The starting pitcher who could shake up the Trade Deadline
There is no hotter commodity during trade season than a top-notch starting pitcher. Most contenders need at least one, while even pitching-rich clubs often look to upgrade a spot in their rotation for the stretch run.
With that in mind, the Tigers could have quite the conundrum on their hands in the weeks ahead.
Through the first two months of 2023, Eduardo Rodriguez is having a career year, posting a 2.19 ERA over his first 10 starts. The left-hander even received three first-place votes in MLB.com’s recent American League Cy Young poll.
The 30-year-old is in the second year of the five-year, $77 million deal he signed with Detroit prior to the 2022 season, but Rodriguez can opt out of the final three years and $49 million of the contract at the end of this season. Given the free-agent dollars starting pitchers have commanded in recent years, it is widely assumed that, barring an injury, he will exercise the opt-out clause.
“I think this is a perfect example of why it’s so important for front office executives, and organizations in general, to have good relationships with their players,” a National League executive said. “It would make things a lot easier on Detroit if they could sit down with him to get an understanding of how he’s feeling and what he might do at the end of the year.”
If Rodriguez is indeed planning to opt out – though there’s no way to know that for certain until we see how the entire season plays out – does it make sense for the Tigers to trade him this summer? The trade market doesn’t figure to include many top starters, so Detroit might be able to turn Rodriguez into a solid prospect return as the club continues its rebuild.
One tricky component of this decision, however, is the current state of the AL Central, where the Tigers are only two games behind the first-place Twins and 4 1/2 games out of an AL Wild Card spot despite a 23-25 record and a -44 run differential.
An AL executive who has been in this spot before said that when these situations present themselves, it’s up to the front office to take stock of the team's season and make a call.
“In our roles, we try to be as disciplined and rational as possible,” the executive said. “While we should never take being in a playoff race lightly, we have to remain objective in evaluating the strength of our team. We have to look beyond our record or how many games out of first place we are. We have to study the underlying numbers to assess where we are in the winning cycle. Run differential would be an initial marker that we would turn to in an effort to test our viability as a contender.”
Detroit has seven games against the Twins between June 15-25, the results of which could help clarify the Tigers’ chances in the AL Central. How the Twins, Guardians and the AL’s Wild Card contenders approach the Trade Deadline could also impact how the Tigers handle their own.
“If there are clubs ahead of them in the standings who opt to substantially improve their clubs via trade and thus reduce the Tigers’ playoff odds, then I would say it’s more likely than not that Detroit ends up moving him because they would have to really lean in for only a marginal playoff odds improvement or even a neutral one,” an NL decision-maker said. “On the flip side, the clubs they’re contending with could decide to stand pat or sell, which would effectively boost Detroit’s playoff odds, making it more reasonable to lean in to a smaller degree even if they’re eyeing the future.”
In 2015, then-president/GM Dave Dombrowski faced a similar situation with David Price. Detroit was well within reach of a Wild Card spot as the Trade Deadline approached, but Dombrowski orchestrated a deal to send the left-hander to the Blue Jays, determining that his team wasn’t good enough to make a run in October.
Scott Harris, Detroit’s current president of baseball operations, could face a comparable choice this summer if the Tigers hang around on the fringes of the postseason picture.
The club hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2014 – the year they acquired Price from the Rays – and has a current streak of six losing campaigns. Fans might be bothered if the Tigers become sellers, but the feeling around the club is that ownership understands the reality of the situation.
An NL executive doesn’t believe the industry views Detroit as “a serious postseason contender,” though that doesn’t mean Rodriguez is as good as gone.
Rodriguez’s opt-out clause could complicate matters for the Tigers. An acquiring team would assume some risk beyond 2023, as an injury could prompt Rodriguez to opt in to the remainder of the contract.
“Any such club would bear all the risk of trading away prospects for a rental who could quickly become a negative asset if something were to happen that would cause Rodriguez to opt in,” the NL executive said. “It’s a very risky proposition in the event Rodriguez’s performance declines or he suffers a meaningful injury.”
“Scott is smart and he knows they need to put the long-term outlook of the organization over the short-term, so they’ll trade him,” said another AL exec. “The tricky part is handling the return for a player who can decline his option, similar to the [Nolan] Arenado/[Giancarlo] Stanton decisions. A smallish return seems appropriate knowing he will decline his option; however, with pitchers you can never rule out that they’ll get hurt, which could lead to E-Rod opting in. So there probably has to be a handshake or a huge [player to be named later] or salary relief if he does opt in.”
Trading away a player having a superb season while your team is within striking distance of a postseason berth can be a bad message to send your clubhouse and fan base; just ask Jerry Dipoto how the Kendall Graveman trade was received in Seattle two years ago. But Harris witnessed the ramifications of not trading such a player last year when the Giants chose not to deal Carlos Rodón prior to the Deadline, then watched him opt out after the season.
“There is tremendous pressure to do something at the Trade Deadline that looks like you are trying to win the World Series,” an AL executive said. “That is a terrible atmosphere to make a reasonable decision in. The Tigers’ goal, I bet, is to maximize playoff runs; if that means keeping him, they should. Anything else that comes into place should be ignored. Good luck with that, though.”
Here are five possible landing spots for Rodriguez:
Assuming the Angels plan on keeping Shohei Ohtani in his walk year with the hope of getting back to October, adding a starter to a rotation that currently features a 4.62 ERA would make sense.
One of the NL’s biggest surprises, the D-backs have a top-heavy rotation led by Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly. If Arizona hopes to dethrone the Dodgers -- or even capture a Wild Card spot and return to the postseason for the first time since 2017 -- it could use another solid arm.
It’s World Series or bust for the Mets this season, and given New York’s 5.07 starting rotation ERA (13th in the NL) and myriad health issues that have cropped up this year, the club should be in the mix for any available starter come July. Bonus: taking on salary is not an issue for Steve Cohen’s team.
One of the best stories of the season thus far, Baltimore is building on its momentum from 2022. Still, the Orioles’ 4.76 rotation ERA ranks 11th in the AL, so adding a veteran starter should be a top priority for GM Mike Elias.
Boston’s rotation ranks 13th in the AL with a 5.47 ERA, so a starter figures to be atop the club’s list at the Trade Deadline. Rodriguez pitched for the Red Sox from 2015-21 and would have no problem acclimating to Boston or the AL East.