Rumors about the Texas Rangers interest in free agent Carlos Rodon are starting up before the World Series has even started (and before the World Series teams were even set, for that matter), and so we should probably should go ahead and take a look at the situation.
First of all, I think it is a given that the Rangers are going to be aggressive about adding starting pitching this offseason. Even if Martin Perez is re-signed (or is offered, and accepts, the qualifying offer), the Rangers probably need to add a couple of additional starting pitchers of the good type. Given expectations for 2023, going into the season with more than one spot earmarked for internal options* other than Jon Gray and, if re-signed, Perez would seem to be playing with fire.
* One would think Dane Dunning would be penciled in at the #5 spot, but his somewhat disappointing 2022 campaign, along with his having hip surgery that he will hopefully, but not definitively, be recovered from by spring training, seems to have him lumped in with Cole Ragans, Glenn Otto, and the like, competing for a rotation spot in the spring.
The Rangers have a strong and deep farm system full of guys that they can offer up in an effort to trade for a quality starting pitcher, but how many of those guys will be available, and at what cost, remains to be seen. Yes, we’d all love Sandy Alcantara, but the cost would probably be similar to what the Padres gave up to get Juan Soto, if not higher. The Rangers will be involved in the trade market, but I wouldn’t expect them to fill all their rotation needs that way.
Thus, the free agent market.
Last year, there was talk heading into the offseason that the Rangers would be aggressive in pursuing some of the top players — and particular, the All Star calibers shortstops — that were free agents, and there was a lot of scoffing from many fans, right up until news broke that Marcus Semien had been signed. Given the moves this past offseason, the clear signals that Ray Davis has been giving that he wants the team to be good, like, yesterday, the public statements that the team expects to spend significant money again this offseason, and the obvious need for starting pitching, I think that there should at least be less skepticism about the Rangers efforts to bag one of the big prizes in the free agent market this offseason.
Which brings us to Carlos Rodon. Rodon isn’t the top free agent this offseason — that title is clearly held by a certain slugger who wears #99 — and he arguably isn’t even the top free agent starting pitcher. MLB.com has Rodon at just #10 on their list of the top free agents this offseason, between Mets’ pitchers Edwin Diaz and Chris Bassitt, and the third highest ranked starter, behind Jacob deGrom and Justin Verlander. I think MLB may be underrating Rodon a little — I think Rodon should probably be ahead of Diaz and Dansby Swanson, for example — but I think we’d agree that he’s not head and shoulders ahead of everyone else in this offseason’s free agent pool.
Rodon is, though, pretty clearly the top starting pitcher on the free agent market who is relatively young. Rodon turns 30 in December. The next youngest starter on the top 20 list linked above is Martin Perez, who turns 32 in April. Chris Bassitt will be 34 in February. Jacob deGrom turns 35 in June. And Justin Verlander...I mean, Verlander was teammates with Kenny Rogers! And Pudge Rodriguez! When he broke into the majors, John Hart was the Rangers’ g.m.!
Among starting pitchers who are expected to hit the free agent market in November, and who are in in Rodon’s age group, the next best behind Rodon are probably Jameson Taillion and Taijuan Walker — guys who will be in demand, sure, but not guys who are going to command large, long-term deals to be a top of the rotation starter for a team with playoff aspirations. Rodon is uniquely positioned this offseason in that regard.
Which is kind of weird, given he was non-tendered less than two years ago by the Chicago White Sox. The #3 overall pick in the 2014 draft, Rodon spent the 2015-18 seasons as a roughly league average pitcher when he was healthy, struggled to stay healthy, underwent Tommy John surgery in May, 2019, and wasn’t good in very limited action when he returned in 2020. Chicago, not wanting to pay him what he’d get in his final year of arbitration, non-tendered him, then re-signed him to a one year deal for the 2021 season.
And since the start of 2021, Rodon has been one of the best pitchers in baseball, accumulating 10.5 bWAR the past two seasons, fourth in MLB behind Zack Wheeler, the aforementioned Sandy Alcantara, and Max Scherzer. After putting up a 2.37 ERA and 2.65 FIP in 132.2 IP over 24 starts for Chicago in 2021, Rodon signed a two year deal with San Francisco that allows him an opt out. For the Giants, Rodon put up a 2.88 ERA in 178 IP over 31 games, with a major league leading 2.25 FIP and 12.0 K/9.
