With Jansen and Co., Dodgers bullpen could be terrific
Former Cleveland closer Perez adds to strong cast of relief veterans
Look out for the Dodgers' bullpen.
Kenley Jansen is healthy and ready to evolve from a swing-and-miss freak show into one of baseball's elite closers. The cast behind him, a work in progress for much of last season, could be as much of a monster as Jansen himself next season.
With Chris Perez agreeing to terms on a contract Monday, the Dodgers have amassed a wealth of experience to shoulder the load. That is, assuming that Don Mattingly and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt can create roles that allow Brian Wilson, Brandon League and Perez to all feel valued.
That could be almost as big a challenge as keeping Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford happy. And if Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley bounce back as quickly as forecast, the bullpen could get even more crowded.
It's fair to say that general manager Ned Colletti isn't taking anything for granted as he takes a strength-in-numbers approach to putting together his 2014 team.
Mattingly had to ride his bullpen mainstays hard last season, leaving little in the tank for Ronald Belisario and Paco Rodriguez at season's end. The guys most impacted were Belisario (77), Rodriguez (76) and Jansen (75), who were among nine National League pitchers to make at least 75 appearances last season.
Belisario has since been non-tendered (he signed with the White Sox) but that loss should be nicely offset by having Wilson and Perez for full seasons, along with the signing of ground-ball machine Jamey Wright and return of lefty J.P. Howell (signed to a two-year, $11.25-million deal after entering free agency). Wright, who has made 60-plus appearances in five of the last six seasons, seems like an afterthought but was an invaluable member of the Rays' bullpen last season.
You'd think the Dodgers don't trust Jansen but that's not what this is about. There were serious concerns about the converted catcher from Curacao at this time a year ago, when he was recovering from surgery to repair an irregular heartbeat, but those vanished when he reported to Spring Training healthy and held up for 81 appearances, including six in the postseason.
"It was a long season but a very good season," Jansen said during the NL Championship Series. "I'm very happy about everything. I love to be on the mound at the end of the game, especially the most important games."
Jansen served notice as an intimidator in 2011, when he struck out 16.1 per nine innings to break Carlos Marmol's big league record. But he was sidelined that season and again in 2012 with a condition causing atrial fibrillation, raising doubts about his long-term value.
Before Jansen underwent surgery in October 2012, Colletti locked up League to a three-year, $22.5 million contract. But it took only until June for Jansen to become Mattingly's guy in the ninth inning.
"I felt really good all season, from Spring Training on," Jansen said. "I knew I had to take it one step at a time and keep making progress but I knew I was going to be OK after the surgery. That was scary but at the same time it was good to know that we had found the problem and finally fixed it."
Jansen was stunningly consistent all season, putting up the kind of secondary numbers that have made the Braves' Craig Kimbrel a bullpen version of Clayton Kershaw. Jansen's ratio of 111 strikeouts to 18 walks was better than Kimbrel, and so was his 0.86 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched).
"I don't think about the numbers," Jansen said. "I just want to get the last out for my team, no matter what."
Wilson and Perez know a lot about that. Wilson has done it in the World Series, closing for the Giants before his Tommy John surgery, and Perez has racked up 123 saves the last four years for Cleveland.
As Wilson was when he signed with the Dodgers during the 2013 season, Perez is looking for a fresh start. He and Wilson have signed one-year deals that they hope will be springboards to long-term deals somewhere after next season. League, who underwent Lasik surgery to improve his eyesight in November, looks to get back on track after his strikeout rate collapsed (8.9 to 4.6) and his WHIP soared (1.134 to 1.546).
Honeycutt's presence should help all three, as it has contributed to Jansen making such a successful transition to pitching after starting his career off behind the plate. Gone are the days when opponents would point to the bullpen as the Achilles' heel of the Dodgers' powerhouse.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.