For the first time in 17 years, after spending half his life in the Dodgers organization, Kenley Jansen reported for another Major League Baseball club on Sunday.
Just after 9 a.m. he entered the sprawling clubhouse at CoolToday Park, the spring training home of the Atlanta Braves, a dozen miles from Florida’s Gulf Coast accomplished veteran. A makeshift name tag was affixed over his head. Jansen was scrawled in black felt-tip pen. His signature number 74 was red.
Closer, 34, donned a Braves t-shirt and blue True Spring training cap and spent the next two hours working up a sweat. It was both a harrowing sight and a dream come true.
Jansen spent his first 12 major league seasons with the Dodgers but grew up with the Braves in Curaçao. His favorite player was Fred McGriff. Andruw Jones, MLB’s first star from Curaçao, became an idol. When his brother Ardley signed with the organization in 1999, he attended the Braves’ spring training every year.
“That’s where this love started, man,” Jansen said.
And yet, in the end, Jansen would have preferred a return to the Dodgers. The two parties were engaged during the offseason, before the lockout, and afterwards. Minutes after the lockdown was lifted, Jansen recalled, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts texted him with a simple question: “Are you coming back?”
Jansen, the Dodgers’ all-time leader with 350 saves, has been aiming for a three-year contract throughout the winter, according to people familiar with the situation. He found no takers.
The Dodgers were one of the few clubs willing to make a two-year commitment. But things got complicated when they agreed a six-year, $162 million deal with former Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman last Wednesday. The development created a new wrinkle: To keep their payroll under $290 million and avoid the resulting 80% tax rate, the Dodgers wanted Jansen to wait to sign until they cut the payroll.
“I felt like the Dodgers had to make a difference,” Jansen said. “And at the same time, you have to face the reality of what’s best for you and your family.”
“They tried to bring me back but unfortunately I had to make a decision and I chose the Braves.”
Kenley Jansen when he chose the Braves over the Dodgers
Meanwhile, the Braves approached Jansen’s representative two days later with an offer of a year and $16 million, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. The team gave him a few hours to make up his mind. They were ready to move on if he didn’t accept by the deadline.
Jansen was intrigued by the idea of playing for a World Series contender and the team he loved as a kid. He weighed the offer against the risk of waiting for the Dodgers and realized the odds of getting a three-year contract this late were slim to non-existent. He chose the Braves’ guarantee.
“They made the moves over there,” Jansen said of the Dodgers. “They tried to bring me back but unfortunately I had to make a decision and I chose the Braves.”
Jansen spoke on the phone Saturday with Andrew Friedman, president of the Dodgers’ baseball division. He described the conversation as “emotional”. He insisted that there are no hard feelings.
“I was a little boy from Curaçao when I signed there,” said Jansen. “And they taught me to be a man and to be a father and to be a great husband to my wife and that sets this organization apart. Also, I can say I’m a champion and that’s great.”
Jansen’s move added another chapter to an unanticipated rivalry between the National League powers on opposite shores.
The Dodgers and Braves met in the postseason three of the last four years. The Dodgers defeated Atlanta in the 2019 NLDS and again in the 2020 NLCS, coming back from a 3-1 deficit en route to winning the World Series. Last season, the Braves toppled the Dodgers as heavy underdogs in an NLCS rematch and beat the Houston Astros in the World Series.
Last week, a plot twist added some drama. On Wednesday, Braves icon Freeman signed with the Dodgers after negotiations with the Braves ended and they acquired Matt Olson as a replacement. Like Jansen, Freeman spent 12 seasons with the team to begin his major league career. Unlike Jansen, his exit was chaotic.
“I have nothing but good things to say about the Dodgers,” said Jansen. “First class organization.”
The Braves’ bullpen helped lead the club to the championship in October, but Alex Anthopoulos, president of Braves baseball operations, found he was too left-handed early in the offseason. He prioritized adding right-handed helpers.
Anthopoulos said he first reached out to Will Smith, the team’s seamer, to gauge whether the veteran would be willing to give up the ninth-inning role. Schmidt gave the green light. The next step was to find out which helpers were available. Jansen and Mark Melancon were at the top of the free agent list. The closer Raisel Iglesias and Craig Kimbrel, the only active player with more saves than Jansen, were commercially available.
The Braves discussed a trade with the Chicago White Sox for Kimbrel, who will also earn $16 million this season, before going free in the next offseason before landing Jansen. Signing outfielder Jorge Soler was another option if Jansen didn’t say yes.
Anthopoulos is familiar with Jansen. He spent two seasons in Friedman’s front office before moving to Atlanta. Those two years – 2016 and 2017 – were the best of Jansen’s career. He was the most dominant assist in the majors, smothering hitters with his signature cutter.
But Anthopoulos said he was most impressed by Jansen’s willingness to take on a larger workload during the 2016 playoff weeks before becoming a free agent for the first time. He finished the effort with three perfect innings in Game 6 of the NLCS against the Chicago Cubs. That winter, he signed a five-year, $80 million deal to remain in Los Angeles.
“He’s just a total team guy,” said Anthopoulos. “He didn’t have $80 million in the bank and he didn’t even bat an eyelid. It wasn’t like he needed convincing. He didn’t even flinch. What does that tell you about him?”
Jansen no longer resides on this light-off plane. His speed has decreased. His walk rate has increased and his strikeout rate has decreased. However, he rebounded last season and posted a 2.22 ERA in 69 games by mixing in more sinkers and sliders.
“I think we’re getting a really good helper,” said Anthopoulos. “I don’t want to have any expectations of him. Look, I think the contract reflects that we believe in him, you know?”
Upon accepting this contract, Jansen called Jones to thank him for paving the way for the ballers from their small island in the Atlantic. He turned to former teammates and coaches. Roberts told him that he would always be part of his family. Jansen called his brother Ardley, the former minor league of the Braves.
“Hey, this is for you,” he told him.
A dream comes true for a child from Curaçao. But the door isn’t closed on the Dodgers. After all, the contract is only valid for one year and Jansen’s family will remain in Los Angeles throughout the year.
For now, at least, he’ll be heading to “Welcome to Atlanta” at Truist Park after a decade with “California Love” and “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted.” The ninth inning at Dodger Stadium will not be the same.
https://www.latimes.com/sports/dodgers/story/2022-03-20/dodgers-kenley-jansen-explains-why-signed-atlanta-braves Kenley Jansen explains why he signed with Braves instead of Dodgers