The best reliever in baseball, by 2016 fWAR at least, is set to become a free agent this offseason. This post’s title makes who I am referring to quite obvious, but just to hammer the point home, Kenley Jansen put up a higher fWAR (3.2) in 2016 than even Andrew Miller (2.9), the well-deserving MVP of the American League Championship Series. In fact, Jansen’s 3.2 fWAR would have been tied (with Matt Carpenter) for second highest on the 2016 Cardinals (just behind the Carlos Martinez’s 3.3). If you include Jansen among league-wide position players, his name would appear on the second page of the FanGraphs’ leaderboard.
I included Jansen’s statistics since 2011 — the year he became a full-time bullpen member — to prove that his performance in 2016 was no fluke. Obviously, the fact that Jansen eclipsed 3 full wins above replacement as a reliever is an achievement that likely won’t be repeated, but being 1.5 fWAR or higher for six straight seasons is unequivocally impressive, especially considering the “relievers are inherently volatile” theory. Bottom line, since 2011, Jansen has been the third most valuable reliever (12.9 fWAR) in all of baseball behind Aroldis Chapman (13.5) and Craig Kimbrel (13.8).
When one of the best players at a given position is available, a wise approach is to consider the pros and cons of said player becoming a part of your team. Well, in two paragraphs and one table, I have proven that Jansen is one of the best players at his position. What makes the possibility of his addition even sweeter is the fact that he just turned 29 less than a month ago and will be less than thirty for virtually every regular season game in 2017. This means that he has not yet entered the “decline” stage.
Remember all those PitchF/x-based articles I have written over the last three years I have been here at Viva El Birdos? Particularly the ones in which I brought up the velocity decline of individual Cardinals pitchers or possible trade targets? Fortunately, this has not yet been a problem for the 29-year-old Jansen, a pitcher who relies heavily on his high-velocity cutter (88.56%). In fact, his cutter saw roughly a full MPH increase in 2016 (94.14) from where it was in 2015 (93.17).
For those worrying about how Jansen’s repertoire will age, I completely understand where you are coming from, especially when I am asking you to consider the thought of your favorite team “breaking the bank” for him. That being said, I am here to advise you to fear not because while Jansen does indeed deploy one of the league’s fastest cutters, its velocity is secondary to its deceptively late movement and pinpoint location. Now, if the slightest level of worry remains, I will add that I do not expect there to be a noticeable decline in cutter velocity over at least the next two to three seasons.
So, why spend a large chunk of money on the bullpen, you ask? The team needs to upgrade center field. That’s obvious. Even with Lance Lynn returning and the emergence of Alex Reyes, the team would absolutely benefit from the addition of a top-flight starting pitcher. The long-term solution at first base, while possibly somewhere within the organization, is not currently close to the big leagues. For a team staffed with ground ball starting pitchers, it could probably use a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop as well. Unfortunately, the free agent market possesses very little of the options I just listed. Plus, with so few options being available, those that are will likely require a huge, borderline unreasonable amount of money (demand, meet supply). Pump the brakes, it’s not 2018 yet.
Thus, I am choosing the bullpen as an offseason starting point because there is a tangible option available in the soon-to-be-free-agent Jansen. After reportedly vowing to decline Matt Holliday’s $17 million option, the Cardinals, who are just one season away from the beginning of their lucrative TV deal with Fox Sports Midwest, have ample money to spend.
And while attendance remained near the very top of baseball in 2016, it cannot be denied that Busch Stadium, at times, felt empty (relatively speaking, of course) toward the end of last season. I wouldn’t say fans were “fed up” with the way the Cardinals were playing (they were only a game away from the chance at the Wild Card game), but frustration absolutely resonated throughout the stadium, as the around-the-league scoreboard showed the rival Cubs racking up 103 regular-season wins.
Spending money on a top-flight reliever like Jansen (to help out Seung Hwan Oh and a hopefully revitalized Trevor Rosenthal) would signify that team ownership is fully aware that significant strides need to be taken in order to become competitive with the Cubs again. It would not only “signify” a stride being taken, but represent an actual stride toward improvement, wholly different from the Mike Leake signing last offseason.
Of course, the “super bullpen” approach (Chapman, Dellin Betances, and Miller) did not exactly work for the 2016 Yankees, but the bullpen can only do so much when essentially three pitchers make up a five-man starting rotation. Carlos Martinez, Lynn, Adam Wainwright, Leake, and Reyes round out the projected rotation for the 2017 Cardinals, with Michael Wacha, Luke Weaver, Tim Cooney, and Marco Gonzales all expected to make a visit to the starting rotation at some point during the 162-game season. The 2016 Yankees did not enjoy this luxury.
While games may routinely end with Jansen, his signing will be only the beginning for the Cardinals’ offseason plans. Here’s to hoping they acquire a center fielder, among other additions (and subsequent, subtractions) as well. Given the post’s title, I feel obligated to provide numbers behind a possible Jansen contract. I’d personally lean toward a league-leading AAV (average annual value) over a shorter duration.
According to Spotrac, Chapman took home the highest 2016 salary among full-time relievers at $11.325 million. With this in mind, I wouldn’t shy away from offering Jansen something similar to a two-year, $28-30 million deal. I understand that this is a huge yearly sum to designate to one relief pitcher, but Andrew Miller bargains no longer exist and at a duration of two years, the long-term damage of potential performance decline is limited. Plus, should Jansen remain as one of the top relievers in baseball, he will re-enter free agency prior to his age-31 season and once again be able to command a hefty contract.