Column: As heartless as it might be, Dodgers must move on from Kenley Jansen
Enough with the lip service. Enough with the indecision.
Enough with the pretense that Kenley Jansen is still the Dodgers’ closer.
Because he isn’t.
Jansen wasn’t on the mound to record the final outs of their most important games in their World Series run and won’t be again next year if they return to the postseason.
The Dodgers have to move on. They have the remainder of the winter to figure out how.
As difficult as it might be, as heartless as it might feel, they shouldn’t start another season with Jansen as their ninth-inning pitcher.
The Dodgers don’t need to acquire a frontline starting pitcher this offseason. But they might pursue 2020 NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer anyway.
Removing a player of Jansen’s stature from his customary role is never simple. The player’s pride is involved. The organization has to strike a balance between rewarding the player for his years of meritorious service and doing what’s best for the team.
In Jansen’s case, the respect is entirely warranted. Jansen played a pivotal role in the Dodgers’ transition from bankrupt underachievers to perennial contenders to World Series champions. His 312 saves are the most in franchise history. He was on three All-Star teams and deserved to make more. His body of work over 11 seasons is admirable.
Except the Dodgers have already done right by him.
He’s been in decline for a while. His most dominant season was in 2017 when he registered an earned-run average of 1.32 and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 15.57. That was also his last season as a high-end closer.
He had a down year the following season. And the season after that. And again last season.
His ERA was more than 3.00 in each of the last three seasons, hitting a career-worst 3.71 in 2019.
Have enough down years in succession and they cease to be down years. They become an accurate representation of the player.
The instinct to give Jansen the opportunity to bounce back was understandable — initially.
Whatever Andrew Friedman and Dave Roberts really thought of Jansen, their voices of support were important. His track record earned him that courtesy. His sensitivity required care. There were fears he could mentally check out if he sensed a loss of faith in him. His five-year, $80-million contract made it especially important that didn’t happen.
However, what started as a sincere effort to preserve Jansen’s dignity has taken a more cynical feel.
“The best-case scenario is Kenley is our closer,” Roberts recently told Jorge Castillo of The Times, “but that is solely dependent on him.”
This is a pitcher who was removed from the closer role in each of the last two postseasons. The victories that clinched the World Series and National League Championship Series this year were sealed by Julio Urías. In the loss that eliminated the Dodgers the previous year, Roberts called on the notoriously unreliable Joe Kelly to pitch the ninth and 10 innings of a tied game.
Jansen is 33. He will be entering his 12th season. He won’t suddenly regain his old form.
The vote of confidence now sounds like a justification for the organization’s inability to improve the bullpen. As long as the Dodgers can point to Jansen as a potential ninth-inning solution, they don’t have to come up with another.
The obvious counter is that the Dodgers went into last season with the same situation and went on to win the World Series. And, really, that buys them the public goodwill necessary to do whatever they please this winter.
However, they would be unwise to count on catching the same breaks again.
Major League Baseball announces it will recognize the Negro Leagues as a major league, with their records and statistics becoming part of MLB history.
Their bullpen savior, Urías, could very well emerge as a front-line starter next year, in which case he wouldn’t be available to pitch in relief. Also, there’s no guarantee the inevitable meltdown that costs Jansen his job will once again come under benign circumstances, as it did this year in a victory over the San Diego Padres in a NL Division Series.
The Dodgers might as well invest in new ideas on how to finish games.
Urías sounds determined to be a starting pitcher, but maybe the Dodgers can convince him his future is as a closer. Or maybe they wager on fireballer Brusdar Graterol or left-hander Victor Gonzalez. Or maybe they re-sign Blake Treinen and pair him with the top free-agent closer on the market, his former Oakland Athletics teammate Liam Hendriks. Or maybe they don’t designate a closer and determine the ninth-inning assignments on a game-by-game basis according to matchups.
Just do something other than call Jansen the closer, wait for him to implode, and then try to figure something out on the spot.
At minimum, it’s an unnecessary distraction. At worst, it’s an experiment with a predetermined outcome that keeps the team from exploring viable alternatives and ends with someone like Kelly pitching with the season on the line.
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