Jansen staying focused heading into free-agent year

February 17th, 2024

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- There’s something that feels so permanent about , the busiest man in Dunedin each spring since the dawn of time.

As the Blue Jays’ complex turns into a baseball beehive for another year, no player has been here longer than Jansen, who first walked through these doors as a teenager from Wisconsin in 2013. He’s gone from a kid to a prospect, the new guy to the veteran, the pupil to the leader. Now, somehow still just 28, baseball’s reality is finally on Jansen’s doorstep.

Jansen is entering his free-agent year, and while that’s lived in the shadow of extension talks around Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, Jansen has long deserved a larger share of that conversation.

Jansen is sharp. He’s had nearly 11 years to learn the business of baseball, seeing teammates come and go. His future with the organization is on his mind -- it has to be -- but now comes the time to compartmentalize. That’s something he’s mastered over the years, balancing Spring Training schedules that would leave you dizzy.

“We’ve had conversations,” Jansen shared. “My focus is on the guys in the clubhouse and this season. That’s where I stand. Winning every game is the goal -- to go in and win as many ballgames as we can. That’s my focus.”

Some players prefer a hard deadline, asking to drop all talks when the season begins. Jansen doesn’t seem to be in that camp, but this is a question that will hang over him in 2024. It will hang over the organization, too, with Alejandro Kirk better suited for a timeshare at the position and the former catcher of the future, Gabriel Moreno, traded to Arizona last winter.

“I’m definitely not closing any doors, but I’m continuing on and focusing on this season,” Jansen said. “If it happens, it happens. I’m not closing any doors, but I’m focusing on one day at a time, one pitch at a time, one ballgame at a time.”

Granted, Jansen is a difficult player to project an extension for. He’s become one of the best-hitting catchers in the Majors with an .805 OPS over the past three seasons, leaning fully into his identity of pulling the ball for power, but injuries have followed him. So many of these have involved, at the very least, an element of bad luck.

Jansen’s teammates joke that he should be fitted for armor. His 2023 season ended a month early with a fractured right middle finger and he’s averaged just 76 games played over the past three years.

“I’ve spoken to people about hand placement,” Jansen said. “With nobody on base, you can really hide it and get it tucked behind to protect yourself the best you can. With guys on base, it’s kind of like, ‘Am I ready to do my job?’ There’s not really a great place for it, because you have to be ready. I thought that was obviously awful luck. That’s my goal, for the luck to change around, but I’m still experimenting on different placements. As long as I’m able to do my job, it’s a risk-reward type of thing.”

For now, he’ll “pad up” those hands and try to maintain the aggressive approach that often leaves his hands exposed. Beyond that? Hope for the best.

Manager John Schneider has known Jansen since Day 1. Schneider was Jansen’s first manager in 2013 in the Gulf Coast league, and the former catcher has a deep appreciation for what so many of Jansen’s teammates point to as well. It’s difficult to overstate Jansen’s value in that clubhouse.

“From a kid debuting in 2018 to catching what seemed like 50 pitchers in ‘19, he’s really learned how to handle a staff, different personalities and different stuff,” Schneider said. “The stuff you see with catching, blocking, throwing is all where it should be, but the way he communicates with the guys is what sets him apart.”

Jansen’s career 8.6 fWAR trails only Russell Martin (11.1) and Ernie Whitt (21.8) among catchers in Blue Jays history, and while Whitt and his 1,218 games with 131 home runs still tower above Jansen’s numbers, a few healthy seasons can start to shrink that gap.

So much has changed in this organization since Jansen joined it. Stars have come and gone, entire competitive windows have built, opened and slammed shut. If the Blue Jays find a way to extend Jansen, though, there’s a well-lit path for him to become one of the best -- if not the best -- catcher in this franchise’s history.