The MLB offseason is an exciting time of speculation and uncertainty. As many teams look to gear up for the next season, some clubs have a more distant plan in mind. While he might not have come out and said it, Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila seems to be heading toward the second camp. The Tigers’ roster is aging and expensive, and they might be better off being sellers instead of buyers this winter.
But just because someone says something, it does not make it true. Plenty of times the Tigers have made shocking acquisitions, and owner Mike Ilitch is not afraid to throw some cash around. Remember Justin Upton last year? While not many analysts and media outlets are connecting the Tigers to any of this winter’s big-name free agents, would it really be a surprise to see them swoop in out of nowhere?
Enter Kenley Jansen.
Who is he?
Jansen is a first-time free agent this offseason after spending seven years with the Los Angeles Dodgers. A right-hander from Curaçao, Jansen turned 29 at the end of the season. He has spent all of his time in the majors coming out of the bullpen, and has been the closer for most of the last five seasons. He made some big-time appearances in the playoffs this year, pitching 11 2⁄3 innings over seven games with a 2.66 ERA and 35 strikeouts.
Few relievers were better than Jansen in 2016. He ranked seventh with a 1.83 ERA, second with a 1.42 FIP, eighth with 13.63 strikeouts per nine innings, ninth with 1.44 walks per nine, and first with 3.2 fWAR. This success was no fluke. Since 2012, Jansen ranks in the top 10 in ERA, FIP, strikeout rate, and fWAR among 256 qualified relievers. He is one of the best in the game and has been so for five consecutive seasons. By rejecting the Dodgers’ qualifying offer, he made the wise choice to bet on himself in free agency.
Why should we care?
If the Tigers decide that they seriously want to contend in 2017, there are only a few areas that can be easily upgraded without displacing some ingrained starters. One of those areas — as always — is the bullpen. Tigers’ relievers ranked 28th last season in ERA, 24th in FIP, 27th in K-BB%, 14th in WPA, and 26th in RE24. While not every reliever was awful, the group as a whole could use some additional help.
Perhaps a larger use of Bruce Rondon or the introduction of Joe Jimenez might be enough, but adding Jansen would be significant on a couple of levels. Any time a team can add one of the game’s top relief aces is a win, but picking up Jansen would also afford for some extra creativity. Players like Rondon and Francisco Rodriguez could be used in different spots depending on the current situation, and manager Brad Ausmus would be able to lean less heavily on his best arms.
Why should we stay away?
If the Tigers decide to not compete, throw this whole article away. The investment should solely be in the future at that point, and who needs a bullpen if there is never a lead to protect? But even if the front office in Detroit does want to go for it, Jansen might simply be out of their price range. An elite reliever is going to command at least four years and an average annual value over $15 million, which is a hefty commitment for a team with many outstanding financial obligations.
Hopefully the concept of the closer is changing, but regardless, the Tigers already have a few players capable of pitching in key situations. Their money would be much better off spent on smaller deals and trying to find value additions. Few relievers are as reliable and dominant as Jansen, but the impact he makes on the field would have to be truly amazing to offset the impact he makes on the checkbook.
Will he end up in Detroit?
It can be fun to dream, but the answer is no. Jansen’s playoff performance only added to his already-decorated résumé, making him a hot target for a lot of teams. Certainly some club who is closer to contention than the Tigers will decide that he is worth the cost and will lock him up for a good chunk of years. It would be unwise for Detroit to enter into a bidding war and wind up overpaying.
The bullpen was rough last season, but there is hope for the future. A smaller addition or two could go a long way to helping it along, and while a pitcher like Jansen would be big boost, all is not lost if the Tigers miss out on all of the top-self options. Stranger things have happened during the offseason, but hold off on buying a Jansen jersey with the Olde English D.