The Los Angeles Dodgers began the offseason with one of the most baffling signings in MLB. Two months later, the transaction is still one of the most curious—and potentially terrible. 

Soon after the World Series ended, the Dodgers re-signed reliever Brandon League. That in itself wasn’t an objectionable move.

League compiled a 2.30 ERA in 28 appearances for the Dodgers after being acquired from the Seattle Mariners. He also struck out 8.9 batters per nine innings, nearly the best rate of his career. 

But perhaps because the Guggenheim Baseball Management ownership group is just overflowing with money, the Dodgers gave League a generous three-year contract worth $22.5 million. That’s $22.5 million for a reliever who was only the full-time closer for one season in Seattle. 

As a point of comparison, R.A. Dickey just signed a two-year contract extension for $25 million with the Toronto Blue Jays. Jonathan Broxton, who’s been an established closer, received a three-year, $21 million deal from the Cincinnati Reds

The Dodgers also already appeared to have an established closer in Kenley Jansen, which is another reason signing League seemed odd. The 25-year-old right-hander notched 25 saves this season while striking out 13.7 batters per nine innings.

Unfortunately, Jansen went on the disabled list with an irregular heartbeat and had surgery to correct the problem after the season. The Dodgers were thus likely worried and wanted some insurance at closer, so the team decided to move Jensen to a setup role and give the ninth-inning duties to League.

Utilizing Jansen as a setup man arguably allows Dodgers manager Don Mattingly to use his best reliever in a variety of situations, rather than tie him to the customary save opportunity in which a closer pitches. Perhaps Mattingly will decide to keep Jensen restricted to the eighth inning, as many MLB skippers do.

But Jansen could be used for whatever is judged the most important, high-leverage scenario late in a ballgame. If it’s a situation in the seventh inning with runners on second and third and one out, and a strikeout is needed, Mattingly could call upon Jansen then.

However, some teams prefer to have their best strikeout pitcher in the closer role, looking for a guy who can come in, mow down three batters and call it a night. Jansen seems best suited for that imposing sort of figure.

Yet general manager Ned Colletti was impressed by the job League did as closer, telling the Los Angeles Times‘ Dylan Hernandez that his performance in the last two to three weeks of the season convinced the team that he could do the job. 

League was indeed outstanding in September, posting an 0.55 ERA and six saves in 15 appearances. He allowed one run and seven hits in 16 innings, while also striking out 13 batters. 

If League can be that kind of pitcher throughout a full season, then Colletti‘s faith in him would be justified. But that’s the question, one which makes the Dodgers’ investment such a head-scratcher: It’s a risk. Colletti is taking a gamble that League can be a dominant closer when he’s never really demonstrated he’s capable of that.

Yes, League had 37 saves in 2011, the one season in which he was the Mariners’ designated closer. But he only struck out an average of 6.6 batters per nine innings, hardly the flamethrower that most teams prefer to pitch in the ninth inning. League also allowed 8.2 hits per nine innings, putting more runners on base than a reliever should in late innings. 

But League showed the potential of being a more formidable reliever during his late-season stint, displaying a capability for the role that Colletti obviously feels will make him a good closer for the Dodgers over the next three seasons. 

As mentioned above, League’s strikeout rate during his 28 appearances with the Dodgers was the second-highest of his career. His rate of 5.6 hits allowed per nine innings was also the lowest of his nine major league seasons.

Perhaps League is just better suited to pitching in the National League after working virtually his entire career in the American League. That could be something else Colletti is banking on. 

Ultimately, the Dodgers might look smart for investing in League. The market for closers wasn’t great this offseason with relievers like Jose Valverde, Brett Myers and Matt Capps on the market. Rafael Soriano is seeking to be paid like a starting pitcher. And Brian Wilson is coming off the second Tommy John surgery of his career. 

Taking a chance on a reliever who will turn 30 before the 2013 season begins and has prior experience as a closer was clearly the best option for a team that needed stability in the ninth inning after juggling those responsibilities among Jansen and Javy Guerra this season. 

If it turns out to be a bad investment for the Dodgers, that’s one luxury of having such a large, deep payroll. A franchise with a lot of money can afford to make some mistakes along the way without such misjudgments setting the team back. 

But if Colletti is willing to take a chance on League and he doesn’t work out, can his judgment be trusted on the next reliever he might tab to be the Dodgers’ closer? 


Grade: C


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