Detroit Tigers free agent target: Starting pitcher Carlos Rodón

Carlos Rodon delivers a pitch against the Houston Astros. Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Carlos Rodon delivers a pitch against the Houston Astros. Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports /

The Detroit Tigers are heavy in the market for starting pitching this offseason, and one of the most intriguing options available is left-hander Carlos Rodón.

Contender November continues here at Motor City Bengals, and this week we’ve been focused on starters. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out our previews on Jon Gray, Robbie Ray, Eduardo Rodríguez, Max Scherzer, and Marcus Stroman, and keep an eye out for more soon.

Carlos Rodón is perhaps the biggest question mark of anyone on the market, and it’s easy to imagine him becoming either a huge bargain or a complete non-factor next year. So let’s dig a bit deeper to find out who he is, and how he might help the Detroit Tigers.

Who is Carlos Rodón?

Carlos Rodón was a well-regarded prospect in high school, but back issues led to diminished velocity in the spring of his draft year (2011) and he ended up on campus at N.C. State.

He was spectacular for the Wolfpack, going 9-0 with a 1.57 ERA in 114.2 innings as a freshman, and then leading the nation with 184 strikeouts as a sophomore. He was equally tremendous in international play, striking out 42 and giving up just 3 earned runs over 36 innings for Team USA.

Rodón entered his junior season as the favorite to go first overall in the draft. He posted a 2.01 ERA and 117 strikeouts in 98.2 innings, but once again concerns about his velocity and durability arose, and he landed with the White Sox at the third pick.

Chicago seemingly always pushes their college starters aggressively, and that was certainly the case with Carlos Rodón. He made his MLB debut on April 21, 2015, after just 34.2 innings in the minors. Rodón began in the bullpen but quickly became Chicago’s 5th starter, and he finished his solid rookie campaign with a 3.75 ERA over 139.1 innings.

A sore wrist caused Rodón to miss a handful of starts in 2016, but he otherwise seemed to make solid strides. His ERA rose to 4.05, but his strikeout rate also rose, his walk rate fell, and he tossed 165 innings. But then the injuries struck.

Carlos Rodón made just 12 starts in 2017, and in 2018 a sore shoulder kept him out until June. The Tigers spoiled Rodón’s impressive start to the 2019 season, blasting him for eight earned runs in just three innings, and one start later he went down with a torn elbow ligament that required Tommy John surgery.

He missed the rest of 2019, returned for two outings to begin the 2020 season, and then missed another two months with shoulder soreness. Rodón made two more brief appearances in late September, and then the White Sox elected to not tender him a contract, making him a free agent.

Rodón was 27 with a career 4.14 ERA, but with just 536.2 innings at the big-league level and six stints on the IL, interest was understandably tepid. In early February he agreed to return to the White Sox, signing a one-year, $3 million deal.

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, the Pitcher Who Was Promised arrived. In his first outing of the season Carlos Rodón induced 19 swings and misses in five innings, and touched 98 MPH with his fastball. In his second start he threw a no-hitter.

He remained excellent throughout the rest of the season, finishing with a 2.37 ERA and the second-highest strikeout rate (34.6%) among all starters who threw at least 130 innings. According to Statcast, his fastball was the single most effective pitch in the majors this year.

But, some old concerns reared their head again. In August the White Sox placed Rodón on the IL with left shoulder soreness, and when he returned his average fastball velocity dropped from 95.8 MPH to 93.2. His results were still solid with the diminished velo, but the White Sox chose not to tender Rodón a qualifying offer after the season, adding more intrigue to perhaps the riskiest free agent on the market.

What Carlos Rodón Would Do for the Detroit Tigers

Who knows? Every free agent comes with a degree of risk, but it’s impossible to know what to expect from Carlos Rodón. In the 99th-percentile scenario he signs with the Tigers and throws 180+ innings of Cy Young-level ball, all while depriving a division rival of the same production.

There’s also the opposite possibility, where injuries keep him from pitching at all. Or, he pitches, but arm troubles make him much less effective.

The most likely scenario seems to be somewhere in the middle, where Rodón shows flashes of elite ability but suffers from an up-and-down season that includes a few more trips to the Injured List. The Detroit Tigers are looking for innings, and Rodón doesn’t seem like a great bet to provide those.

The Cost of Signing Carlos Rodón

We don’t envy teams trying to determine what to pay Rodón, because there just aren’t many comparable pitchers. The two closest examples might be Nathan Eovaldi and Zack Wheeler, but they both had proven more durable than Rodón when they hit free agency:

*includes IL stints in the minors

Eovaldi signed a four-year, $68-million deal, and his early returns weren’t great. Injury held him to just 67.2 innings and a 5.99 ERA in 2019, and he hit the IL again in 2020. But, he was among the best pitchers in baseball in 2021, with a 3.75 ERA over 182 innings.

Wheeler, meanwhile, landed a 5-year, $118-million deal from the Phillies. He’s been spectacular so far, with a 2.82 ERA over an MLB-best 284.1 innings pitched since he signed. Like Rodón, both Eovaldi and Wheeler spent time on the IL the season before they hit free agency.

Rodón feels riskier than the others, but it seems likely he’ll land a similar contract. Our best guess is something like three years and $60 million, or four years and $80 million. If he doesn’t receive a long-term offer it wouldn’t be a shock to see Rodón take an incentive-laden one-year deal for up to $25 million.

Carlos Rodón may end up the biggest steal of the entire offseason. Or he could end up as a giant booby prize. It will be fascinating to see how much money he eventually receives, but we don’t think that deal will come from the Detroit Tigers.

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