Tigers get K-Rod from Brewers to be closer
Infielder Betancourt, Detroit's No. 11 prospect, goes to Milwaukee
DETROIT -- The Tigers hit the trade market for their closer and found a familiar name. Francisco Rodriguez, rumored for years to be a potential Detroit closer, will get the chance after being acquired from the Brewers on Wednesday for infield prospect Javier Betancourt and a player to be named.
Rodriguez has drawn the interest of the Tigers in past years, either via trade or free agency, but Detroit had always turned elsewhere. But in a trade market in which big names such as Aroldis Chapman of the Reds and Andrew Miller of the Yankees have drawn high price tags, coupled with a shallow free-agent market, Rodriguez and the Tigers finally matched up in Al Avila's first trade as general manager.
"After all the conversations, we just decided this would be the best route for us," Avila said on a Wednesday conference call. "We felt that Francisco with his experience gave us the best option to close games for us this coming year, and gives us the flexibility to continue to add bullpen pieces. Also, it's a one-year contract with an option, so it gives us some flexibility there. The overall trade was good for both clubs."
The trade language included a player to be named for each side. Brewers general manager David Stearns said that was a technical procedure, and that in practice, only the Brewers are likely to receive a second player in the deal, and that player will be named during this offseason. But Avila said there is a scenario in which Detroit receives a second player, too.
Rodriguez, who turns 34 in January, saved 82 games for the Brewers over the past two seasons, including 38 saves out of 40 opportunities in a quietly effective 2015 campaign for a Milwaukee club that fell out of contention early. The native Venezuelan allowed just 38 hits over 57 innings with 11 walks and 62 strikeouts. It's his best stretch as a closer since he was the dominant "K-Rod" with the Angels, racking up 194 saves over a four-year stretch from 2005-08. His 386 career saves lead all active pitchers and rank seventh all time, four behind Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley for sixth.
He's a different style of pitcher now, thinking his way through hitters rather than simply overpowering them. His average fastball velocity fell below 90 mph this year for the first time in his career, but his changeup -- a pitch he barely used until he was six years into his big league tenure -- has become a dominant pitch.
"I got the chance, the opportunity to learn how to pitch early in my career when I was throwing hard," Rodriguez said. "It's something that's working for me now late in my career, just not to go out there and blow people away, [but to] read hitters, figure out what they were trying to do and go by the situation of the game.
"The game and the inning says how you are going to pitch. That's one thing I developed, and it's something I put a lot of pride in -- read the swing, read the situation."
Many lessons, Rodriguez said, came from former teammate Troy Percival, who served as Tigers closer in 2005 after Rodriguez took over the ninth inning for the Angels. He has tried to pay it forward, taking on a mentoring role with young relievers. The Tigers have young late-inning arms, but have struggled to develop Bruce Rondon into a consistent Major League reliever.
"One of the things that was attractive for us, and our scouts digging for information, was how he's been a leader for other pitchers in the bullpen," Avila said.
Rodriguez's production comes at a fairly reasonable price. Rodriguez will make $7.5 million next year -- of which $2 million is deferred -- on the back half of a two-year, $13 million contract, with a $6 million club option (or $2 million buyout) for 2017.
Rodriguez will be the Tigers' seventh closer since 2013, a list that includes Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria, Rondon and Neftali Feliz. The closer's spot was the first order of business this offseason for Avila, who explored the trade market at last week's GM Meetings while also negotiating with Soria's agent on a potential return. The Rodriguez deal takes care of the spot without signing a long-term contract or heavily tapping a farm system that Detroit is working to rebuild.
Betancourt ended the season ranked No. 11 among Tigers prospects by MLBPipeline.com. The slick-fielding 20-year-old had a 5.15 range factor over 116 games at second base for Class A Advanced Lakeland, turning 85 double plays against 11 errors. At the plate, he hit .263 (129-for-491) with 17 doubles, five triples, three home runs, 48 RBIs and four stolen bases.
Betancourt becomes the second Tigers middle-infield prospect to join the Brewers, who claimed middle infielder Hernan Perez off waivers in June. Perez re-signed with Milwaukee earlier this week after being taken off its 40-man roster.
Fantasy spin | Fred Zinkie (@FredZinkieMLB)
With a 2.66 ERA, a 0.93 WHIP and 82 saves across the past two seasons, Rodriguez should be a solid second-tier closer for fantasy owners in 2016. As the right-hander compiles whiffs and limits walks, he has survived a 1.4 HR/9 rate since the outset of '14. The move from Miller Park to Comerica Park could help Rodriguez keep the ball in the yard.
Back in Milwaukee, Will Smith could be a strong candidate to take over ninth-inning duties. The southpaw has posted a 3.21 ERA and a 12.4 K/9 rate across two seasons with Milwaukee. But given the Brewers' lack of lefty-relief depth, they could opt to leave Smith in a specialist role and hand the final frame to a righty like Tyler Thornburg, Michael Blazek or Jeremy Jeffress.