The Chicago Cubs might not the most aggressive shoppers in the free agent market this offseason, given their young core of position players and few exiting free agents, but it’s worth taking a look at some of the players who could be of potential interest to the team.
These players present possible fits for the Cubs, at a range of potential costs and talent levels.
Potential Target: Kenley Jansen
Performance in 2016
Thanks to the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, fans of the Cubs are quite familiar with reliever Kenley Jansen. In his three appearances against Chicago, Jansen allowed no earned runs on just one hit and no walks against 10 strikeouts in 6.1 innings pitched. If you’ve forgotten what that dominance looked like, watch this:
In 2016, Jansen was in the conversation for the most dominant reliever in all of baseball – and that is saying a lot, considering 2016 featured ridiculous performances from guys like Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, Aroldis Chapman, and Zach Britton (to name a few).
He led the league in fWAR (3.2), posting the type of WAR value you hope to get out of a starting pitcher. He finished seventh in ERA, second in FIP, third in strikeout rate, thirteenth in walk rate, first in average against, first in WHIP, and second in saves. In short, he could not have had a better season.
And it’s not like he came out of no where.
Performance Before 2016
Jansen has, since his first full professional season in 2011, been one of the game’s very best relievers. In fact, I would go so far as to say, he’s one of those rare relievers that exists not only in the most elite tier for a season or two, but who has also been able to repeat his success year after year (six full seasons) – relievers often have the highest variance in production of any position on the field.
To really drive this home: he’s been worth the third most fWAR (12.9) among qualified relievers since 2011. There are not many better pitchers than Kenley Jansen. And at just 29 years old, without any indication that he’s losing velocity on that killer cutter of his, he won’t necessarily slow down any time soon.
Projection for 2017 and Beyond
There haven’t been a ton of updated 2017 projections in which we can place our confidence, but FanGraphs’ Depth Charts envisions yet another dominant season:
2017: 65.0 innings, 2.68 ERA (2.54 FIP), 2.3 fWAR
Given how consistent he’s been, there’s not much reason for concern. He did pitch 68.2 innings during the 2016 regular season (second most of his career) plus another 11.2 innings in the postseason, but even that comes up just shy (0.2 IP) of his previous season high (including the postseason) set in 2013. If you’re stretching for a concern, his age and overall inning total might be the thing, but it was not something he hasn’t done before.
Which is why he’ll be a highly sought after free agent.
Possible Contract/Existing Rumors
In fact, depending on your preferences, Jansen might be the single most enticing relief option on the market, in a year that also features Aroldis Chapman (arguably the only guy who’s been better over the past five years) and Mark Melancon (who has collected a 1.80 ERA and 2.25 FIP in the four seasons from 2013-2016). Of course, all of this goes double, considering the changing landscape and perceived important of reliever usage in the postseason, and Jansen’s ability to throw multiple innings at a time (when necessary). The only thing that might change your calculus a bit is the draft pick it would cost to sign Jansen (Chapman and Melancon were traded midseason, and thus could not be made qualifying offers), but the Cubs will be picking at the end of the first round, reducing the value of the pick they’d have to give up. They also might recoup a compensatory pick if and when Dexter Fowler signs elsewhere.
We took a look at some of the free agent rankings and predictions over the weekend, and most publications seem to agree about Jansen’s relative standing.
MLB Trade rumors is predicting a 5-year/$85 million deal, FanGraphs echoes that prediction exactly, and ESPN Insider is calling Jansen a lock for the biggest free agent reliever contract in history. If you’d like the Cubs to get Jansen, it is going to cost an arm and a leg, and then another two arms.
With that said, many have already suggested that the Cubs might be the most likely landing spot. And, while I won’t pretend to know where Jansen might end up, the Cubs could make as much sense as anyone (but we’ll get to that in a minute).
Aside from being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat in 2011 – a health issue that forced him to miss some time in 2011 and 2012, but has since been medically addressed – Jansen is about as healthy as they come. Check out his inning totals from the past six seasons in L.A.:
2011: 53.2 IP
2012: 65.0 IP
2013: 76.2 IP
2014: 65.1 IP
2015: 52.1 IP
2016: 68.2 IP
Not once, from 2011 to 2016, has Jansen thrown fewer than 50.0 innings as a reliever, and he’s even thrown in every postseason from 2013-2016, as well. Injuries can strike at anytime, especially for pitchers, but the biggest indicator for future injury risk is past injuries. In that respect, Jansen is as safe a bet as they come.
So … should we buy him a plane ticket to Chicago?
Fit For Cubs
There’s a reason Jansen is leading off the 2017 version of this series, and that’s because 1) I think he is an extremely attractive target for the Chicago Cubs, and 2) I think the Cubs are at least as likely a landing spot as anywhere.
Consider that although the Cubs don’t have a large number of exiting free agents, they may be losing up to four members of the 2016 bullpen. Aroldis Chapman, Travis Wood, and Trevor Cahill are free agents, each of whom is most likely to wind up elsewhere, while Mike Montgomery already has his foot in the door for a spot at the back of the Cubs 2017 rotation.
All together, the Cubs received 191.2 innings pitched from those four relievers alone, so there are certainly some innings to go around. Taking it a step further, when you consider that each of Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop (the Cubs’ most frequent last two stops in the bullpen) were injured late in the season and never fully reestablished themselves, you’ll find that there’s not only a need for arms, but for high impact arms at that.
Further, as we just saw in this postseason, the impact of an elite reliever who can go multiple innings is outsized in the playoffs. If the Cubs are a good bet to hit the postseason again in 2017, then having an elite back-end reliever in place could be more important to them than to most teams.
And finally, the Chicago Cubs may be fresh off a World Series win, but their prime window of competitiveness is not over. In fact, given the possible impending exits of guys like Jake Arrieta and John Lackey after 2017, and the continued aging of Jon Lester, I’d argue that 2017 is another full-throttle go-for-it type of season. Usually, it’s precisely those types of seasons where expensive, back-of-the-bullpen type additions are most justified.
The front office has hinted that they will not play in the deep end of the free agent reliever pool this offseason, but, given the need and the fit, we’ll see if that’s actually how things play out.
So, in short, the Cubs 1) have a need in the bullpen, particularly at the back end, 2) have the funds available to make such a commitment, and 3) are entering the final year for several of the key members of their starting rotation. If ever there was a time to invest in a guy like Jansen, 2017 seems to be it.
Jansen will be highly sought-after by many teams, and you can’t predict at this stage just where he’ll end up, but the Cubs should be in the conversation.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post. Like what you see? Make sure you like BN on Facebook to stay up to date: