Lurking among the ranks of the elite impending free agent closers is the Brewers' Francisco Rodriguez, who in fact has served as a setup man (more on that in a bit) in Milwaukee since being acquired from the Mets in a midseason trade. K-Rod is an accomplished, compelling, and perhaps controversial figure, and his second venture into free agency should be fascinating.
Though he rose to prominence a decade ago during the Angels' run to a World Series title in 2002, K-Rod is only 29 (he'll turn 30 in January), so his new agent, Scott Boras, can still sell the right-hander as being relatively close to the prime of his career to potential suitors. And although Rodriguez's strikeout rates have dipped from where they were in the mid-aughts (from a high of 13.18 K/9 in 2005 down to 9.66 in 2011), he's posted sub-3.00 FIPs in each of the past two seasons, so he's still effective. He's just finding different ways to get it done.
In addition to having age and effectiveness on his side, K-Rod has also proven durable throughout his career, pitching fewer than 60 innings only once. However, that blip came in 2010 on account of an off-field incident in which the right-hander was involved in a violent altercation with his girlfriend's father. Rodriguez injured his hand, was lost for the season's balance, and forfeited a chunk of his salary upon being placed on the disqualified list by the Mets, his employer at the time.
It didn't do any favors toward changing Rodriguez's image as a volatile type, and though he reported to camp this spring in good shape and with a new attitude, he recently drew some criticism for voicing his displeasure about his role with the Brewers:
"I'm not fine," Rodriguez said. "They told me I'd have the opportunity to close some games, and we've had 20-some save opportunities since then and I haven't even had one."
As one AL exec recently told Buster Olney of ESPN.com, K-Rod's oddly timed comments probably won't help him in free agency this winter. So, where does all of this leave him?
Firstly, it seems highly unlikely the Brewers will offer Rodriguez arbitration, seeing as he earns $11.5MM this season. Most free agents typically eschew arbitration in favor of pursuing long-term deals, anyway, but it's a risk the Brewers won't want to take, because if he were to accept, he'd see a raise that would bring his salary to upwards of $13-14MM. That's a number Milwaukee won't want to pay, and since he'll be competing in free agency with the likes of Jonathan Papelbon, Ryan Madson, Heath Bell and several other accomplished relievers, K-Rod might very well accept.
Instead, with his suitors limited in a deep market, K-Rod may end up seeking a one-year contract — perhaps to set up — so that he can hit free agency again after 2012, when the market won't be as favorable for buyer's (one executive even suggested this scenario to Jayson Stark of ESPN.com). Last offseason, two righties with closing experience signed to set up. Bobby Jenks got two years and $12MM from the Red Sox, and Rafael Soriano got three years and $35MM from the Yankees. While K-Rod and Boras would be ecstatic with a contract like the one Soriano signed, that deal is probably the exception. The midpoint for Jenks' and Soriano's average annual salaries is roughly $9MM, and that seems a reasonable number for K-Rod's services on a one-year deal.