Carlos Rodon had one of the best seasons, on a per-inning basis, of any starter in recent memory. He also had one of the strangest, however, as his velocity and workload plummeted among shoulder concerns in a still-productive final two months of the season.
As late into the season as July 18, Rodon had to be considered the odds-on favorite to win the American League Cy Young Award — a remarkable turnaround for a former top prospect who’d had Tommy John surgery and shoulder surgery, been non-tendered and then returned to his original club on a one-year, $3MM “prove-it” deal.
Prove it, Rodon did — for much of the season. Rodon no-hit Cleveland in his second start of the season and, as of that aforementioned July 18 date, was sporting a ridiculous 2.14 ERA with a dominant 36.6% strikeout rate against an excellent 6.8% walk rate. The 96 mph he was averaging on his heater through that date was far and away the best mark of his career, and Rodon’s 15.5% swinging-strike rate placed him alongside the game’s elite starters. Simply put, he was dominant. Rodon at last looked like the No. 1 starter Sox for which Sox fans hoped when he was selected with the No. 3 overall draft pick in 2014.
A July 18 gem against a potent Astros lineup — seven shutout, one-hit innings with 10 punchouts and no walks — proved to be the last time he’d throw more than five innings in 2021, however. Rodon lasted just four frames and allowed four runs in each of his next two starts. He rebounded to overwhelm a stripped-down Cubs lineup that had traded away virtually every hitter of note, tossing five shutout innings with 11 strikeouts on Aug. 7.
Rodon then hit the injured list with shoulder fatigue, returned on Aug. 26, and went on to make only five starts over the regular season’s final 39 days. He reached 80 pitches in just one of those five starts, and his fastball sat at a greatly diminished 93.2 mph in that time. Rodon was still effective in that time (2.35 ERA in 23 innings), but his strikeout rate was down to 27.2% as well — still strong, but no longer elite.
Heading into the White Sox’ ALDS date with Houston, it was unclear whether Rodon would even be an option at all. There was some question as to whether he’d even be on the roster, but he was deemed good to go for what proved to be the decisive Game 4 of that series. Rodon came out with a revitalized fastball that was hitting the upper 90s, but he also last just 2 2/3 innings in a 56-pitch losing effort that ended Chicago’s year. Credit to Rodon for gutting it out if he was less than 100 percent, but it was obviously a suboptimal finish to what had looked to be a legitimate breakout campaign for the lefty.
As the offseason dawned, most expected the White Sox to extend a one-year qualifying offer to Rodon. That $18.4MM salary would’ve represented a massive jump from the $3MM he earned in 2021, but based on his performance, that rate of pay still represented a bargain. Instead, the Sox opted not to make the QO, allowing Rodon to become a free agent without the burden of draft compensation. That led to speculation about his health or a possible gentleman’s agreement with the front office; no one other than the Chicago front office, Rodon and agent Scott Boras can be 100 percent certain as to the reasons for the lack of a QO, but it now makes Rodon one of the most intriguing free agents on the market.
Rodon turned 29 just last week. He’s coming off a season that, even though it ended on a low note, saw him post a 2.37 ERA with a 34.6% strikeout rate and a 6.7% walk rate. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings thrown, only NL Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes had a higher strikeout percentage. Only Burnes and Max Scherzer posted larger strikeout-to-walk percentage differentials than Rodon’s 27.9%. Rodon also ranked among the 10 best pitchers in MLB with a 15% swinging-strike rate and a 70.3% opponents’ contact rate (again, min. 100 innings).
It was a true ace-level performance, but also a level that Rodon had never before reached. Between the one-off nature of this year’s dominance and the obvious concerns about his shoulder, workload and velocity late in the season, there’s some real risk with Rodon.
On our Top 50 free agent rankings, we suggested that Rodon would likely have to choose between a one-year deal with a large salary or maxing out on a multi-year deal that’s probably shorter than most top-tier starters would command — perhaps three years. Our ultimate prediction was a one-year deal at $25MM, though we also discussed three-year deals worth $20MM annually — perhaps even a bit more.
Boras has already made clear this winter that Rodon is seeking a multi-year deal, so while it’s possible he signs for one year after not finding any longer-term deals to his liking, the thought right now has to be that he’ll sign for two or three seasons. As is increasingly common among high-profile free agents, opt-out clauses could factor into the mix.
There are still plenty of teams that need rotation help, and the fact that Rodon isn’t likely to cross into that $100MM range that’s expected of other Cy Young-caliber peers ought to make him appealing to a wide portion of the league.
We obviously can’t know where Rodon will land until the ongoing lockout is lifted, but it’s still worth taking a look at his potential market based on the context we already have. The goal here will be to identify some of the best and most plausible fits for Rodon, and there’s at least a handful of teams we know we can eliminate right off the bat.
