Dodgers manager Dave Roberts stuck too long with Clayton Kershaw and Joe Kelly, did not go quickly enough to Kenta Maeda and ignored Adam Kolarek completely.
Roberts’ faulty bullpen maneuvering Wednesday night will be the most memorable element from the Nationals’ shocking Division Series ouster of the 106-win Dodgers. But at the core of all that maneuvering was this — Roberts no longer wanted to hand the ball in a meaningful spot to his closer, Kenley Jansen. This was not then manager Buck Showalter shunning Zack Britton in the 2016 wild-card game. That was on the road. That was tactical as Showalter awaited a lead that never came for the Orioles.
The Dodgers were home. They had ties in the ninth and 10th inning, almost always an entry point for a closer. But Jansen’s worst season eviscerated the standard because it eradicated Roberts’ trust. One of the great relievers ever did not get into the game until after Kelly had surrendered the decisive grand slam to Howie Kendrick in the Nationals’ 7-3 clincher. He was, in the end, a famous mop-up man.
That makes this a second straight postseason that managers ran away from the closers to whom Aroldis Chapman is most compared. Boston minimized Craig Kimbrel en route to a title in 2018, Los Angeles ignored Jansen into winter.
It is a reminder that with all the changes that have come to bullpen deployment, especially at this time of year, the Yankees still have an elite closer whom they want — no questions asked — to finish games.
“Absolutely,” Aaron Boone said. “We are different from a lot of teams … we know who we want getting the ball at the end.”
There is comfort there. Boone can maneuver aggressively to get 24 outs, maybe even 23 or 22. Because he has Chapman for the final three to five. It does not mean Chapman is impervious. It just reduces complication, elevates confidence that, say, the Cardinals don’t have with Carlos Martinez or the Nationals with Daniel Hudson or the Dodgers with Jansen.
“I signed here to be the closer and, yeah, I definitely understand how important it is and how much of an advantage it is,” Chapman said through a translator. “But at the same time, it has to do with results, you know, getting the job done. That’s my responsibility. That’s my job to do.”
Should he do it well that would be great for the Yankees. Yet, if he does it well, that will likely just further complicate their offseason. Chapman and Jansen signed five-year free-agent contracts after the 2016 campaign, Chapman for $86 million, Jansen for $80 million. Both can opt out after the World Series with two years left (Chapman owed $30 million, Jansen $38 million). Jansen is less likely to go into the market off of a bad season.
Chapman, though, has remained among the game’s best relievers. When needed, the lefty can still reach back for 100 mph, but as Austin Romine said, “His slider is a good pitch and it’s made him even more dynamic. Guys are gonna get a slider drop in there with some depth from a guy who can throw 100. You can see the frustration and the funniest looks [from the hitters].”
A bullpen-desperate team with cash such as, say, the Phillies or a club trying to make a leap like the White Sox would seem poised to exceed two years at $30 million — perhaps by a lot — hoping Chapman’s freakish athleticism leads to further excellence, durability and longevity.
So, the expectation is he will opt out. For the Yankees the decision what do then will revolve around Hal Steinbrenner’s payroll mandates and what fits in it from Chapman to perhaps retaining free agents Dellin Betances and Didi Gregorius and a decision on whether to chase Gerrit Cole to the top of the market. Bullpen depth is a Yankee strength, but that depth and belief system would look different in 2020 if Britton or Chad Green were suddenly closing.
“Like I said, before, I enjoy being in [New York] and, you know, if it’s up to me, I just want to keep playing here,” Chapman said. “You know, whatever is going to happen, eventually will happen. We’ll sit down and chat with my agent at the right moment. But right now the focus is on [the playoffs].”
For that, Chapman is exceedingly well-rested, He has appeared in just seven games covering seven innings and 114 pitches since Sept. 1. That leaves him fresh for a postseason of no endgame Yankee mystery. Green and Britton and Adam Ottavino and Tommy Kahnle may bounce around within Boone’s strategy.
But after that setup baton pass, with a chance to win, the Yankees will hand the ball to Chapman. Period.
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