Ranking the Top 8 Landing Spots for Kenley Jansen in MLB Free Agency

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 16, 2022

Ranking the Top 8 Landing Spots for Kenley Jansen in MLB Free Agency

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    Jae Hong/Associated Press

    Whenever Major League Baseball's lockout ends and the 2021-22 offseason market reopens for business, one of the game's elite closers will be among the top free agents still waiting for a deal.

    That's Kenley Jansen, whose 350 career saves are but one part of an excellent 12-year track record. There's also his well-above-average 164 ERA+ and 5.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio, not to mention the countless GIFs generated by his otherworldly cutter.

    As for where the 34-year-old might sign on the other side of the lockout, there's never a shortage of teams in need of bullpen help. But after weighing which teams have the strongest needs and how much money they seemingly have to barter with, we narrowed his list of top suitors down to eight clubs.

    But first, let's discuss his apparent value on the open market.

What Is Jansen's Value in Free Agency?

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Jansen hasn't been a free agent since after the 2016 season. That trip to the market resulted in him re-signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers on a hefty five-year, $80 million contract.

    He isn't likely to do that well this time around, and not just because he's five years older. He had some ups and downs throughout his five-year pact, particularly between 2018 and 2020 after he underwent heart surgery and ultimately pitched to a good-not-great 122 ERA+.

    However, Jansen did have an impressive walk year in 2021. He appeared in 69 games and ran his ERA+ up to 185, all while allowing only 36 hits along with 86 strikeouts in 69 innings. He was also unscored upon in eight outings in the playoffs.

    His cutter was still his primary pitch, yet he helped himself by mixing in more sinkers and sliders. Those pitchers held opposing batters to averages of .147 and .093, respectively.

    Jansen proved he can still be one of the game's best ninth-inning arms, so he has every right to pursue his appropriate market value. He isn't likely to match Raisel Iglesias' four-year, $58 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels, but he might at least get the same average annual value in, say, a two-year deal.

    Let's count down the teams that might do such a deal.

8. Detroit Tigers

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Clearly ready to bust out of the rebuilding purgatory they've been in since 2017, the Detroit Tigers have already made splashes by signing Javier Baez and Eduardo Rodriguez.

    However, the Tigers haven't done anything to address their bullpen. It posted just a 4.50 ERA in 2021 and likewise fared poorly in FanGraphs WAR on account of its low strikeout rate and high walk rate.

    Detroit's pen does have some solid arms at the back end, including All-Stars Gregory Soto and Michael Fulmer. But each is volatile in his own way. Fulmer doesn't strike enough batters out, and Soto has issues with both walks and home runs.

    Signing Jansen would therefore equip the Tigers with a more reliable late-inning option and further telegraph their intention to make a play in the American League Central in 2022. They have the money to make it happen, as their projected payroll is about $83 million short of the franchise's peak.

    But if Jansen would rather sign with a more immediate World Series contender, he might think he can do better than Detroit. Meanwhile, the Tigers might see more pressing needs in their lineup and starting rotation.

7. Miami Marlins

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Speaking of rebuilders looking to establish themselves as contenders in 2022, the Miami Marlins are also in that boat.

    Though they made the playoffs in 2020, that was at the end of a shortened season and thanks to an expanded field of teams. It was easy to predict some backsliding for Miami in 2021, which is precisely what occurred as it endured a 95-loss season.

    But if nothing else, the Marlins have an exciting pitching staff to build around. Their Sandy Alcantara-led rotation is obviously the star attraction, yet they also quietly had one of baseball's better bullpens last season. It posted a 3.81 ERA and notably suppressed the long ball with the best of 'em.

    Even still, Dylan Floro doesn't inspire a ton of confidence as an option to close games. Not like Jansen would, anyway. He should fall within the Marlins' price range as long as they're comfortable pushing their payroll further toward its peak of $115 million.

    Of course, the same contention timeline question that applies to the Tigers also applies to the Marlins. And while a closer would be nice, there's little doubt that the club's primary need is additional offense.

6. Texas Rangers

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    Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

    Though the Texas Rangers fared even worse than the Tigers and Marlins while losing 102 games in 2021, they arguably have a leg up in returning to contention in 2022.

    They've been more active than any other team in free agency this winter, spending roughly $560 million to sign Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Jon Gray.

    The downside? The Rangers still don't come off as a real player in the AL West. Yet the corresponding upside is that they still have the means to make additional splashes. They can add $38 million more to their 2022 payroll before they match their previous franchise high.

    Such a budget would give them more than enough leeway to sign Jansen, and he would become the best reliever in a bullpen that doesn't have much going for it. Joe Barlow had a nice run at the end of 2021, but a strikeout rate of 8.4 per nine innings just isn't closer material.

    Once again, though, Jansen might not buy into the Rangers' contention timeline. And if the team is going to make a play for a big-name pitcher, it frankly should focus its efforts on hometown hero and future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw.