Rodon has done this as largely a two pitch pitcher — throwing his four seamer and his slider a comibined 92.3% of the time in 2022, while mixing in the occasional curveball and changeup. He’s junked the four seamer he used to throw prior to 2020, added the show-me curve in 2021, and significantly reduced his changeup usage. The results have been, so far, excellent.
Rodon’s two year, $44 million deal with San Francisco was inked right after the lockout ended. That was lower than what Rodon was expected to command, but with the disrupted offseason due to the work stoppage and the abbreviated time between the lockout ending and the start of the season, Rodon opted for a short term deal that guaranteed him a healthy payday while also giving him the ability to cash in if he had a solid 2022 campaign. It looks like that bet has paid off, and Rodon will likely get much more than he would have been able to net had he signed a longer-term deal last offseason.
The difficulty in figuring out the price point on Rodon is his checkered track record. The stuff has always been legit — that’s why he was a high first round pick — but the injury history is troublesome, with shoulder issues having sidelined him even before the Tommy John surgery, and then landing him on the injured list in 2021. There’s also the fact that, prior to 2021, he was generally a league average pitcher when he was healthy, rather than a TORP.
When I think about Rodon, and the prospect of signing him to the type of deal it would likely take to get him — 5 or 6 years at $25M or more AAV — I think about another recent free agent pitcher who hit the free agent market heading into his age 30 season, who was a high first round pick, who had great stuff but a history of injuries (including Tommy John surgery), and whose early career performance, when he was healthy, was more in line with league average performance than a top of the rotation starter.
That pitcher was Zack Wheeler — the guy I mentioned above as being atop the list of MLB pitchers in terms of bWAR the last two seasons. He was a free agent after 2019, and that offseason, we all talk about the Rangers swinging for Anthony Rendon and missing, but Texas also supposedly was very interested in Wheeler. Wheeler got a 5 year, $118 million deal from the Phillies — well above what I was expecting — and has already earned every penny of it.
Having missed out on Wheeler, it sure would be nice if the Rangers could grab Rodon, and see if he can do the next few years what Wheeler has done for the Phillies.
Of course, there’s another pitcher that also comes to mind in this thought experiment. A second round pick rather than a first rounder, but a guy with terrific stuff, who struggled with injuries — including Tommy John surgery — early in his major league career, whose results didn’t seem to match his stuff, but who hit the free agent market in advance of his age 29 season seemingly having put things together.
That was Patrick Corbin, who the Nationals signed to a six year, $140 million deal after the 2018 season. Corbin, of course, has been terrible of late, so bad that there was talk over the summer of the Nationals insisting that any team that was acquiring Juan Soto also take Corbin’s awful deal. That didn’t happen, of course, and Corbin made 31 starts for the Nationals for the second year in a row. For the second year in a row, he also lead the majors in both earned runs allowed and losses, and also led the majors in hits allowed, putting up a -2.5 bWAR and a 6.31 ERA in 2022 after logging a 5.82 ERA and -1.2 bWAR in 2021.
The Rangers didn’t sign Corbin, and I don’t know that there was that much interest on the part of the Rangers in signing Corbin. Having dodged that bullet, however, it would be worrisome if the Rangers grabbed Rodon, and saw him fall apart in his early 30s the way Corbin did.
Of course, there is a footnote to the Patrick Corbin story. Corbin was great in 2019 for the Nationals, putting up a 5.0 bWAR, throwing 202 innings over 33 regular season starts, getting four huge outs out of the pen with the score tied in the decisive Game 5 of the NLDS, starting the Nationals’ NLCS Game 4 win that resulted in a sweep of the Cardinals, and pitching three shutout innings in relief of Max Scherzer in Game 7 of the World Series, keeping the Astros at bay so that the Nationals could make a comeback to win the clincher.
Patrick Corbin was a big part of the Washington Nationals making the playoffs — as a Wild Card! — in 2019, and was a big part of the Nationals’ playoff success that culminated in a World Series title.
And so, yeah, the contract looks bad now...but flags fly forever.
So if Carlos Rodon were to be signed by Texas, were to have a great 2023 season that helped the Rangers win the World Series, then were to fall apart after that...you know, I don’t think I’d complain.