The Best Fit for Any Version of Carlos Rodón

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

As one of the few remaining free-agent pitchers, there will be a time (hopefully) soon enough when Carlos Rodón is a hot commodity. A pitcher coming off a 4.9 WAR season usually doesn’t have serious contract questions attached to them, but that’s the case for Rodón, who amassed that WAR total in only 132.2 innings and was given significant rest between starts, as his velocity dipped significantly over the course of the year. The end result is that he didn’t receive a qualifying offer from the White Sox and remained unsigned as the lockout began.

Rodón’s injury history combined with the in-season fatigue is alarming on its own, but a pitcher who can put together a 5-win season in under 200 innings deserves a fair assessment. How likely is it that those fatigue issues occur again, and if they do, what team is best suited to handle a mixed starter/reliever workload?

We’ll start with assessing the fatigue issues. As noted, Rodón threw 132.2 innings in 2021 — rather remarkable, considering he had only thrown 42.1 innings in ’19 and ’20 combined. Innings jumps that large are understandably scary, but every pitcher experienced that after the 2020 season; Rodon’s was the 24th largest year-to-year increase from that season to last year. That is something, but there was a significant lack of workload for Rodón in 2019 as well. Where does he rank in terms of innings jumps from 2019 and ’20 combined to 2021?

2021 Workload Increasers
Name 2021 IP 2019-20 IP Increase
Shohei Ohtani 130.1 1.2 128.9
Alek Manoah 129.2 17.0 112.2
Lance McCullers Jr. 166.1 55.0 111.1
Jameson Taillon 147.1 37.1 110.0
Triston McKenzie 141.1 33.1 108.0
Jordan Montgomery 157.1 51.2 105.9
Taijuan Walker 159.0 54.1 104.9
Peter Solomon 111.2 7.2 104.0
Carlos Rodón 132.2 41.4 90.8
Chris Flexen 179.2 91.4 87.8
Tyler Anderson 167.0 79.4 87.6

Many of the pitchers here have suffered significant injuries before and once again ran into injury troubles this past season. Regardless, the jump for Rodón was not unprecedented; what’s maybe more concerning is the velocity drop in-season.

Rodón’s velo saw a more characteristic switch after his last start of seven-plus innings on July 18. Before then, there was a clearer build-up from innings 1–3 to innings 4–6; after, the relationship breaks. That start on the 18th was seemingly max effort the whole time, with the highest early-inning velocity he’d shown all year. There’s nothing that we can reasonably assume about the nature of his shoulder fatigue, whether it’s this one start that caused trouble or having hit a wall in general, but his season decline began there. He had built up to 89.2 innings before that July 18 start; everything after has the caveat of him either throwing through noticeable injury, receiving extended periods of rest, or spending time on the IL.

If we take those 89.2 innings as a benchmark of the healthy Rodón, we can look at other year-to-year workload increases to get a sense of what may be reasonable.

For those that do throw somewhere in the range of 90 innings, jumps in the range of 30–40 innings are within reason, although many of those who fall into that 80–90 range are midseason call-ups. In the 130-inning range, best-case jumps top out at 20 or so innings. Barring injury and without much else information to bake in, we would expect Rodón in 2022 to fall somewhere between 110 and 150 innings.

Even if recent history suggests he likely won’t see a large innings increase, it’s hard to deny what he’s capable of in 110–150-inning workloads; 5 WAR is 5 WAR. As inconvenient as it might be for a contending team to have to space out Rodón’s usage in the back end of the season, the result is immense production in the aggregate. It isn’t an inconvenience that can be ignored, however, should he require workload management. Whether it’s shifting him to the bullpen, expanding the rotation, or working in shorter starts, a team that’s concerned about any of these scenarios has to have players it can call on to cover for those innings. Not everyone has the starting depth, relief depth, or ability to identify and acquire such depth to cover for a workload-managed Rondón. And while there will be plenty of roster tinkering and building to go down post-lockout, there are a handful of teams already set up with just that depth.