5. Chicago Cubs

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    On the North Side of Chicago, the Cubs are trying to put themselves back together again after breaking up the core that won them the World Series in 2016.

    It could be going worse. The Cubs dug up some nice gems (Patrick Wisdom and Frank Schwindel) in 2021 and have since added the impact arms (Marcus Stroman and Wade Miley) that their rotation sorely needed. 

    Up next, it should be the bullpen's turn to get upgrades. It was OK while Craig Kimbrel was in town last year, but not so much after he left for the South Side at the trade deadline. It had just a 5.79 ERA the rest of the way.

    Specifically, Jansen would be a significant upgrade for a closer's spot that currently seems to belong to Rowan Wick. And since they're $89 million short of their peak payroll, the Cubs should certainly able to afford him.

    But even if Jansen himself is enthusiastic about the Cubs, they might come out of the lockout looking to fry bigger fish. In particular, they're one of few teams that can afford Carlos Correa, who would fit nicely in the gaping hole they currently have at shortstop.

4. San Diego Padres

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    Darryl Webb/Associated Press

    If Jansen wants to stick in the National League West, there's one obvious suitor for him and another less obvious landing spot.

    As currently constructed, the San Diego Padres are arguably already good to go for 2022. It wasn't for lack of talent that they dipped below .500 in 2021, after all, so bringing in Bob Melvin to manage was a truly inspired move. So was signing Nick Martinez fresh off his successful stint in Japan.

    Bullpen-wise, the Padres also signed Robert Suarez and Luis Garcia in free agency. Partially as a result of those deals, their bullpen actually projects to be one of the 10 best in baseball this season.

    And yet, there's been a Mark Melancon-sized hole in San Diego ever since he departed for the Arizona Diamondbacks in December. Pierce Johnson and Emilio Pagan top the list of in-house candidates to fill said hole, but signing a pitcher of Jansen's caliber would spare the Padres from even having to solve that puzzle.

    The catch here is financial. The Padres had to pay the luxury tax in 2021, and they're already looking at a $214.8 million tax payroll in 2022. So, whether they play for Jansen could come down to where the next tax threshold is set.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    As with any free agent, there's a question of why Jansen should leave the familiar behind. Especially so in this case, as he had nothing but good things to say back in October about his time with the Dodgers.

    "I enjoyed this journey," he said. "And I'll always say, whatever happens, I'll always be a Dodger."

    For their part, the Dodgers don't want to lose Jansen. According to David Vassegh of AM570, the team was trying to work out a deal before the lockout but ran out of time.

    There's still room for Jansen in the Dodgers bullpen. While the team did add depth by signing Daniel Hudson, it also lost Corey Knebel to the Philadelphia Phillies, and Joe Kelly, Jimmy Nelson and Jansen are all still free agents.

    But like the Padres, there is a financial question here, as the Dodgers are already slated for a $232.5 million luxury-tax payroll in 2022. There's likewise a question of whether they should be focused on Jansen while they have two massive holes in their rotation where Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw once stood.

2. Boston Red Sox

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    By the end of last season, the Boston Red Sox's bullpen was kind of a mess. 

    After an All-Star first half, Matt Barnes disintegrated and pitched to a 10.24 ERA over his last 14 appearances. That left Garrett Whitlock as pretty much the only reliable high-leverage reliever in Boston's pen, yet even he was stumbling by the end of the regular season and into the postseason.

    Factor in how Adam Ottavino and Hansel Robles are currently free agents, and Boston's bullpen hasn't exactly gotten better since the season ended. That explains why Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom pegged relievers as one of the team's top priorities on the other side of the lockout.

    To this end, Jansen is the best addition the Red Sox can make on the free-agent market. He hypothetically fits well within the team's budget, given that its current payroll is about $45 million shy of its peak.

    The trouble is, spending big bucks in free agency hasn't been Bloom's style since he took control of Boston's front office after 2019. The most he's spent on a single free agent was a two-year deal with Enrique Hernandez for $14 million, which is about half of what he'd have to pay Jansen.

1. Toronto Blue Jays

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    Cole Burston/Getty Images

    Elsewhere in the American League East, a new closer might be the only thing the Toronto Blue Jays need to complete their ascent in 2022.

    As it is, they were good enough to win 91 games in 2021 even without a lockdown bullpen. In spite of an MLB-low 18 blown saves, their pen produced a modest 4.08 ERA and generally struggled with the long ball.

    It was largely thanks to Jordan Romano that Toronto's pen was holding together well by the end of 2021, yet the team still went into the offseason with a need for at least one late-inning reliever. That need is even stronger now that Romano is recovering from surgery on his left knee.

    If Jansen is the guy the Blue Jays want, the money should be there for him. Toronto is about $23 million short of its peak payroll, and even that peak might represent a conservative target for where its payroll could end up on Opening Day.

    As for what's not to like about this fit, well, that's a good question. From all angles, Jansen and the Blue Jays look like the right guy in the right place at the right time.


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.