As the Dodgers head into the stretch run, 3.5 games back of the Giants, they’re a team with their fair share of problems, even after the shocking month of acquisitions that netted them Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino, Nick Punto, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, Joe Blanton, Brandon League, & Randy Choate. In the rotation, Chad Billingsley & Ted Lilly have each been battling arm injuries which may put them out for the season. In the outfield, team MVP Matt Kemp banged up his knee and jaw running into the wall in Colorado, and even if he returns in the next few days, it’s not likely to be at full strength. And perhaps scariest of all, the status of fireballing closer Kenley Jansen is uncertain thanks to another recurrence of the irregular heartbeat that has already sidelined him twice over the last calendar year.
Baseball aside, any sort of heart condition is terrifying, especially for a young man who doesn’t even turn 25 for another month. Fortunately, if Jansen’s latest worry is similar to what put him out for a month last year and for a few days this spring – and we don’t yet know with absolute certainty that it is, though it sounds that way – it’s not viewed as a life-threatening condition. A lifetime of health is the priority for Jansen, of course, but it poses a huge problem for the Dodgers. The remedy for Jansen’s condition includes a regimen of blood thinners, which prevents him from being in a situation where physical contact is possible – say, for example, a major league baseball game.
If Jansen is lost for another full month, as he was last summer, the Dodgers would be losing one of the best young closers in baseball. His 13.66 K/9, while down somewhat from last year’s historic 16.10 mark, is still good for fifth among relievers in all of baseball, and “not striking out as many guys as Craig Kimbrel & Aroldis Chapman” is hardly something to be ashamed of. (Okay, Ernesto Frieri & Jason Grilli are up there too, but I can’t explain that.) Jansen has improved his effectiveness by continuing to limit the free passes which had previously been his main concern, down from 5.00/9 in 2010 to 4.36 last year and just 3.02 this year, though an increased home run rate has pushed his FIP to a career-high 2.61. Still, despite not inheriting the closer’s job from Javy Guerra until six weeks into the season, Jansen had collected 25 saves and grown into one of the more steady stoppers in the league.
Let’s assume for the moment that Jansen would indeed be out for the remainder of the season. Who, then, would the Dodgers turn to? Last season’s surprise closer, Guerra, has had an up-and-down season that included taking a Brian McCann liner off his face, losing his job, having knee surgery, and getting optioned to Triple-A, where he’ll stay until rosters expand in September. It was Ronald Belisario who picked up the save on Wednesday by getting the final five outs in Colorado, but moving him out of his usual eighth-inning role would shuffle the entire bullpen; based on comments made by manager Don Mattingly after the game, it sounded like he was leaning towards newcomer Brandon League, based on his closing experience in Seattle.
League was acquired at the deadline for minor leaguers Leon Landry & Logan Bawcom, mostly to fill the void that was created when Josh Lindblom was traded to Philadelphia in the Victorino deal. League had 37 saves for the Mariners in 2011, but lost his job this year to Tom Wilhelmsen after a string of bad outings, many related to his control struggles which sent his BB/9 from 1.47 last year to 3.83 this year. League’s first days as a Dodger were tough, as he allowed a run in his first game and in four of his first seven, including letting 12 batters reach in just five innings. After going with the ever-popular “working on my mechanics” excuse, League has indeed been better lately, striking out six over his last four scoreless, hitless innings.
He’s still just Brandon League, of course, and he’s still giving up a career-high line drive rate of 26.9%, so it’s certainly open for debate about whether he is really the best option to replace Jansen. (As we say around here ad nauseum, closers are made, not born, and so the simple fact that League has saves to his name shouldn’t automatically make him “closer”.) Still, that does appear to be the direction Mattingly is leaning, so the opportunities alone could make him valuable.
None of this matters, of course, if Jansen’s condition isn’t serious. But from everything we’re hearing, he’s likely to be out for at least a few weeks if not the rest of the year, so while Belisario & League may each get their chances, it’s League who is the immediate pick-up here.