If – as Danny Knobler has written (so it must be true) – the Tigers are now trying hard to find a closer outside the organization, and they have no interest in pursuing a guy (like Brian Wilson) who might or might not be healthy, and they don’t like either of the stock in-house options (one of the 5 incumbents or a committee made up of those guys) it seems like there is really only one option that is worth considering. Francisco Rodriguez.
Let me state a couple of things upfront: first, I like the idea of a closer by committee. Second, I hate the idea of trading for a “proven” closer. Especially if you have to give up something of obvious value to do it, like a Rick Porcello who has focused on a curve and seems to be suddenly able to strike out a batter an inning. Relief pitchers are – for obvious reasons – very hard to grade on past performance alone. They don’t pitch as often as a starter, so you’ll see the same kind of swings in stats due to random variation for a reliever over a full season as you would for a starter at the end of May. And you’d be much better off making your bets on the Cy Young award using some other standard than W-L and ERA at the end of May.
Certain budget-conscious teams (here I’m really referring to the Tampa Bay Rays) have done extremely well for themselves by signing veteran relievers to bargain contracts after off years. Fernando Rodney went from a 4.50 ERA with the Angels in 2011 to an 0.60 ERA with the Rays in 2012. Kyle Farnsworth went from a 3.34 in 2010 split between KC and Atlanta and a 2.18 in 2011 for the Rays. Betting on a reliever with good peripherals but a bad ERA (and probably some spectacular clutch failures) isn’t a bad idea. Heck, even betting on a guy with terrible peripherals (like Rodney in 2011) isn’t that bad of an idea. In large part – and I cannot stress this enough – it may be a good idea because nobody else seems to be willing to do it. Everybody wants to have somebody that was lights out last year and especially lights out at the tail end of last year. If you want to trade for a young reliever who had a 2-something ERA in 2012 – you’re probably going to pay through the nose. If you want to sign a guy that got 40 saves last year – you’re probably going to pay through the nose. But… if you want to sign a guy who had a 4-something ERA and a negative WPA contribution last year? And if that same guy insists on a closer job? You’re probably not going to have a lot of competition and you’re probably going to pay pennies.
That guy – at the moment – would be Francisco Rodriguez. And it is puzzling to me that he is hearing nothing but crickets at the moment. He DID have a 4.38 ERA last year. He was valued at -1.01 wins according to WPA. He was massively overpaid – getting $8 million after accepting arbitration from the Brewers. He’s still available in large part because he’s looking for a chance to close games – and nobody is willing to make him that kind of a promise. The Mets seem to prefer (!!!) Frank Francisco. You’re unlikely to find very many fans (including readers of this site) with any enthusiasm about seeing Rodriguez in the 9th. I’d say that the big reason – aside from his mediocre 2012 – is just the knowledge that he used to be the best and now he is something else. This is the same guy who got 62 saves with a 2.24 ERA for the Angels in 2008. Given that he isn’t the same pitcher he was with the Angels (he doesn’t have quite the same velocity, and doesn’t even throw the same assortment of pitches) in the 4 years since he has a 3.40 ERA and has struck out at least a batter an inning every year – including that mediocre 2012. He has walked about 4 per 9, which is pretty similar to what he was doing for the Angels. He’s no youngster, but he just turned 31 – so this is not an aging vet on his last legs. For the most part, his peripherals in 2012 weren’t all that different from previous seasons with the Mets and Brewers. Similar strikeout rate, similar walk rate, similar BABIP, even a similar xFIP. It should come as no big surprise – to the statistically-minded observer of baseball – that projections systems like Steamer and Oliver predict that his 2013 will look a lot like his 2009-2012 average. Where Rodriguez’ 2012 season went awry – as far as numbers go – was an elevated HR/FB rate and trouble stranding runners. He isn’t a guy, like Luke Hochevar, that has a long history of difficulty with men on base. Over his career – and even in 2012 – he has been a bitter better as far as OPS allowed with runners on than with the bases empty. The last time he stranded fewer than 70% – in 2009 – he bounced back to 84.8% in 2010. The same goes for HR/FB – the last time he gave up home runs on more than 12% of those flies (in 2005) that number dropped to 7.7% the following year. There is every reason not to want to give Rodriguez the kind of money that his last couple of contracts paid him – he is not likely to be the best closer in the game in 2013 – but there’s also no reason to consider him washed up and unworthy of a roster spot or even a closer role.
Do the Tigers NEED him? Of course not – in my opinion at least. But… that’s because, in my opinion, the Tigers don’t need to add a closer. If the Tigers are dead set on adding a closer, I’d much rather have them sign this guy than trade Porcello or top prospects to get a guy who put up better numbers in 2012 but probably won’t in 2013.