The Dodgers have acquired all-star closer Aroldis Chapman from the Cincinnati Reds, whose burn-down-the-house garage sale continues. The fireballing lefty is arguably the best closer in the league and will hit Chavez Ravine in his free agency walk year. Of course, the Dodgers already have one of the league’s best closers in Kenley Jansen, which makes this a fascinating deal.
Jansen is a year away from free agency himself and has been the Dodgers’ closer for four seasons now. He has been nothing short of terrific, with a career 0.938 WHIP after a 2015 season that saw him with a 0.783 in that category. He averages 14 strikeouts per nine innings in his career, and his postseason performance has basically mirrored his other numbers. At 28 years old, he figures to have a long career closing out games. Oh, and he’s heading to arbitration after making $7.4 million last season. If you’re a general manager who’s looking for a young, successful closer with a proven track record and who isn’t prohibitively expensive, your man is right here.
However, Jansen suffers from the same fate as every other current major league closer: he is not Aroldis Chapman. The former Reds closer threw every one of the fastest 62 pitches thrown in the major leagues last season, topping out with a pitch just shy of 104 MPH. He has also been a full-time closer for the past four seasons and will also be heading into his age-28 season. Last year he had his worst saves total with thirty-three for an awful Reds team. His WHIP, at 1.146, was the highest of his career and still one that many other pitchers would kill to have. And he is a relative bargain with an $8 million salary.
So now the Dodgers will have two top closers in their free agent walk years who are roughly the same age and make about the same salaries. With Jansen a righty and Chapman a lefty, they could mix and match. They could also move Jansen to the “lights out in the eighth inning” role before handing a lead over to Chapman. With a somewhat shaky starting rotation after Clayton Kershaw, and having missed out on several big free agent pitchers in addition to losing Zack Greinke to their division rival Arizona Diamondbacks, this would essentially shorten games to seven innings for Dodgers opponents. That’s a formula that many teams have used with great success, including the reigning champion Kansas City Royals. Going back further, the New York Yankees also used the practice with solid bullpen guys to get to Mariano Rivera. Chapman was once considered as a starting pitcher, but it seems likely that that ship has sailed. There’s too much risk now in suddenly moving him to the starting rotation after he has become so established as a successful closer.
It’s also possible that the Dodgers could deal Jansen, perhaps for a starting pitcher. If he stays, new manager Dave Roberts will have plenty of options. One potential downside is managing two players who are basically playing the same position while vying for a big free-agent payday next year. There are only a certain number of saves to go around, and eighth-inning guys don’t usually make as much as closers on the open market.
There is very recent precedent for a top team with a good closer acquiring another top closer. The Washington Nationals were in first place last season and heading to the playoffs when they acquired Jonathan Papelbon and demoted Drew Storen to the eighth inning despite his success. Ask the Nationals where they played their best golf by the time October rolled around. Chapman is no Papelbon by any stretch in talent or temperament, but it will be very interesting to watch these two coexist in the same bullpen if the Dodgers decide to go that route.