Anatomy of a Bullpen: How Kenley Jansen’s Absence Could End Playoff Hopes

In most major American sports, a single injury can destroy a team. In football, for instance, the Packers losing Aaron Rodgers in week six pretty much ended their season right then. The Celtics losing Kyrie Irving all but guaranteed that they didn’t stand a chance at beating Cleveland in the conference finals last season.

Baseball teams are more resilient than that. A 25-man roster where each player has a significant role means that losing one player isn’t automatically the end of the world. Without Aaron Judge, the Yankees are still comfortably in line to make the playoffs and still have a run at the division. Despite Kris Bryant missing nearly half the season, the Cubs are still favorites to win the NL Central. Losing one player isn’t the end of the world in the MLB…

…right?

Enter Kenley Jansen. He’s been an All-Star the past three consecutive years, has won the NL Reliever of the Year award the past two years, and finished top five in Cy Young voting last year. He is unarguably one of the best closers in baseball, and arguably the best closer in baseball. He has been the anchor for a Dodger bullpen that has never been considered particularly good, and aside from a blown save in the World Series, has never significantly let this team down.

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On the most recent road trip to face the Rockies in Denver, Kenley experienced an irregular heartbeat, likely due to the change in elevation. The National League saves leader was placed on the DL, and since then, the Dodgers bullpen has imploded.

In the five games that Kenley Jansen has been gone, the dodgers have been 0-5. In all five of those games, a bullpen pitcher has been credited for the loss. In four of them, they lost by allowing runs in the ninth. Three of them were blown saves. Two of them were walkoffs. That is as bad as it gets.

This doesn’t mean that the offense should be totally excused. They have had significant problems producing, and a one or two run lead should never be expected to hold, but the Dodgers’ current bullpen plan of “Wait and see if pitching coach Rick Honeycutt can fix somebody” isn’t holding, either. While they made massive moves to fortify the offense at the deadline, they only picked up one lackluster relief arm in John Axford, who has underwhelmed thus far.

There is a lack of urgency in the Dodger system right now. Yes, Kenley Jansen’s recovery has been well ahead of schedule and he is expected to return before the end of the month, but the division race is tighter than ever, with LA on the wrong side of it. They have spent a majority of this season outside of first place. Moving Kenta Maeda and Ross Stripling from the rotation to the pen is a band aid on a 8 inch gash, and has immediately proven unsuccessful, with Maeda losing the game in his first relief appearance this season and Ross Stripling quickly going on the DL.

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Even when Jansen does return, he cannot expect to pitch every night. He may be the king of the final inning, but the bridge to reach him still needs to be reinforced. Dylan Floro, who looked like he may be the new Brandon Morrow, had a horrible hiccup in Colorado, walking in the losing run in the bottom of the ninth. Eric Goeddel, who has shown signs of promise, has just returned from a prolonged DL stint. Pedro Baez is as good as dead to the organization (or the fans, at the very least), and Scott Alexander has crumbled under the pressure.

The only thing more embarrassing than the Nationals and Rockies doing nothing at the deadline, costing them a playoff spot, is the Dodgers doing plenty at the deadline and not making the playoffs. This is not basketball. There are more than 5 players making up your team the majority of the game. This is baseball, a sport that more than any other represents the importance of a cohesive unit that picks up the slack when a piece starts to dip. If the current game plan in Andrew Friedman’s front office is to “wait until Kenley gets back,” then this team’s season may very well be over today.

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