After missing out on top free agents Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto earlier this month, the Blue Jays have ramped up activity at the lower levels of the market of late by re-signing center fielder Kevin Kiermaier to a one-year pact and landing utility man Isiah Kiner-Falefa on a two-year deal in recent days. It appears the club isn’t stopping there, as Enrique Rojas of ESPN reported Friday afternoon that the club has “taken the lead” in the sweepstakes for the services of right-hander Yariel Rodriguez, who Rojas adds is “close” to making a decision in free agency. It’s hardly a surprise that the Blue Jays have interest in Rodriguez, as a recent report indicated that Toronto was among several teams with interest in the righty.
Rodriguez, 27 in March, is among the most intriguing free agents available on the market this offseason. The right-hander was granted free agency by MLB back in early November after being released from his deal with Nippon Professional Baseball’s Chunichi Dragons back in October. Rodriguez’s professional career began in Cuba during the 2015-16 season, and he spent six seasons pitching primarily as a starter to solid results in his home country before joining the Dragons ahead of the 2020 campaign. Upon arriving in Japan, Rodriguez was moved to the bullpen and broke out in a big way during the 2022 campaign, where he posted a dominant 1.15 ERA with a 27.5% strikeout rate.
Rodriguez participated in the World Baseball Classic in early 2023 as a member of Team Cuba and began to stretch back out as a starter in that series, throwing 7 1/3 innings across two appearances. After the event, Rodriguez declined to report back to the Dragons and sat out the 2023 season before securing his release after the season. Since then, Rodriguez has hosted workouts for a host of MLB clubs in the Dominican Republic, allowing scouts an opportunity to see the right-hander up close.
Whether Rodriguez will be able to stick in the majors as a starter or not has been a point of division among clubs throughout his free agency, though the Blue Jays reportedly fall into the camp that views him as a starting pitcher alongside teams such as the Pirates and Red Sox. While Rodriguez has also received recent interest from the Reds, Padres, and Yankees, each reportedly prefers the right-hander as a reliever. Due in part to that division on whether his future is in the rotation or the bullpen, Rodriguez’s position as the #28 free agent on our annual Top 50 MLB free agents list, where we projected him for a deal worth $32MM over four years, is less concrete than other free agents of a similar caliber.
In spite of the uncertainty involved in Rodriguez’s free agency, the Blue Jays are a solid fit for the right-hander’s services. While Toronto has a full rotation on paper with a stable quartet of Kevin Gausman, Jose Berrios, Chris Bassitt, and Yusei Kikuchi, the uncertainty surrounding right-hander Alek Manoah creates a major question mark at the back of the club’s starting staff. Manoah was a finalist for the AL Cy Young award in 2022 with a dominant 2.24 ERA in 196 2/3 innings of work, but his performance fell off a cliff in 2023 as he managed an ERA of just 5.87 in 19 starts for Toronto as he spent much of the summer in the minor leagues.
By adding Rodriguez to the club’s mix, the Blue Jays add additional starting depth to the club’s mix while also giving Manoah significant competition for the fifth starter role entering the season. If Rodriguez were to either struggle in the rotation or simply be pushed out by the re-emergence of Manoah or a strong debut from top prospect Ricky Tiedemann, he could then be utilized to bolster a bullpen that lost Jordan Hicks to free agency last month. Hicks’s departure leaves open a vacancy at the back of Toronto’s bullpen alongside closer Jordan Romano and set-up man Erik Swanson, where Rodriguez would be an excellent fit if he wound up outside of the club’s preferred rotation mix.