Although the Cubs have had significant success signing and developing lesser-known relief pitchers over the last few years, it’s not like they’ve avoided big-name arms altogether. I think we lose sight of that given how well they’ve built bullpens from scratch year after year.
For example, since 2019, the Cubs have leaned on guys they’ve signed (or re-signed) like Pedro Strop, Andrew Chafin, Craig Kimbrel, Mychal Givens, Chris Martin, and David Robertson, all of whom were somewhat “known quantities” in one way or another. Just because they’re also good at shopping in the bargain bin (and have a lot of intriguing pitchers percolating up through the system) doesn’t mean that’s the only way they like to build a bullpen.
So while I was mildly “surprised” to see Jon Heyman connect the Cubs to free agent reliever Kenley Jansen in his latest 2023 free agent rankings, I wasn’t caught entirely off guard.
(Broader discussion of that (and another) set of free agent predictions right here.)
Jansen, specifically, checks in as the 18th best free agent available this offseason according to Heyman, with an expected price tag of one-year/$14M. Heyman lists the Braves, Cardinals, Giants, and Cubs as potential suitors (not a bad group with which to be associated). For what it’s worth, Jim Bowden had Jansen in a similar range (No. 22 overall), albeit with a more significant contract in both years (2) and AAV ($17M). He also did not include the Cubs in his list of potential suitors, but it’s probably too early for that part, anyway.
The reason I bring this all up today is to ask the question: In isolation, should the Cubs actually be interested in signing Kenley Jansen this offseason? Let’s discuss.
Jansen’s 2022 Production
In 2022, Jansen, 35, was not the dominant pitcher he was from 2010 to 2018. In those seasons:
- Innings: 548.2 (7th)
- Saves: 268 (2nd)
- K-Rate: 38.5% (6th)
- AVG: .174 (9th)
- ERA: 2.20 (7th)
… but he was still pretty darn good in 2022 (his first non-Dodgers season, by the way): 64.0 IP, 3.38 ERA, 32.6% strikeout rate, 8.5 BB%, .191 AVG, with just a 32.5% hard-hit rate and an average exit velocity of 87.1 MPH.
And take a look at his production illustrated via Statcast, note his particular strengths in fastball spin rate, expected batting average, extension, and expected ERA.
Look, xERA is an imperfect stat. Or rather, it’s always gotta be just one small part of a broader analysis. But when Statcast has your xBA (.169), xwOBA (.239), xwOBACON (.311), and xERA (2.34) in the top 3% of the league, I think it’s fair to take notice.
Jansen’s Career Production
Here’s a look at his numbers throughout his career:
So in terms of results and high-level peripherals … honestly, yeah, that all looks pretty good. That’s a normal progression from dominant-in-his-prime to really-good later in life. And if you expected the same results in 2023 (which, we’ll get there), then you’d be happy to meet the prices generally outlined by the two writers above.
What About Velocity and Pitch Mix?
Taking a step further into the analysis, I’ll point out that in 2022 the velocity of Jansen’s cutter (92.2 MPH) is a good bit lower than it was for his career (93.1 MPH), but not egregiously so. And it’s basically where it’s been since 2017. He throws the cutter most of the time, so that was important to check, but no real concerns there. He did start to throw the sinker more often starting in 2020, but in 2022, that velocity (93.6 MPH) was right in line with his career mark (93.8 MPH), as well.
None of this is to say that age won’t be an issue for Jansen (eventually, it’ll all end), but I do think the big drop-off and attendant adjustment might’ve happened a few years ago, so that should give you some confidence that he can do THIS a little while longer.
Jansen spent a couple weeks on the IL this year (irregular heartbeat), but had no trips in 2020 or 2021. You can read more about his heart issue here at MLB.com, but in short, he’s dealt with it throughout his career, he’s had it addressed medically/surgically in 2012 and 2018. And any time he’s missed time with it (just twice), they’ve been fairly short stints. Ultimately, injuries don’t seem to be much of an issue.
Fit with the Cubs
Theoretically, the Cubs have a LOT of intriguing bullpen options already in-house heading into next season, including guys who pitched for the Cubs last season, starting and relief prospects in the upper-minors, and guys that were injured this year, but could probably contribute meaningfully next season. There’s depth, upside, control, youth, multi-inning guys, power, lefties, you name it.
But you know what they don’t have? An anchor. And they’re going to get one. They always do.
And the beautiful thing about high-quality, known-quantity relievers is that it doesn’t even matter if your team is contending or not. If you’re good, you ride him into the postseason. If you’re not, you trade him at the deadline to restock. Easy-peasy. Kenley Jansen absolutely fits the mold of veteran, anchor reliever for the back of the Cubs bullpen.
The only way it doesn’t work out is if he’s horrible and/or hurt, but that’s a risk with any signing (he’d just be a more expensive risk, albeit on a one or two-year contract, which … no big deal).
So after checking in on his production last season, his overall health, his velocity and pitch, and even his expected price tag, I think, yes, Kenley Jansen does make a ton of sense as a Cubs target this winter. In fact, I think I just really fell in love with this idea. I hope they can get it done.