to Corey Knebel, an All-Star closer in 2017, after two forgettable years. The Dodgers saw a high upside, so they pounced, acquiring Knebel for a player to be named later or cash. Then they tendered him a contract. Arbitration is next if the two sides don’t agree on a contract.
Knebel recorded a 1.78 ERA in 76 games in 2017. The next year he allowed one run and two hits in 10 innings across nine postseason games. Six of those games were against the Dodgers. He gave up one run in seven innings.
The Dodgers agree to a one-year, $1-million deal with left-hander Scott Alexander, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
But Knebel underwent Tommy John surgery in April 2019 and compiled a 6.08 ERA in 15 games in 2020. He is a reclamation project. The Dodgers are confident they can guide the 28-year-old back to form as they did with Treinen in 2020. It was the buy-low move they love to make.
The Dodgers aren’t done hunting for bullpen help. Liam Hendriks is considered the top reliever on the free-agent market, but the Dodgers haven’t expressed interest in the former Oakland Athletics closer, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. Other free-agent options include Brad Hand, Trevor Rosenthal and Kirby Yates.
Whomever they acquire, the Dodgers prefer Jansen pitching the ninth inning. That would mean Jansen is pitching well enough for high-leverage spots, which makes the bullpen deeper and the Dodgers better. Jansen will seemingly have the chance to prove himself, but the Dodgers are in the business of winning games and defending a championship. Performance will dictate Jansen’s role, as it did with the championship on the line in October.
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