We’ve arrived at the point of the baseball life cycle where Father Time hangs up his Cubs jersey and ponders which jersey he’ll wear next year. A clown car full of free agents is about to hit the open market and already all 30 front offices are drawing up plans about which ones they’ll sign. This year’s free-agent class is woefully lacking in talent and in depth. There are a select few elite players who are sure to attract all sorts of attention, there are a handful of mid-level talents, and there are huge swaths of roster filler. Slim pickings will be had this winter.
However, for teams seeking a new closer, there are three men who present incredibly attractive options. Kenley Jansen, Mark Melancon, and recently crowned World Series champion Aroldis Chapman will be free to sign with any team they please, and Jansen and Chapman will almost certainly destroy any preconceived notions of what typical pay for an elite relief pitcher looks like.
It’s pretty safe to say that every team with intentions of anything resembling contention will be looking to add to their bullpen. These three are just about as good as it gets. Which closer is the absolute best commodity, though? Each has their attractive points and each has their warts.
The first immediately apparent point is that Melancon isn’t quite the force of nature that Jansen and Chapman can be. Melancon hasn’t posted a FIP higher than 2.82 since 2012, and ranks fourth in WAR among all relievers since the start of the 2013 season with 7.9. The first two spots by that measure are held by Chapman and Jansen, though — at 9.7 and 9.4, respectively. Melancon has been consistently good. Chapman and Jansen have been consistently dominant.
However, because Melancon is merely pretty good and not great, he will cost far less than the other two. He also won’t be tied to draft-pick compensation because he was traded at midseason, and therefore isn’t eligible to receive a qualifying offer. He’s 31 years old, not far removed from his peak, but it’s hard to see Melancon getting a contract longer than four years. He’s a strong option for a team operating on a budget or looking to allocate resources elsewhere. Teams like the Rangers, Tigers, Diamondbacks and Giants could fit into that mold.
As for Chapman, he represents a more complicated question. There’s no denying his dominance when he’s on. Hundred mile-per-hour fastballs don’t exactly grow on trees, and they’re often not paired with effective sliders. Chapman has been a special pitcher. Based on his past performance and relative youth — he’s still just 28 years old — he could command a five-year deal.
His actions off the field complicate that logic, however. It remains to be seen just how much his suspension for domestic violence will scare teams away. Odds are it won’t be that much. A team traded for him for pennies on the dollar because of his impending suspension, but then another traded much more for him at midseason to win the World Series. His suspension, regardless of the implications, likely won’t deter teams from investing in the velocity he possesses or the strikeout rates to which it leads. He is the very definition of elite.
The only matter that may give teams pause is how he will fare once that velocity starts to fade. Chapman isn’t exactly a control artist, getting by instead through sheer overwhelming force. He should be fine for the first two or three years of his contract. The fourth and potential fifth year could be interesting. Therefore, Chapman may make more sense for a team trying to win now and not a moment later. These teams are the Dodgers, Nationals, Rangers, Giants, Indians, Blue Jays and Cubs. They all want to win now, and they either don’t have established closers, or are willing to get creative with relief pitcher usage. The unseating of Roberto Osuna in Toronto could be a sticky affair — as might the addition of another elite reliever to a Cleveland bullpen that already includes Cody Allen and Andrew Miller. In either case, it would be well worth it for a team looking for another lockdown inning.
Jansen, however, is clearly the best option. Though he’ll almost certainly cost his new team a draft pick, he’s as good as it gets. He has mastered the cutter like no one has since Mariano Rivera, and he uses it to devastating effect. Jansen is strong and durable and reliable. He contributed a whopping 3.2 WAR to the Dodgers this year, and is more than capable of repeating that level of value. Just 29 years old, Jansen will likely command the largest contract of any reliever this winter, and may very well set a new record. He will be good next year, he will be good the year after, and for years to come, barring an injury. He relies on movement and not velocity to do his job. More than 90% of the pitches he threw in 2016 were cutters. The man has a system, and it works for him. Jansen represents a better option than Chapman even without considering the off-field issues. He should age better than the left-hander, and is more willing to work multiple innings in the regular season.
Any one of the three pitchers will make a team much better. But Kenley Jansen is far and away the best reliever on the market this offseason, and he will be paid quite handsomely for his services.