Eduardo Rodriguez Opts for the Tigers

The Tigers have been going through a prolonged down period. The last season they finished above .500 was 2016, and the intervening years have been brutal — 2021 was the first year where they won even 40% of their games since that ’16 season. This year’s team was full of interesting players, and Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson should be ready soon, but the Tigers still needed a talent infusion if they wanted to compete next year.

Enter Eduardo Rodriguez, a perfect fit for the Tigers. Rodriguez signed a five-year, $77 million deal to join Detroit. He’s the first big signing of the offseason, and the symbolism of the Tigers opening the free agency market as they open their window of contention is fun to think about, even if it’s mainly just a fun fact. The Tigers are coming! Let’s talk about three things in order: what Rodriguez brings to the table, why Detroit wanted a starter, and the particulars of his contract.

First things first: Rodriguez isn’t your average 4.74 ERA starter. He was quite poor in the run prevention department this year, but under the hood, his statistics looked far more enticing. He set a career high in strikeout rate and a career low in walk rate, welcome improvements for a pitcher who was already above average. He made 31 starts, showing no rust after missing all of the 2020 season due to a heart condition. He missed as many bats as ever, surrendered fewer barrels than the average pitcher, and generally looked like a star.

Except, again, for that pesky ERA. What gives? In essence, I think that Rodriguez got unlucky in a way that won’t likely repeat. He allowed a .366 BABIP, the second-worst mark in the majors. He did so despite fairly benign contact quality — his line drive rate was only 22.4%, so it’s not like he was just serving up meatball after meatball that the other team smashed for doubles. His hard-hit rate was below league average. Fenway is a tough home park for a lefty, and the Red Sox defense did him no favors — batters hit .313 on grounders against him, the highest mark in the game by nearly 30 points.

Boston’s defense was the worst in baseball according to OAA. Detroit’s was 21st — but they were 24 runs better than Boston, a big margin. Better defenders plus better luck — no matter who’s standing behind you, no one gives up a .313 BABIP on groundballs indefinitely — could move Rodriguez’s ERA southward in a hurry. Even if he’s unlikely to repeat his peripherals from 2021, that’s a lot of improvement — Steamer pegs him for a 3.65 ERA, and ZiPS checks in at 3.93. Here’s that aforementioned ZiPS projection:

ZiPS Projection – Eduardo Rodriguez (Preliminary)
2022 12 9 0 3.93 31 30 162.7 152 71 20 52 176 115 3.1
2023 11 8 0 3.92 28 27 149.3 139 65 19 48 160 115 2.9
2024 10 8 0 4.01 28 27 146.0 137 65 19 47 154 113 2.7
2025 10 7 0 4.01 26 25 137.0 128 61 18 44 145 113 2.5
2026 9 7 0 4.07 24 24 128.3 121 58 17 41 136 111 2.3

When pitchers show a sudden improvement in strikeout and walk rate, their projections sometimes lag behind their true talent. That’s often because they’ve changed something fundamental about their game — added a new pitch, say, or gained velocity by switching roles. That’s not the case with Rodriguez. He’s the same pitcher as always — fastball, cutter, and changeup primarily, with a slider sprinkled in for taste. I tend to believe the projection systems — he’ll be a solid starter, though perhaps not one you should count on for 200 innings per year.

That’s exactly what Detroit needs. Their trio of prospect arms all graduated in 2021, and they’ll follow Rodriguez in the rotation in some order. Past that, the team has a lot of maybes: Tyler Alexander will chip in some starts, Matthew Boyd will return from injury at some point, and Michael Fulmer could likely be pressed into service if necessary. Adding Rodriguez turns the rotation from “interesting but thin” to solid. Adding another arm, perhaps Alex Cobb or Michael Pineda, would even give them flexibility to run a six-man rotation, which would suit the young arms.

There have been rumblings that Detroit is out to add more top-line free agents this winter. Even with Rodriguez in the fold, their payroll checks in around $105 million for 2022. They may not approach the $200 million payroll bill they lived at during Michael Ilitch’s run as owner, but there’s room to add, particularly given that Miguel Cabrera’s contract is up after 2023. Carlos Correa is reputedly their top target, and that makes perfect sense to me: he could reunite with his old manager and be the best player on a young, exciting team that could battle the White Sox and Twins for AL Central supremacy. By adding Rodriguez, the Tigers have put themselves in position to challenge the .500 mark. By adding another top-end free agent, they could accelerate their timeline even further, with more reinforcements on the way.

