Wednesday the Washington Nationals attempted to fill their last remaining major roster flaw by signing veteran right-handed relief pitcher Casey Janssen to a 1-year $3.5 million dollar contract with a mutual option for 2016 at $7 million, with a $1.5 million buyout. With Rafael Soriano departing as a free agent and Ross Detwiler and Tyler Clippard both traded earlier this offseason, the Nationals have been shopping for a veteran reliever with closing experience to help bolster the back of their bullpen and provide depth for closer Drew Storen.
The 33-year-old Janssen struggled a bit in 2014, posting a 3-3 record with a 3.94 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 1.182 WHIP, and 28 strikeouts against only 7 walks in 45.2 innings pitched, while converting 25 of 30 save opportunities for Toronto. However, some of these struggles seem directly attributable to a severe case of food poisoning Janssen suffered midseason, which caused him to implode to a 6.26 ERA in the second half of the season.
Prior to last season’s poor second half, Janssen had established himself as one of the better relievers in the American League, as he has provided the Blue Jays with a sub-3 ERA and 50+ appearances per season for 5 consecutive years, while notching 84 saves for Toronto. For his 8-year major league career, all spent with Toronto, Janssen has a 3.52 ERA, 3.74 FIP, 1.219 WHIP, 6.7 K/9 rate against a lowly 2.2 BB/9 ratio.
Janssen relies primarily on three pitches, a 90-91mph fastball, an 89-91mph cutter and a mid-70s curveball. Occasionally he will also throw a slider, changeup, or sinker, but about 75% of his pitches are of the fastball or cutter variety. He maximizes his stuff by limiting the number of walks allowed and generating a healthy groundball rate, 47.1% for his career.
Certainly this signing comes with question marks, as the veteran had his worst statistical season in five years and watched his strikeout ratio plummet from 8.5 K/9 in 2013 to 5.5 in 2014. Also, his velocity did drop midseason but recovered slightly later in the year. But the biggest question to ask is – how well can Janssen replace Tyler Clippard in Washington? According to the newly printed Baseball Prospectus Annual, here are their projections for both players in 2015:
Clippard – 63 Innings, 2.37 ERA, 3.00 FIP, 10.9 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9
Janssen – 43.2 innings, 3.24 ERA, 3.71 FIP, 8.3 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9
While everyone should acknowledge Clippard as the better pitcher, if Janssen can edge closer to 55 innings pitched in 2015, the gap between the two pitchers narrows considerably. Not to mention the move to the National League for the first time and playing in a pitcher’s park in Washington gives Janssen serious rebound potential for Washington next season.
Essentially the Nationals front office chose 3-years of Yunel Escobar and 1-year of Casey Janssen rather than 1-year of Tyler Clippard for nearly the same salary commitment in 2015. In that light, it is difficult to argue that the Nationals roster is not more complete both short and long-term with the combination of Escobar + Janssen rather than Clippard. Janssen is a quality insurance policy in case Storen struggles as the closer, or young relievers Aaron Barrett and Blake Treinen fail to replace departed relievers Clippard and Soriano.
Janssen was the best remaining free agent relief pitcher available in free agency, and the Washington Nationals were smart to secure his services on a reasonable contract.
NatsGM Overall Grade -> B to B+