A shaky start to the Detroit Tigers season is rapidly developing into a little buzz around southpaw starter Eduardo Rodriguez. Another eight inning scoreless gem against the talented New York Mets last week has fully flipped the narrative around the 30-year-old left-hander. Rodriguez has now thrown four really strong games in a row. Suddenly, the concern after a largely absent first year of his five-year, $77M deal has given way to concern about the opt-out clause in his contract at the end of the season.
Probably it’s time to slow our roll just a bit. Rodriguez has been a pretty good starting pitcher for much of his career, but he’s rarely been more than a nice mid-rotation arm. At 30 years old, the idea that he’s just coming into his own and levelling up into a frontline, #2 type starting pitcher is going to require a lot more proving out.
Good command and some deception have always been Rodriguez’s calling cards, as opposed to overpowering stuff, but over the last couple starts he’s been particularly sharp, nailing the edges down and away from right-handers with the changeup, and spotting the cutter to both sides of the plate without missing over the middle much at all.
So far, a good deal of the story is summed up in two heatmaps from the catcher’s point of view.
The question is whether he can stay in this good rhythm, which allows him to spot all three of his offerings in or out of the stretch, all while varying his times to the plate, adding a little extra deception to the mix. His history would say that a run like this isn’t uncommon, but it also never lasts.
Is Rodriguez really tapping into a new level with the Tigers? Or is he just temporarily dialed in to an unsustainable degree?
Eduardo Rodriguez 2019-2023
Usually when we’re looking at a real, sustainable breakout from a starting pitcher, something drastic has changed in terms of a pitcher’s stuff, or we’re talking about a young pitcher who suddenly levels up in terms of his command and starts executing with more consistency. Expecting a veteran starter who has always had pretty good command to now maintain an elite level of command is pretty hard to trust as far as breakouts go.
Rodriguez is getting an inch more ride on his cutter this season, which may be new assistant pitching coach Robin Lund’s doing. The former Iowa pitching coach is noted for a lot of things, but teaching and tuning cutters is one of his calling cards. Still, the cutter isn’t radically changed, just tuned up enough to miss a few more barrels, and so far it’s been pretty unhittable, but he also isn’t making mistakes over the middle with it. Otherwise Rodriguez is working with the same solid but not overwhelming repertoire of pitches he’s always had.
Crediting the Tigers’ defense
For most of his seven years and counting in the major leagues, Eduardo Rodriguez has not been a top shelf strikeout pitcher. He’s usually in the league average range, suppressing home runs pretty well, and in recent years cutting the walks down more. He’s proven to be able to avoid excessive hard contact in the air, but he lives and dies with the defense behind him a little more than the game’s real strikeout artists. On the plus side, he’s also been quite durable, which helps his case as a pitcher the Tigers would like to have for several years to come.
The Tigers are really playing good defense early on this season, and it’s helped them survive some dreadful offensive production in the first few weeks of the season. Overall the club is tied for third best in the majors in defensive runs saved (DRS) and second in Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OAA) metric.
FanGraphs and Statcast both have Javier Báez as one of the most valuable defenders in baseball this season to date. Zach McKinstry, Jonathan Schoop, Matt Vierling, and Akil Baddoo are all in plus territory. Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson have been solid defensively. Catcher Jake Rogers put his rehab time from Tommy John surgery to good use and is tied for fifth in framing and has improved blocking numbers. Eric Haase likewise has improved his framing and blocking and is currently in plus territory in both categories.
The Tigers are actually playing a pretty gritty, run prevention oriented style of baseball, with Sunday’s grotesque display against the Cardinals a real oddity. This is the kind of baseball they’ve often declared they would play and then didn’t over the last five years. The defensive ability and versatility built into the roster in Scott Harris’ first offseason is paying dividends even if the position group remains well below average at the plate so far.
If, as it seems, the Tigers are going to prioritize run prevention, taking advantage of good defense and pitching plans and defensive positioning well designed to be mutually supporting, the question is whether Rodriguez could be replaced with less long-term commitment, as opposed to adding a lot more onto his contract to convince him to forego his opt-out clause.
The opt-out clause
We can lament the presence of the opt-out, because otherwise this looks like a pretty good contract and perhaps Al Avila’s best signing as general manager. With veteran depth starters making $10-12M a year in free agency, the 30-year-old’s remaining three years, $49M owed seems like a very good deal for the Tigers. But if he continues to pitch well the rest of the season, he’s going to get a lot more than that should he opt-out of his deal with the Tigers and hit the open market again.
Do the Tigers want to be the ones to pay full price for his production in his early 30’s? Should Rodriguez put up one of his best major league seasons, he could potentially be looking for a contract twice the cost of the remaining three years on his Tigers’ pact.
On the one hand, we’ve grown accustomed to the idea of trading anything not nailed down over the last six years. Keeping Rodriguez and even extending his term would suggest that the Tigers are planning on contending in 2024. A lot needs to happen before that will seem realistic. Pitchers in their 30’s don’t, on average, age like fine wine, so keeping him the next year or two without making a big push, in hopes of him being this valuable when the Tigers are, hopefully, good again down the road, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
On the other, the Tigers are supposed to be building something now and while they have Tarik Skubal on track to return in July, otherwise they’re still thin in the rotation despite all the draft picks and trade capital expended on starting pitching over the years. Possibly things look better on that front by season’s end, but that’s a gamble.
Casey Mize might return in 2024 and eventually take the next step into becoming a solid mid-rotation starter. Matt Manning has been effective but injury prone, and hasn’t been able to level up consistently yet either. Beyond them you’re looking at Spencer Turnbull trying to get dialed in post-Tommy John, Joey Wentz trying to establish himself more than a sixth starter type, and that’s about it. Meanwhile, top pitching prospects like Wilmer Flores, Ty Madden, and Reese Olson are still a good ways from becoming options at the major league level. So the Tigers could really use a guy like Rodriguez sticking around, even if what we’re seeing lately is a hot streak augmented by strong play from the defense around him.
The other consideration is the future team payroll.
Right now, the Tigers are going to go into the offseason with a starting 2024 payroll of about $70M. Miguel Cabrera, Jonathan Schoop, Matthew Boyd, and Michael Lorenzen will all be off the books. Should Javier Báez and Rodriguez opt-out of their deals, that starting payroll will be cut in half. The Tigers spent $130M in 2022, and are currently estimated for a payroll of $122M in 2023. If Chris Ilitch and company are willing to keep that level of spending, which is still well below the MLB average payroll of $148M, they will have plenty of room to add some offensive help and still do the yearly shoring up of the pitching staff with depth signings like Boyd and Lorenzen even if Báez and Rodriguez stick around.
So, for right now it’s probably worth it to the Tigers to explore buying out Rodriguez’s opt-out. They just can’t go too far in doing so for a pitcher who is probably still more of a #3 type in a good rotation. If Rodriguez and his representatives aren’t real keen on serious talks on the matter until season’s end, or their ask is too much, then Scott Harris does need to explore the market for him in trade. Rodriguez has a 10-team no-trade clause, which complicates things further, but they can work within those constraints.
Eduardo Rodriguez has been very impressive so far, but that opt-out could make for a difficult decision for the new Tigers’ front office. It’s worth letting things play out a while before trying to force a decision either way. Generally speaking, the Tigers would probably like to keep him on through the full remainder of his deal. It just wouldn’t be wise to get real crazy in doing so.
What can’t happen, is the scenario where Rodriguez has a good year, isn’t traded, and then walks away at season’s end with nothing to show for him on the Tigers’ end. That’s the test for Scott Harris in his first year running the club, and it’s going to be an interesting problem to see him manage.