Kenley Jansen has been one of baseball’s best closers for a decade now. He recorded 25 saves in 2012 and hasn’t been below that number since, which the exception of his 11 saves in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. He’s thrown at least 50 innings in the last ten full seasons and threw 24 1/3 in 2020. He’s never had an ERA higher than 3.71. His 350 saves rank him 13th on the all-time list.
There are some reasons to be bearish, however. For one, he just turned 34 years old, meaning it will become more challenging for him to maintain his previous levels of success in the future. He also just posted a walk rate of 12.9% in 2021, his worst such mark since his debut in 2010. But on the bullish side of things, he diversified his arsenal last year, reducing his cutter usage from previous levels of around 90% to just 58% in 2021. Despite the increased walk rate, he was largely effective, putting up an ERA of 2.22 and strikeout rate of 30.9%.
In MLBTR’s annual list of the Top 50 Free Agents, Jansen was one of seven relievers to make the grade, coming in at #29 overall with a predicted contract of $26MM over two years. Five of those seven were able to secure deals before the lockout, as Raisel Iglesias, Kendall Graveman, Corey Knebel, Hector Neris and Mark Melancon are all off the board. That means Jansen and Ryan Tepera are the two best options remaining for teams that wish to upgrade their bullpens without having to give up anything in a trade. Jansen was ineligible to receive a qualifying offer by virtue of having previously received one in his career, meaning it will only take cash to land him.
Jansen would certainly upgrade any bullpen in the league and should garner plenty of interest given it likely won’t require a lengthy commitment to sign him. Even a team that doesn’t jump out as a slam-dunk contender can make a surprising splash on a reliever, such as when the Diamondbacks snapped up Melancon on a two-year deal, despite winning just 52 games last year. Still, the most logical suitor for Jansen would be a team in win-now mode with enough money to spend that they can afford paying him around $13MM per year. Let’s consider some speculative fits.
The last time Jansen was a free agent, he re-signed with the Dodgers, the only organization he’s ever known. Perhaps the most sensible prediction is that he just sticks with the team he’s played his entire career with. However, the Dodgers already have a strong bullpen and more urgent needs elsewhere on the roster, particularly the starting rotation. It can’t be ruled out that they let Kenley walk and dedicate their resources elsewhere.
The Cardinals have some uncertainty in their bullpen, as Alex Reyes led the team in saves last year but may be converted to the starting rotation in 2022. They already have a strong rotation and lineup, and seem content to not pursue shortstop upgrades. Perhaps upgrading the bullpen is the best avenue for improving the team as a whole.
The Red Sox seemed like they had their closer situation resolved when they extended Matt Barnes in July. At the time, Barnes was enjoying an excellent season, sitting on an ERA of 2.68. However, things went badly for him down the stretch and he ended up with an ERA of 3.79 by season’s end, even being left off Boston’s playoff roster at times. Adding Jansen could potentially stabilize a bullpen that’s fairly short on experience, though the club is also going to be looking to replace Hunter Renfroe’s offensive production once the lockout is over.
The Astros are loaded in the rotation and their lineup. They could use a shortstop, either by bringing back Carlos Correa or some other option. However, they seem comfortable letting Jeremy Pena step forward as Correa’s heir apparent. The bullpen is already in good shape, but would certainly benefit from adding someone of Jansen’s caliber.
The Blue Jays had some bullpen issues in 2021, as their reliever corps finished 16th in ERA, 20th in FIP, 12th in xFIP, 12th in SIERA and 25th in fWAR. The club is reportedly planning to spend after the lockout, but they still could use upgrades elsewhere, particularly the infield.