As we sit here in the second week of January, in a Red Sox offseason that most of us had high hopes for but which, so far, has merely featured the re-arrangement of a whole bunch of deck chairs, let’s try to put a few things aside for a moment to discuss the rumors of a Kenley Jansen trade.
Let’s put aside the fact that the Red Sox are valued at $4.5B, just a smidge below the Dodgers at $4.8B (and yes, $300 million is a smidge for MLB team valuations). Let’s ignore the fact that the ticket cost at Fenway for a family of four will be tops in MLB this upcoming season by $17 on average, and that the full experience of taking this family of four to Fenway is just a smidge behind the Dodgers in all of baseball (in this case a smidge = $4)
Let’s ignore that the owners scraped the town hall meeting at this year’s Winter Weekend because people booed too much a year ago. And, most importantly for this piece, let’s ignore the idea that a team that is $36 million shy of the first tier of Competitive Balance Tax — in a season in which we all assumed the team would surpass the CBT — apparently needs to send money out in order to sign a third-tier free agent. Please, humor me and set aside all of this insanity.
Let’s ignore all that and keep things simple. From a 2024 roster-building standpoint, if you are trying to win: don’t trade Kenley Jansen.
Think back to recent history in 2022, when we watched a revolving door of Matt Barnes, Hansel Robles, Garrett Whitlock, Tanner Houck, John Schreiber, and Matt Strahm attempt to close ballgames, as a helpless Alex Cora pointed to the next guy in the bullpen night after night while the team blew 28 saves, the seventh most in baseball.
Think back to ancient history in 2003, when the term “closer by committee” gave you the shakes as much as the words “bridge year” and “full throttle” have since. The team had a committee of closers, which promptly blew a 3-run lead on opening day, and by early May we saw Red Sox Notebooks titled “Closer by committee is no more.” The illustrious combination of Chad Fox, Mike Timlin, Brandon Lyon, Alan Embree, Ramiro Mendoza did not get it done, to say the least. The Red Sox were forced to trade for Byung-Hyun Kim, infamous for blowing saves on consecutive nights for the Diamondbacks in the 2000 World Series against the Yankees, who tallied 16 saves for Boston after the deadline. The excitement was short-lived, as Kim blew a save in the first game of the playoffs (who could’ve seen that coming?), and then chose to give the Fenway crowd the middle finger when he was introduced in the first home playoff game. Kim, shockingly, didn’t pitch again in those playoffs and was left off the ALCS roster.
Kenley Jansen is not a perfect closer. There will be a couple of stretches throughout the season where you’re pulling your hair out, such as when he gave up six runs in a 24-hour span against the Cardinals a year ago, when he couldn’t throw a strike and was fooled by batters playing games with the pitch clock. He ended the season in a shaky manner as well, giving up runs in three of his final four outings before getting Covid and being shut down for the season upon return. But otherwise, Jansen was very reliable, going 29-for-33 in save opportunities with an average velocity of 94.3 mph on the cutter (highest since 2014), a pitch he threw 79% of the time. He provided stability and allowed for a clear delineation of roles in the bullpen. It allowed Chris Martin to be Chris Martin, an elite setup man who has the best ERA in baseball for all relievers since August of 2022. Pair that with John Schreiber, Josh Winckowski, and a combination of whichever long men don’t make the rotation (Houck, Whitlock, Pivetta, Crawford, etc.) and that is one of the few positions of strength that you have on this team.
Jansen’s career mark of 420 saves speaks for itself at a position where “having done it before” matters more than anything. If you trade Jansen before the season, what is the plan? You could hand the job over to Martin, who will be 38 years old in June and has 12 career saves. Or Tanner Houck, who has had command issues throughout his career. Or John Schreiber, who missed over two months with a shoulder injury a year ago and had a 4.85 ERA and 1.48 WHIP after returning. Or Garrett Whitlock, who has had hip surgery and elbow neuritis in the past 18 months. Or sign Robert Stephenson (which is a great idea, by the way), who has three career saves. Or sign Jordan Hicks. Additionally, If you hold on to Jansen and Martin, you have two potentially desirable trade chips at the trade deadline if things, once again, don’t line up in 2024.
I’ll take the bird in the hand. Otherwise, we could see the Red Sox returning from the opening West Coast road trip at 3-7 after numerous 1 AM bullpen meltdowns with Garrett Whitlock flipping the bird to the crowd on Home Opening Day, and no one wants to see that.