The Orioles and Pirates, for instance, are mired in lengthy rebuilding efforts and won’t spend at this level. Ditto the A’s, who are expected to cut payroll and trade away several core players. Neither the D-backs nor the Nats have publicly committed to a full rebuild, but it seems unlikely that Rodon will land in either spot as both are more focused on the long-term than improving in 2022.
A Miami homecoming is hard to picture, given the Marlins’ generally low payrolls, pitching-rich roster and stated needs in the outfield. The Brewers are already pushing a franchise-record payroll and have three ace-caliber arms atop the staff. The Reds have been cutting payroll and are open to trading their top starters away; a Rodon match doesn’t really align with that. The Guardians are built around affordable young pitching, have needs in the lineup and have never spent like this on a free-agent arm. Tampa Bay already signed Corey Kluber and has never committed more than $30MM to a free-agent pitcher.
A.J. Preller may make me rue not taking my usual “never say never” approach to the Padres, but San Diego is already deep in relatively pricey starters and is actively trying to shed some contracts (Eric Hosmer, Wil Myers) to address the lineup. Houston is at least seven deep in starters after re-signing Justin Verlander, and adding a pricey eighth option seems unlikely. The Cardinals already signed Steven Matz and now have a pretty established top five; further rotation additions seem likelier to be of the depth variety. The Phils have an established top four and have much larger needs in the outfield and infield.That’s a quick look at which clubs feel decidedly unlikely to sign Rodon, but let’s talk some teams that could at least plausibly make this work:
That’s a quick look at which clubs feel decidedly unlikely to sign Rodon, but let’s run through some more plausible clubs, team-by-team, before trying to pick out a few of the best possible fits for the lefty:
- Angels: Signing Noah Syndergaard and rolling the dice on Michael Lorenzen was a good start to bolstering the rotation, but the Angels could use another high-upside option, given the number of question marks up and down the current staff. You could argue that they need to focus on more certainty, but with enough high-risk upside plays, they could navigate a full season even as injuries arise. The Halos haven’t given multiple years to a free-agent starter since 2012, but if Rodon’s market tops out at three years, that’d be fewer seasons than they just committed to closer Raisel Iglesias.
- Blue Jays: Toronto lost both Robbie Ray and Steven Matz in free agency, and they’ve since signed Kevin Gausman. Adding another bat and some bullpen help seems likelier than another high-priced starter, but it’s hard not to be tempted by the thought of a rotation featuring Gausman, Rodon, Hyun Jin Ryu, Jose Berrios and Alek Manoah. The Jays could probably sign Rodon and still clock in south of their franchise-record $163MM payroll, but another starter may not be their top need.
- Braves: With Mike Soroka out until mid-2022, Atlanta could definitely use another starting pitcher — even after re-upping with Charlie Morton on a $20MM deal. Most of Atlanta’s post-lockout focus will be on re-signing Freddie Freeman. But Rodon fits the type of huge-upside, relatively short-term signings made in Atlanta under Alex Anthopoulos as well. If Freeman shocks everyone and leaves, Atlanta could make some big moves elsewhere on the roster.
- Cubs: It was somewhat surprising to see the Cubs add a pair of notable free agents in Marcus Stroman and Yan Gomes, and those moves at least give cause to stop and wonder whether another big splash might be coming. Patrick Mooney and Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic both feel Rodon won’t be a priority for the Cubs, who entered the offseason hoping to add a pair of slam-dunk rotation options and have done that with Stroman and Wade Miley. Another big-name addition in the rotation doesn’t feel likely, per The Athletic duo, who suggest bullpen additions to be a likelier focus for the Cubs.
- Dodgers: A reasonably short-term, high-priced deal for Rodon feels like something right out of the Dodgers’ playbook. Rodon showed that his upside was as high as any free agent on the market, but the health concerns will tamp down the contract length into L.A.’s preferred range. The Dodgers lost Max Scherzer, they’re not sure what will happen with Trevor Bauer, and Clayton Kershaw ended the year with even greater physical question marks before reaching free agency. On paper, it’s a strong match for a Dodgers club that needs some arms behind Walker Buehler and Julio Urias.
- Giants: As with the Dodgers, a relatively short-term deal with an upside play like Rodon feels right up the Giants’ alley. San Francisco is reportedly believed to be averse to nine-figure free agents, and outside of the now-off-the-market Verlander, Rodon may have the best upside of any pitcher available for under $100MM. The Giants already added three stabilizing pieces to round out the rotation, so there’s plenty of sense to shooting for the moon on a fourth addition.