What we can do is split the different Rodón workload scenarios into groups. We can see him as part of a team that can handle a six-man rotation, a team with bullpen depth capable of running out an opener and using him as the long guy for 3–4 innings, or both. Here’s a look at teams by both starter and reliever WAR:

While the teams toward the top of both the starter and reliever WAR projections could always use more depth, it’s less likely that the Yankees, Brewers, White Sox, Phillies, or Mets would be willing to spend large or make room in the rotation. For the cluster of contending teams below them — Toronto, San Diego, Seattle, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, and the Los Angeles Dodgers — some have already spent large amounts on free-agent starting pitching this offseason or are up against more self-imposed spending caps. We can also cross off the more obvious non-contenders/rebuilders: Baltimore, Minnesota (maybe), Pittsburgh, Washington, Arizona, Oakland, and Colorado.

Looking directly at a team’s reliever WAR doesn’t tell us whether a team succeeded with openers, but we can still count those teams that did employ them last year and how often they were used. Here, we’re defining a true opener as a game where a primary reliever starts and goes fewer than three innings. Here are your 2021 leaders:

Opener Usage (2021)
Team Openers
LAD 16
TB 14
SD 13
SF 12
MIA 10

It’s hard to say whether any team besides Tampa is actively planning to use openers, but nevertheless it’s a strategy that contending teams are not afraid to embrace. San Francisco seems rather comfortable with deploying openers, whether planned or unplanned, and has money to spend, a rotation that isn’t completely filled out, and much of the same bullpen depth coming back.

The other option is the six-man rotation or depth scenario where Rodón could pivot to the bullpen for a time so as to limit his continuous workload. Any six-man rotation talk automatically throws in the Angels, who are committed to that setup as long as Shohei Ohtani is there. Beyond them, we can count starter depth as the number of pitchers per team who have at least a third of their projected appearances as starts. Sorting from the top and excluding the teams we’ve already put aside, that gives us Texas, Kansas City, and Detroit, all of whom have nine or more starters by this measure. The Rangers certainly need pitching help, but they’ve likely done all their big spending. The Royals and Tigers have a number of young starters who have been receiving extensive time at the big league level to develop, but is Kansas City willing to spend to open their competitive window?

Detroit, on the other hand, is fully committed. Before the lockout, the team went on a brief spending spree, signing Eduardo Rodriguez and Javier Báez. Top prospects Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene are rapidly approaching the majors. Signing Rodón would push Matt Manning to the fifth and final rotation spot, with Tyler Alexander, Reese Olson, and perhaps Spencer Turnbull able to fill in as needed throughout the year to allow Rodón to maintain his best self.

While we don’t know the economic rules of the post-lockout world, the Tigers, Giants and Angels are uniquely well suited to fit both the contract and workload needs that Rodón may require. To be fair, every team is a good fit for a pitcher as talented as he is, but the fatigue issue is a clear concern. Still, regardless of whatever the final innings total may look like, giving him the workload he needs to maintain his health will net a team one of the most valuable pitchers in baseball.

Owen is a contributor at FanGraphs. He got his start blogging about baseball when he was in college and you can find him maybe talking about something on Twitter @O_dotco.

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2 years ago

I was thinking of STL before I read the article and saw the criteria you used. Their rotation could be fine, or it could be a disaster. Everything has to go right in 2022 to even reach “decent” status. The Matz signing should help, but a Rodon/Flaherty duo in the playoffs starts to make opponents sweat a bit, which isn’t happening now. The Cardinals also have plenty of arms to throw at the rotation to limit Rodon’s innings — they aren’t good arms, but they are young and serviceable and get to pitch in front of an elite defense in a pitcher’s ballpark.

The Cardinals have the money and need, but they like to play frugal a bit; Dejong would probably need to be sold for no return to save some cash. I think a few teams would take on his contract if they didn’t need to include a prospect of value.

2 years ago
Reply to  tdouglas

Yeah, the criteria that are used are interesting, but let’s zoom out to see the big picture: Rodon offers the upside of being a guy who pitches in the #1 or #2 slot in the playoffs. So anyone who doesn’t have two obvious guys who have recent 4+ win seasons in recent memory should be interested, and anyone who doesn’t have two obvious guys with 3+ win seasons should be super interested.

By that measure, the teams that should be on him does include the Angels, Giants, and Tigers, but also includes the Cardinals, Astros, Padres, and Mariners (and the Rays and Red Sox, but who are we kidding). And he’s young enough that in theory the Twins, Nationals, and Rangers could be interested too. Some of those teams probably won’t want to spend, and if a team doesn’t want to adjust their expectations for him then they won’t work, but there are lots of teams that should be in on him for the reasons you mention.