Welcome to free agency’s riskiest free agent. Carlos Rodon has pitched an average of 110 innings per season - if you ignore his 7.2 IP 2020. He barely pitched in both 2019 and 2020 and has missed starts in every season of his career. And before 2021, he was a good pitcher, but never reached heights worth the injury concern. He was worth 6.9 fWAR in his first six seasons as a White Sox, and ended his career by coming into the 4th inning of a game they were winning 3-2 with nobody on and two outs. He never recorded an out, giving up a walk and a double and then an intentional walk (oh Tony). His replacement walked the next two batters to give up the lead and the White Sox ended up losing.
With just a year until free agency, the White Sox nontendered him. His Sox career ended in the worst imaginable fashion. But a few months of free agency passed, he wasn’t getting many offers, and the White Sox offered him a 1 year, $3 million which was less than he would have gotten in arbitration. He accepted, with it presumably being his best offer. And then a funny thing happened.
Welcome to free agency’s greatest potential signing. Rodon became one of the best pitchers in the league, throwing harder than he ever has thrown before and turning what was a negative pitch - his fastball - into possibly the most effective pitch in baseball. After a career where his greatest season with the fastball was worth a run value of +2.6, it was worth +22.6. Combine that with what was already an effective slider - his +13 was not a career high - and hitters had no chance.
He struck out 34.6% of batters and walked just 6.7%, both of which were wildly better than anything he’s posted before. Even though he posted a career low GB%, it still resulted in a career low ERA, FIP, xFIP, SIERA, and xERA. You pick the stat, it was his best of his career. Regardless of whether he can repeat this success, if he pitches the exact same, his ERA will probably decline. Every advanced stat was worse than his ERA and his LOB% was 82%. (Average is 75% and the best starters still cant be expected to be better than 80%)
His 2021 was but a minor microcosm of his risk/reward. Because it’s not just as simple as “he was great in 2021, but his history.” Unfortunately his 2021 also came with warning signs. He had shoulder fatigue on August 7th, which sounds like something the White Sox may have come up with to reduce his innings, except his performance when he returned suggests otherwise. His fastball velocity was 95.9 mph from the beginning of the season until he hit the injured list. His last five starts upon returning saw his average fastball velocity decline to 93.2 mph. That, uh, is concerning.
His results feature similarly concerning changes. He struck out 36.2% of batters until August 7th, then “just” 27.2% in the last five starts. His walks encouragingly did not change and in fact got a tiny bit better going from 6.8% to 6.5%. For a guy whose primary weakness when he was good was his 10% walk rate, that’s something to pay attention to. His GB% also fell from 38.8% to 33.3% in his last five starts. Overall he was not the same pitcher in his last five starts. While his ERA was still 2.35 and his FIP was 3.04, his xFIP was a not very good 4.36. Rodon historically has not been a pitcher who has outpitched his xFIP and while maybe the new and improved one will, I doubt it’s anywhere near that difference.
Rodon represents the absolute greatest reward and greatest risk of anyone currently left in free agency. It’d be easy to say that his greatest risk is getting injured, except he has actually been bad healthy before. He’s not one of those pitchers who always pitched good when he’s healthy, like Jaime Garcia. And prior to 2021, his peak wasn’t really that high. But of course for about four months last year, he was possibly the greatest pitcher in baseball.
His only playoff appearance did not ease concerns either. He came into the game throwing smoke, hitting the upper 90s. Except the effectiveness did not return. He was giving it his all, but maxing out his velocity this time caused him to lose the control he had. He did still strike out 3 of the 14 hitters he faced, but he also walked two of them and hit a batter. He gave up two runs and was removed in the middle of the 3rd inning. In fact, something I forgot to mention: he never pitched more than 5 innings once he returned from the injury list.
How do you price this guy?
At 29-years-old, he has two options. Get the most years possible or sign a one year deal again, proving that he can repeat his success and then getting probably a much, much better deal after. Trouble is.... the latter is a lot riskier than your average player I think. Which is probably why Scott Boras is seeking a multi-year deal.
Curiously, the White Sox declined the qualifying offer, which seems like a no brainer to accept. If you think he was at all for real last year. If he gets a one year deal, it’s at least in that range I’d imagine. So it’s somewhat concerning that the team he’s been on for his entire career decided a relatively low-risk of one year was not worth the risk. MLBTR suggested for a one year deal, $25 million for instance. (Which I don’t think he’d get, especially now)
What about a multi-year deal? Ben Clemens suggests 3 years, $45 million, which if at all accurate really goes to show just how much risk he has. That’s 5 WAR over 3 years. If you think that’s nothing, 5 WAR over three years prior to 2021 would have seemed impossible for Rodon. MLBTR is a little more favorable to Rodon, suggesting 3 years, $60 million. And the crowdsourced Fangraphs reaction was basically 4 years, $80 million (it’s a little less but 3.83 years is not really feasible).
What can we expect from him? Steamer is hilariously more useless than ever for a player like Rodon, where they again ignore injury history, but thankfully this time we actually have a ZiPS of Rodon. They foresee him throwing 106.2 IP and achieving 2 WAR with that WAR. Which is, if my math is correct, a 3.2 WAR pitcher in a full season. Which you can’t possibly assume because even in his breakout year, he missed starts. But that part is encouraging, that ZiPS thinks he’s a 3 WAR pitcher.
It turns out a 2 WAR pitcher would actually deserve the qualifying offer of $18.2 million. Which most teams would not accept if he was a normal 2 WAR player. He’s not though. I actually think Ben has it right, though it only takes one team. A 2-1.5-1 WAR projection over the next three years is 3 years, $40.5 million. I’m sure the “knock off 0.5 WAR” is not literally accurate and it’s easy to imagine his 3-year ZiPS matching or exceeding $45 million in value.
I wonder if, on a team like the Cardinals, the risk/reward is worth it. Imagine he’s back to his 4.36 xFIP self. The Cardinals could still use that guy. The last five starts of Rodon is still probably one of the five best starters on the Cardinals and a considerably better expectation than anybody beyond 5. He just so happens to bring an enormous amount of potential that nobody but Jack Flaherty really has with that average pitching performance.
Of course, there’s the flipside. The Cardinals carry an enormous amount of injury risk. Miles Mikolas has made 9 total starts in the past two seasons. Dakota Hudson is returning from Tommy John. Adam Wainwright is 40-years-old. Jack Flaherty only made 15 starts last year. Steven Matz, who has not exactly been the paragon of health in the past, is the most reliable on paper guy to stay healthy. Throwing Rodon in the mix seems to barely reduce the chance of using the Memphis starters. What the Cardinals could use is reliability - someone reasonably expected to stay healthy. Rodon isn’t that.
Welcome to baseball’s most complicated free agent. You could see I tried to play both sides of the argument because I’m still not sure myself. Probably moreso than any other player, it depends entirely on his future salary. While we have predictions, I’m not sure there’s any real way to know what he’ll get until he gets it. Players like him don’t come along often.
If you believe his last 5 months is who to expect, well I don’t think you should sign him for anything because the reward just isn’t that great for his risk. If you think that his last five starts were a natural outcome of going from throwing nearly zero innings to 130 innings, well then you expect his stats to revert at least a little bit back to the first four months version and you sign him for anything because the risk is worth it. There’s just no way to predict which version you’ll get.
So should we sign Carlos Rodon? Well he’s clearly too risky a free agent for the Cardinals, as in the Cardinals are never signing a free agent this risky, so it’s a moot point, but in theory, should they sign him? I have no idea.