The Braves didn’t need Kenley Jansen. They got him anyway

Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Kenley Jansen gestures after striking out Colorado Rockies' C.J. Cron to end the baseball game Saturday, July 24, 2021, in Los Angeles. The Dodgers won 1-0. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

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Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Kenley Jansen gestures after striking out Colorado Rockies' C.J. Cron to end the baseball game Saturday, July 24, 2021, in Los Angeles. The Dodgers won 1-0. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Credit: AP

The Braves are paying Kenley Jansen, a 34-year-old reliever, $16 million for one season. Forget John Calipari. Alex Anthopoulos is the new king of one-and-done, having extended such deals to Josh Donaldson, Dallas Keuchel, Cole Hamels, Marcell Ozuna, Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton.

ExploreBraves sign reliever Kenley Jansen

One-year deals for established players are close to painless. The worst that can happen – Hamels working a total of 3 ⅓ innings as a Brave – is that you regret it until November. You don’t regret every day for the next decade. If you’re lucky enough to have a core of gifted youngsters, you build with long-term contracts for them. One-and-dones for the over-30s is how you paper over the cracks.

The Braves will forever believe the loss of Chris Martin to an injury apparently suffered between the bullpen and the mound in Game 1 of the 2019 NLDS cost them a World Series run. Never mind that they also added Shane Greene and Mark Melancon at that year’s trade deadline. Martin was the one they liked best, even if he wasn’t technically a closer. (He was also the guy who yielded the pennant-winning homer to Cody Bellinger in Game 7 of the 2020 NLCS.)

Anthopoulos has since said of Martin’s absence against the Cardinals, “If losing one guy can have that kind of an effect, then you’re not deep enough.” To the 2020 bullpen that already had Melancon and Martin, the Braves added free agent Will Smith. Of the Braves’ 11 victories en route to the 2021 World Series triumph, Smith saved six and was credited with wins in two more. His postseason ERA was 0.00.

And yet: Smith the unscored-on closer wasn’t the pitching MVP of those playoffs. Tyler Matzek pitched in all 11 of their victories, being credited with five holds and three wins.

ExploreReaction to Kenley Jansen signing

Every offseason move the Braves make is viewed through the prism of October. Midseason reinforcements are always nice – last year’s whole new outfield is a historic example – but you can’t be sure in December or March what you’ll need in July. Jansen’s acquisition tells us that the Braves are now in the business of going from strength to strength.

The GM asked Smith, who’s under contract for 2022 with a club option for 2023, how he’d feel about assuming a new role. We’re told that Smith said he’d feel fine. This doesn’t mean he’ll never close here again. Bullpens have a lot of moving parts. Bullpen-building is always a work in progress.

The Dodgers have made the playoffs nine seasons running. Jansen was their closer for even longer than that. It wasn’t until the eighth try that LA prevailed. In Game 7 of the 2020 NLCS against the Braves, he wasn’t summoned to hold a 4-3 lead in the ninth. Nor was he deployed with a 3-1 lead in the closeout Game 6 versus Tampa Bay. Both times, Dave Roberts opted for Julio Urias.

Even excellent relievers have lesser years. Jansen was superb in 2021. It was his best season of the past four. In 2018, he threw fastballs 94.2% of the time. In 2021, 58.1% of his pitches were his cutter. His strikeout-to-walk ratio last season was the lowest of his career. That he has a closer’s temperament doesn’t mean he’ll sulk if the Braves choose to mix-and-match closers. The capacity to mix-and-match is why he’s here.

Yes, the Braves are without Freddie Freeman. But they’ve added Matt Olson, who’s the next best thing. They’ve re-upped Eddie Rosario, who got the winning hit off the only pitch Jansen threw in Game 2 of the 2021 NLCS. They’ve signed Collin McHugh, who fits the profile of a reliever who can serve as an opener. FanGraphs projects them to win 92 games, second most in the National League – behind the Dodgers, as per usual – and third most in MLB.

The lockout’s end has seen Anthopoulos in Hercules-unchained mode. Even with the face of the franchise now employed by a different franchise, the Braves don’t look any worse than they did 10 days ago. Viewed from a certain angle – the depth and versatility angle – they might appear a tad better.

The Braves didn’t necessarily need Jansen, but they landed him anyway. Lest we forget, they signed Kirby Yates in November. He’s coming off Tommy John surgery; he had 41 saves for San Diego in 2019. Here again is the Bobby Cox quote: “Anytime you think you have enough pitching, you’d better go get some more.”

The Braves don’t appear to be luxuriating in having won a World Series. They’re behaving like an organization determined to win it all again. They’re trying to get better every single day, which is how this is supposed to work.