Saturday, November 25, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Dodgers, Cubs closers have been money, going to cash in

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LOS ANGELES — This is how the ninth inning of the second game of the National League Championship Series finished up: lefty Aroldis Chapman, on for the Chicago Cubs despite the fact they trailed by a run, fired a 101-mph fastball to Yasiel Puig, a heater that overwhelmed the rightfielder of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Puig inexplicably tried to bunt it, and instead popped it up, ending the top of the frame.

So out came Kenley Jansen. In another life, maybe he could have spent Sunday playing left tackle for the Los Angeles Rams. Here, though, he was on for his second inning of work as the Dodgers closer. That work: a 95 mph cutter to strike out Dexter Fowler; three straight cutters to baffle Kris Bryant, another strikeout; and one final 95 mph cutter to get Anthony Rizzo to line out softly.

It is clear, as this series moves to Dodger Stadium tied before tonight's Game 3, that these two closers will have an extraordinary impact on the final two or three innings of each game. But beyond that, something else: In a free agent class in which there is no starting pitcher worth nine figures, and perhaps no position players who will land that much, the closers will have an unusually significant impact on the offseason.

And even as they pitch to reach — and potentially win — a World Series, they know it.

"Listen, at the end of the day, you can (make) money in the game," Jansen said late Sunday night in Chicago, cramming his 6-foot-5, 270-pound frame into the corner of a hallway outside the visitors' clubhouse at Wrigley Field. "But you want to get a ring. Here we are, we have an opportunity right now to win a ring. That's all I'm thinking about, to win a World Series. That's all I care about. I don't care about the future. I just care about winning a World Series ring."

The future, though, will arrive, and it has never looked like this for the game's top relievers.

Free agency comes for both Chapman and Jansen at an incredibly fortunate time. Both will be 29 at the start of next season. Each is coming off a season in which his ERA was microscopic (Jansen at 1.44, Chapman at 1.55), in which he allowed less than a walk and hit per inning pitched (Jansen at 0.670, Chapman at 0.862); in which they were two of the three hardest relievers to hit (Jansen with an opponents' batting average of .147, Chapman of .157). Chapman has his 100 mph-plus heat, plus a slider, and his stuff doesn't appear to be diminishing. Jansen has that wipeout cutter that might not be in the Mariano Rivera range yet, but given time, who knows?

Beyond their stats and their skills, Jansen and Chapman have timing. Last year, the free agent market was front-loaded with starting pitchers. Before the winter meetings even began, David Price got seven years and $217 million from the Red Sox, and Zack Greinke got six years and $206.5 million from the Diamondbacks. Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann received $132 million over six years and $110 million over five, respectively. Throw in outfielders Jason Heyward (eight years, $184 million) and first baseman Chris Davis (seven years, $161 million), and front offices had plenty of places to put their funds.

This year? We can offer you Yoenis Cespedes, who will almost certainly opt out of his contract with the New York Mets to re-enter free agency. Toronto slugger Edwin Encarnacion, soon to be 34, warrants attention after driving in more runs than anyone in the American League. A year after he couldn't so much as draw a single multi-year offer, former Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond might be the third-best position player on the market following his all-star year as Texas's center fielder.

The best starting pitcher available is … Andrew Cashner? Jeremy Hellickson? Ivan Nova?

The point: It's a good time to be a free agent closer. That group includes Mark Melancon, who finished the season with the Nationals, though he's not as young (32 in March) nor as dominant as Jansen or Chapman.

"Starting pitching has never been more expensive and never been a less-efficient market," said one executive this week. The fallout, that executive believes, could be more value placed on relievers — regardless of how they're used.

No relief pitcher has been paid more in a single season than the $15 million Rivera earned under two different contracts with the Yankees, spanning from 2008-12. The largest total sum ever granted a reliever went to Jonathan Papelbon, who signed a four-year, $50 million deal with Philadelphia prior to the 2012 season.

Chapman and Jansen will blow away both of those numbers, several executives believe. Consider that two years ago, the Yankees gave lefty Andrew Miller a four-year, $36 million deal even though he had never closed. Even when they dismantled their veteran core with a series of trades this summer, dealing Miller to Cleveland for prospects, that contract seemed reasonable. Now, as Miller has developed into perhaps the ultimate postseason weapon for the Indians — who owe him $18 million total for 2017-18 — it could seem like a steal.

Jansen, in particular, could be building similar value. He entered the fifth game of the Dodgers' division series against Washington in the seventh inning and then recorded the last six outs against the Cubs Sunday night. He has now pitched more postseason innings than Dodgers starters Kenta Maeda and Rich Hill, who will start in Game 3. Markets shouldn't move solely on the basis of October performance, but postseason flexibility and durability are two traits Jansen can now boast.

"It's one thing to have dominant stuff, which he does," Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw said Sunday night. "But the willingness and the want-to that he has, the competiveness that you're seeing right now that I've really seen throughout — he really wants the ball. A lot of people say that, but to actually go out there and do it night-in, night-out, two-inning saves and coming in in the seventh in Game 5, just all that stuff is what makes him special."

Those things, for sure. But also his position in the marketplace. This postseason, it's good to be a reliever, both for the heroics available during these games, and the dollars available when they're over.

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