Closer Inspection

Now that the Chicago Cubs have met everyone’s expectations by winning the World Series–indeed, they actually exceeded my expectations for them–we can now start speculating on whether or not they will win it again next season. Or, if not the Cubs, which other team will come out on top in 2017?

Right now, Chicago has to be the odds on favorite to repeat. They were last season’s dominant team, after all, and–as we have been exhaustively told for a couple of years now–they are so loaded with talent that they should remain dominant for years to come.

Closer Mark Melancon: most likely to move, most likely to make a difference in 2017

Not so fast, though. There’s actually quite a bit of reason to believe that the balance of power in the National League is about to shift, again, and it all depends upon three arms: specifically, the three top free agent closers on the market right now–Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, and Mark Melancon.

The DFR: BaseballFor all of the Cubs’ dominance last year, it’s worth remembering that going into the All-Star break it was the San Francisco Giants that had the best record in the league. As most baseball fans probably know, the Giants were undone by the colossal failure of their bullpen. San Francisco led the universe in blown saves in 2016, posting the enormous figure of 32 blown saves as a monument to their late-inning agony.

How bad was that performance? Among last season’s playoff teams, only the Dodgers were remotely close to that figure, and dem Bums were a full ten blown saves better than the Giants at 22. Jansen had six of those blown saves for L.A., but that hardly qualifies him for shame; Giants closer Santiago Casilla had 9 all by himself, and that number was “achieved” even though he lost the closer’s job for a good stretch of the season. San Francisco’s Hunter Strickland had five blown saves all by himself–in only eight (8) save opportunities. Yeesh!

“…the biggest probability says that Chapman remains a Cub, Jansen stays in L.A., and Melancon goes to San Francisco. And then we’ll see how a rough repeat of this year’s playoffs will play out…”

Does any of this matter to the big picture? You bet it does. The Giants wound up only four games behind the Dodgers; if they had converted just enough opportunities to match L.A.’s figure of 22 bullpen upchucks, S.F. would have improved by ten games and would have finished comfortably ahead of the Dodgers in the West–with implications all over the place for home field advantage in the playoffs and such.

Even so, the Giants had the Cubs on the ropes in the Division Series, until that hideous blown save in Game 4 sealed their fate. If they hold onto that lead and head back to Wrigley for a Game 5, giving Johnny Cueto another shot starting against Jon Lester, are we all shedding tears of joy for the fairy-tale ending of David Ross’ career today? Maybe. Maybe not.

The plain truth is, the distance between these clubs is closer than everyone thinks it is. That goes for the Dodgers, too. Don’t forget that L.A. won the West not just because the Giants collapsed, but because they responded so well even though their best pitcher–Clayton Kershaw, of course–was injured for about half the year. In fact, a lot of their pitchers and everyday players were injured throughout the season, yet the Dodgers still made it into the postseason with relative ease.

So imagine the Dodgers come back with a healthy lineup all season in 2017–which includes keeping their closer, Jansen, in the fold. Or imagine the Giants sign Jansen, or one of the other top-flight relievers, and thereby solidify the most glaring weakness on a team that still has a lot of strengths. Or imagine some other team, outside last year’s playoff cohort, signing Chapman away from Chicago. Still confident the Cubbies make it back-to-back?

All in all, then, it would appear that the balance of power in the National League rests upon which of the three big closers–Chapman, Jansen, Melancon–winds up where. What’s the most likely scenario?

First, it’s most likely that Chapman re-signs with Chicago. This is not only because they won it all together this year, and probably think that they can do it again next year with team intact, but also because Chapman has some baggage and is probably going to be too toxic for a team like the Giants to want to bring in. (Seriously, if you think the Bay Area has been protest-happy after Trump’s victory, wait to you see what goes down in S.F. if Chapman signs with the Giants.)

The Dodgers are also unlikely to go after Chapman, for the reason cited above but also because they already have a guy who’s about as good, if they re-sign Jansen, which they almost certainly will. After all, the franchise is wildly rich, so Jansen’s price can’t be an object; and there’s been little scuttlebutt that says he’d like to move on to another team. So Jansen probably stays in L.A.

Thus, it comes down to Melancon. He’s not as flashy and well-known as the other two, but he’s been very effective, both in his years with the Pirates and with the Nationals after being traded there last July. The Giants desperately need a closer. They won’t get Chapman or Jansen (probably). And Melancon is one of those second-tier guys that S.F. tends to pursue over the top of the list guys (Cueto and Samardzija instead of Lester or Grienke, for examples).

Everything points to the Giants signing Melancon, and the other two teams keeping their top-flight closers. This means no major shakeup in the NL’s power structure–but it will mean a closing of the gap. (By the way, the Nationals will not be given up for dead if they lose Melancon; their strengths went beyond their bullpen, and you can expect them back in the hunt even if their closer leaves.)

There still might be a wild hare thrown into the mix somewhere down the line. Perhaps Chapman is whisked away from the Cubs by some other, more off-the-radar team; for instance, Seattle could improve its playoff chances significantly with a proven closer (they coughed up an ugly 25 blown saves in 2016, an effort that might have kept them out of the playoffs this past season).

Or maybe Chapman’s arm finally explodes, after years of doing what a human arm is not supposed to be able to do. It’s possible. Or the Cubs might just let him go, if they think it’s a John Wetteland situation–and that they have another Mariano Rivera waiting in the wings.

But the biggest probability says that Chapman remains a Cub, Jansen stays in L.A., and Melancon goes to San Francisco. And then we’ll see how a rough repeat of this year’s playoffs will play out when the cards are dealt again next October. Fly the W while you can, Chicago–there’s not guarantee it will work out again next year.


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