How do the dollars and cents of the deal stack up? It depends on how you value Rodriguez’s opt out. After receiving $14 million in each of 2022 and ’23, Rodriguez can either choose to become a free agent or take the three-year, $49 million balance of the deal. How much, then, should he expect to clear over the next five years? I used my handy option calculator to find out.

Per my calculations, Rodriguez will opt out of his deal 54% of the time (assuming ZiPS projections are a central case for his true talent level). When he does that, it’s because he’s either a) turned into a front-line starter producing 4-5 WAR per season or b) put together two straight three-plus WAR seasons while the cost of a win skyrockets. It’s worth noting that the cost of a win skyrocketing could happen for many reasons, including unintended consequences of the new CBA. I didn’t include extra volatility in the model to account for the upcoming negotiations, but that’s a welcome side effect of Rodriguez’s opt out.

When he does opt out, the model thinks that he’ll secure the equivalent of a three-year, $80 million dollar deal to replace the $49 million he’s leaving on the table. That sounds high, but remember: it’s only in the top half of Rodriguez outcomes. A 30-year-old pitcher securing a high-value deal after two good seasons? It’s hardly outside the realm of possibility, and in plenty of those situations, the cost of a win has gone up as well (the model varies the cost of a win randomly each year, though it trends upwards on average).

What would you pay for a 54% chance at making $80 million instead of $49 million? If you were perfectly risk-neutral, you’d pay $16.74 million, so one way to think of Rodriguez’s deal is just tacking $16.74 million onto the total value. That would make it a five-year, $93.74 million deal.

You don’t have to think of it that way, of course. The Tigers certainly aren’t paying that money. But consider this: in the 46% of situations where Rodriguez doesn’t exercise his opt out, he accrues an average of 7.2 WAR across all five years of the deal. This is the bottom half of the distribution; that’s a 1.4-WAR player every year, in a deal likely interrupted by injury and underperformance. In the 54% of situations where he does exercise his opt out, he projects to accrue 6.9 WAR — in only two years. That’s the good half of outcomes when they get Rodriguez — an under-market, two-year deal for a star.

This deal makes sense to me for Rodriguez. His value isn’t set in stone — some people think he’s just an innings eater, while some think he’s an All-Star level pitcher. If he truly is just a bulk innings guy with roughly average results, then five years and $77 million seems about right. If he’s more than that, he can dip back into free agency at 30 and ask for more.

Personally, I think he’ll hit the top half of his distribution. I’m high on Rodriguez’s consistency — not in the ERA column, at least yet, but in his pitch mix and peripheral numbers. He looks like someone who gives you a mid-3.00s ERA year in and year out without much fuss. That would obviously be a coup for the Tigers. Sure, he might leave after two years if he crushes it, but there’s also a hidden mode in most contracts with opt outs. If Rodriguez excels but likes Detroit — and if he’s excelling, it’s reasonable to think he’ll like Detroit — the two sides could simply tear up the last three years of his contract and sign an extension.

There’s a lot to like about this deal for both sides. The Tigers get a top-line starting pitcher. Rodriguez gets both cost certainty and another shot at a big payday. Both sides get that without putting a huge amount of years or dollars on the line. It’s a win-win deal, a fitting opening to this season’s free agent market.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

Tyler Alexander will chip in some starts, not Tyler Anderson.

1 year ago
Reply to  Ben Clemens

Although, Tyler Anderson is a free agent. I suppose the Tigers could sign him too!

1 year ago
Reply to  84

Alexander is awesome. Not awesome in performance, but, a fun guy to watch. Old school crafty lefty in the Larry Gura/Tommy John mold. Not sure he even breaks 90 on the gun..but, he set a record for consecutive K’s in 2020 & had a sneaky good 2021.

Not sure he’ll ever be a top of rotation guy, but, he’s a very valuable swing man/5th starter type who can eat 100-120 innings