- Mariners: Seattle already signed the AL Cy Young winner, but we know they’ll still be looking for starting pitching after the lockout is resolved. The M’s have a solid foursome atop the rotation, but Rodon would give them another likely postseason starter as they look to return to the playoffs for the first time in two decades. Adding an impact bat could be higher on the list of priorities for president of baseball ops Jerry Dipoto, but Seattle’s projected payroll is so low that they could sign both Rodon and one of the top remaining bats on the market while still fitting tens of millions of dollars below a franchise-record level.
- Mets: New York already has its share of injury-prone arms, but it’s abundantly clear by now that owner Steve Cohen is pulling out all the stops as he looks to push the team toward a World Series run. Rodon, Scherzer and a healthy Jacob deGrom has the potential to be a comically dominant trio, and after the Mets topped a quarter-billion in spending prior to the lockout, we shouldn’t assume they’ll slow down when things resume.
- Rangers: Speaking of pre-lockout spending sprees, the Rangers topped a half-billion dollars in total commitments and still have minimal certainty in the rotation. Rodon doesn’t provide the bulk innings Texas could so sorely stand to add, but for a team that’s obviously hell-bent on improving in 2022 and returning to the playoffs before long, Rodon probably can’t be firmly ruled out. Incredibly, their 2022 payroll is still projected to come in nearly $40MM shy of its all-time high.
- Red Sox: This type of short-term upside play seems like one that’d sit well with chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, but the Sox have also already added Rich Hill, Michael Wacha and James Paxton to the 2022 staff. The Boston rotation is teeming with upside and uncertainty alike, and Rodon would add to it on both fronts. The Sox are also over $200MM in luxury obligations, though, so Rodon could be deemed too pricey even if the luxury threshold increases under the new CBA.
- Rockies: Persuading any pitcher to play in Coors Field is difficult, but the Rockies have money to spend. Rodon’s decision to seek a multi-year deal suggests he’s looking to max out his earning power right now, so if Colorado offers an extra year over what the rest of the field is willing to commit, perhaps they could pull off a stunner.
- Royals: Kansas City’s estimated payroll is only around $86MM right now, so there’s obvious room to fit Rodon into the rotation as a means of taking some pressure off younger arms. They landed a pair of veteran free agents last year by going an extra year over most expectations on Mike Minor and Carlos Santana. Taking that approach with Rodon would be a vastly more expensive proposition, however. The Royals are trying to win now, but this feels like a reach even if they have the need and payroll space.
- Tigers: An on-the-rise team with gobs of payroll space, a deep collection of near-MLB top prospects, a pitcher-friendly home park and plenty of innings available — the Tigers check basically any box you could imagine for Rodon. They’ve already signed Javier Baez and Eduardo Rodriguez, and they’re still looking for another rotation addition. Rodon drastically raises their ceiling and takes pressure of some younger arms like Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize.
- Twins: Minnesota entered the offseason needing at least three starters, and so far they’ve…. rolled the dice on a Dylan Bundy rebound. It’s a fine move in a vacuum, but the Twins’ need for more pitching help is painstakingly obvious. Dan Hayes of The Athletic reported this week that last winter, the Twins tried to get Rodon on a minor league deal before he received that $3MM contract from the South Siders. That said, Hayes adds that Minnesota seems likelier to address its pitching needs via trade and may not be keen on taking a Rodon-sized risk with so many holes on the staff. It’s a good fit on paper, at the very least.
- White Sox: General manager Rick Hahn has said all the right things about wanting Rodon back, but it’s hard to take those statements at face value when Chicago didn’t make him a qualifying offer. The Pale Hose already have five to six starters — though they’d probably welcome the opportunity to shed Dallas Keuchel’s final year — and had the chance to persuade Rodon with that one-year QO. The Daily Herald’s Scot Gregor suggested this week that Rodon isn’t likely to return to the Sox, who are still eyeing help in the outfield and at second base.
- Yankees: The Bombers, in recent years, have favored risky rotation plays for volatile but immensely talented starters in the Rodon mold. Their need at shortstop is the most heavily discussed roster deficiency in the Bronx, but the rotation after Gerrit Cole and Jordan Montgomery is suspect. Domingo German finished horribly. Luis Severino has pitched a combined 18 innings in the past three years. Jameson Taillon had offseason ankle surgery. Prospects Deivi Garcia and Clarke Schmidt struggled and/or missed significant time due to injury.
In the end, any of these teams feels like at least a good theoretical match, but most come with reasons to cast doubt on whether they’d actually sign Rodon. From my vantage point, the best blend of on-paper need, available payroll space and plausible willingness to take this type of risk lies with the Angels, Dodgers, Giants, Mariners, Tigers and Yankees.