The Los Angeles Dodgers could not retain their Ace 2.0, so they are falling back on one of the absolute best and easily the most intimidating reliever in Major League Baseball.
After drawing a line in the sand and watching the Arizona Diamondbacks cross it to sign 32-year-old Zack Greinke to the highest average annual value in major league history ($34.4 million), the club turned its focus toward acquiring Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman.
That focus has turned into maybe the biggest blockbuster trade of the offseason. The Dodgers and Reds have agreed to a deal that would net Chapman and his nearly 16 strikeouts per nine innings last season for two of Los Angeles’ better prospects, but not any of its coveted top three—shortstop Corey Seager and pitchers Julio Urias and Jose De Leon.
Chapman deal is agreed to with dodgers. 2 prospects to reds. (not seager, urias or deleon). Pending medicals— Jon Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) December 7, 2015
The deal just might give the Dodgers the best bullpen in the NL West next season, if not the entire league, after it was often far too unreliable for the team to win in October. And beyond that, it gives them the kind of late-inning dominance that scrubs away some of the urgency to replace Greinke with another secondary ace behind Clayton Kershaw, though one could still be in play via free agency or even another blockbuster trade.
Spending money has not been an overwhelming concern for the Dodgers since the Guggenheim Baseball Management group gained control of the team in 2012, but considering Greinke and David Price both commanded contracts well beyond $200 million and Johnny Cueto has already turned down $120 million from the Diamondbacks, they opted to go the route of building a dominant bullpen rather than add another player that would cost them upward of $30 million a season—Kershaw’s AAV is $30.7 million.
This plan obviously comes from the Kansas City Royals’ mold. They won the World Series with mediocre starting pitching, but masked that fact with a lights-out bullpen that dominated the seventh, eighth and ninth innings all year long.
The Dodgers rotation, with Kershaw’s greatness, Hyun-jin Ryu’s return from a shoulder injury and Hisashi Iwakuma’s possible bargain free-agent signing, is better than what Kansas City had in its World Series run. And with the bullpen being on par now, the Dodgers do not have the need for another No. 1 starter to replace Greinke.
“Because the price for starting pitching is so high both in free agency and in trade, they’d build strength from the back of the bullpen forward,” Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal said on MLB Network. “And if you have Chapman and Jansen for a potential three innings each night, that’s not bad.”
We do not know how the Dodgers might deploy incumbent closer Kenley Jansen and Chapman—there is potential for a ninth-inning platoon with Jansen being right-handed and Chapman being a lefty—but both have the potential to get more than three outs on any given night. Plus, the deal now takes pressure off guys like J.P Howell (1.43 ERA), Pedro Baez (2.51 FIP) and Chris Hatcher (10.4 strikeouts per nine innings), as all can fill more specialized roles in lower-leverage situations. That assumes none of them is included in the return package to the Reds.
Again, Dodgers will be better with him AND Jansen. As we've learned with the Royals, it's bullpen depth that matters, not just the closer.— David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield) December 7, 2015
The Dodgers can still add another quality starter. That is not out of the question with a guy like Cueto still available and even possible jaw-dropping deals for guys like Shelby Miller or Jose Fernandez being bandied about the winter meetings, though those trades seemed like long shots as of Monday morning.
But even if they do not sign or pry away another rotation piece, this new bullpen dynamic and the current starting depth give them quite the formidable staff.
However, there is already speculation about a potential problem, especially with a first-year manager in Dave Roberts having to deal with it. Both pitchers are elite—Jansen has a 2.28 career ERA and has averaged 14 strikeouts per nine innings, while Chapman has a 2.17 career ERA and has averaged 15.4 strikeouts per nine—and both will undoubtedly want to close.
Dave Roberts' first challenge established: Sell Chapman and Jansen in their free agent seasons of '16 to make closer thing work. Not easy.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) December 7, 2015
While neither guy is likely to prefer a move to the eighth inning or a split role, assuming any role besides full-time closer a season before their free agency will not have any affect on their open-market value a year from now. As long as they perform as they have in the past, both Chapman and Jansen stand to be paid as elite relievers in a game that has already seen non-closers like Darren O’Day and Ryan Madson rake in huge deals this offseason.
This is an era that looks at more than saves to determine a reliever's value, and contracts are based solely on performance and not the inning in which it comes. So while the prestige of being the closer on a World Series contender might not be afforded to one or the other, the dollars definitely will be come next winter.
Simply knowing the Dodgers did not have to give up their best prospects for a one-year lease on an All-Star reliever makes the trade a win for them because of the way it solidifies the entire pitching staff. No longer is there an urgency to sign a nine-figure starter, and no longer is there concern that their bullpen will cost them in the postseason, assuming they qualify in 2016.
The Dodgers are likely not done moving and shaking at the winter meetings, but this is a fantastic start and things could get better for them in the next few days.
All quotes, unless otherwise specified, have been acquired firsthand by Anthony Witrado. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.