How Yariel Rodríguez could fit with Toronto's pitching plans

January 18th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Keegan Matheson’s Blue Jays Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Finally, something happened. 

On what felt like the 1,000th day of an underwhelming offseason, the Blue Jays agreed to terms on a deal with Cuban right-hander Yariel Rodríguez, who brings some much-needed upside and intrigue to the organization. 

Rodríguez is just 26, signing with the Blue Jays for what should be his prime years, but there’s still so much unknown. After pitching professionally in Cuba as a starter, Rodríguez had mixed results in Japan before enjoying a breakout season as a reliever in 2022 with the Chunichi Dragons, posting a 1.15 ERA with 60 strikeouts over 54 2/3 innings. Rodríguez last pitched competitively nearly a year ago, representing Cuba in the World Baseball Classic, but he did not return to his Japanese club and was eventually declared an MLB free agent. 

That all brings us here. While some clubs viewed Rodríguez as a reliever, the Blue Jays are well positioned to be flexible, stretching Rodríguez back out in a hybrid role while preparing him to be a full-time starter in 2025. Think of Rodríguez as an advanced, experienced prospect in this regard. There will be a Plan A, but if it reaches a point where a square peg meets a round hole, he’s already shown the versatility to thrive in different roles.

What this means: Rotation depth, at last

Toronto’s rotation depth was not good enough. It wasn’t in 2022 or ‘23, either, but a combination of Ross Stripling and remarkable health from veteran starters covered up the issue in each of the past two seasons. The Blue Jays were extremely fortunate that this weakness was not exposed more, but now they’ve finally protected themselves better against it. 

While it’s far too soon to trust Rodríguez as an MLB starter, he’s now part of a growing depth group. That includes Bowden Francis, who this organization is extremely high on, and Ricky Tiedemann, the club’s No. 1 prospect who could push for the big leagues early in the season. In the modern game, “depth” comes in many forms, as we saw with the combination of Francis and Trevor Richards being used to replace Alek Manoah last season, so Rodríguez’s multi-inning ability brings immediate value.

What this doesn't mean (... necessarily): A trade

Pitcher in, pitcher out. Right? 

The Blue Jays shouldn’t be forced into any related move, though. Adding Rodríguez moves their rotation depth to a slightly more comfortable place, but certainly not into the world of excess. Toronto’s veteran starters and this club’s training staff deserve high praise for the group’s health last season, but a certain amount of rotation success will always be luck. Soon enough, a season will roll around in which the Blue Jays need 10 starters, and they need to be prepared for that. 

MLB front offices have grown so sprawling and similar all at once, but if I had to identify one of this group’s core traits, it’s that they prefer to get pressing business done ahead of time. It’s no coincidence that Rodríguez could be stretched out as a full-time starting option by the time Yusei Kikuchi hits free agency. 

The scouting report

This is all about which version of Rodríguez the Blue Jays can develop. As a reliever in Japan through his dominant 2022 campaign, Rodríguez routinely reached into the upper-90s and paired that fastball with impressive breaking pitches. The bullpen version of Rodríguez can continue to lean on two to three pitches, but the Blue Jays will need to manage his long-term development at the same time, which means some attention being paid to the splitter and slider that round out his arsenal. 

Over longer stints, it would be encouraging to see Rodríguez maintain a fastball in the 94 mph range with the ability to reach back for a bit more in big moments. He’s shown he can strike out professional hitters at a high rate, but his control and walk rate will end up being the biggest factor in his MLB success. 

The wrinkle I’m most interested in? How the Japanese game and its pitching style rubbed off on Rodríguez while he was there, particularly when it comes to generating power from his lower body and using different arm slots or deliveries to keep hitters off-balance. 

Rodríguez’s situation is one of one in Blue Jays camp. He’s not yet a big leaguer and not exactly a raw prospect, but somewhere in between. That’s exactly what makes him one of the most exciting stories on this roster.