With a sudden void in the setup role, the Washington Nationals were linked to Francisco Rodriguez a few times this offseason. The veteran closer was coming off of an odd 2014 campaign that saw him finish with 44 saves and a 3.04 ERA despite finishing with a 4.50 FIP and -0.6 fWAR last season. In the end, the Nats signed Casey Janssen while Rodriguez inked a new deal with his previous club, the Milwaukee Brewers.
Things have gone well for K-Rod in his return to Milwaukee this season. In the season's first three and a half months, Rodriguez has converted all 21 of his save opportunities while amassing a 1.32 ERA. His strikeout rate has rebounded a bit this season, while his insane home run rate from last year has regressed to the mean.
Unfortunately, the Brewers haven't had as much success as a team as K-Rod has. They're currently 42-54, 19.5 games behind the division leading Cardinals and 10 games out of the second wildcard. They're clear sellers at the deadline this season, and actually fired their first cannon of deadline season yesterday by sending Aramis Ramirez to the Pirates. With the Nats still in pursuit of a relief arm, could Francisco Rodriguez be someone they pursue?
Why could the Nats use him?
Rodriguez has the proven closer (TM) tag tied to his name. He's been a very good big league reliever for the past thirteen years, pitching to a 2.67 ERA in 869 career innings. Rodriguez has amassed 369 career saves, and can handle pitching the ninth inning. Perhaps more importantly, Rodriguez took it in stride when he had to pitch in a setup role for a couple of years with the Brewers, eventually working his way back to the closer's role. A lot of closers act like a "demotion" to the seventh and eighth inning bruises their ego, but Rodriguez's previous experience in Milwaukee indicates that he wouldn't let it bother him.
Rodriguez hasn't had elite velocity for almost a decade at this point. Once upon a time, Rodriguez's fastball sat in the mid-nineties, but his average fastball this season has been just 89.7 MPH. His average fastball hasn't been higher than 91 MPH since 2009, so that doesn't mean that his velocity has suddenly dropped off the table. At 33 years old, Rodriguez just doesn't throw as hard as he once did. As many veterans do, he's found ways to remain effective. K-Rod's changeup has become perhaps his best pitch, sitting in the 82-83 range with some nasty sink to it. He mixes in a 75 MPH curveball to keep hitters honest.
How would the Nationals use him?
As successful as Rodriguez has been this season, one would have to expect that Rodriguez would step into a setup role. His extensive experience as a closer would make him a viable option to shut the door in case Drew Storen is unavailable for one reason or another. His projected cost on the trade market probably wouldn't mean that the Nats would have to give him the ninth to justify trading for him.
While Drew would still be the guy, Rodriguez would be a nice addition to create the ripple effect we talked about in today's profile of Tyler Clippard. While he wouldn't supplant Storen, he would give the Nats a more stable option in the setup role than Casey Janssen, Matt Thornton, or (when he returns) David Carpenter. They could then be freed up to be used more often earlier in games and improve upon some of the greener middle relievers in the Nats bullpen. The flavor of the week/month rookies like Rafael Martin and Abel de los Santos could be brought along a little more in the minors, while Aaron Barrett, Tanner Roark, and Blake Treinen would be battling for the last two spots in the bullpen the rest of the way.
Does he have any weaknesses?
This season, Rodriguez has been pretty excellent. His strikeout rate has bounced back to 10.06 K/9, which is fine. As he's aged, his walk rate has steadily improved, and his current 2.38 BB/9 is identical to where it finished last season. His home run rate has stabilized, but that still has to be considered his primary weakness. K-Rod is a fly ball pitcher, and sometimes they fly a little too far.
Last season, Rodriguez had an insane season in terms of his home run rate. His 14 HR allowed were the most of any reliever in baseball. His 23.3% HR/FB rate was more than double the league average, so it had to be expected that it would bounce back some this season. Last year's home run rate spike didn't come out of nowhere, though.
Rodriguez's HR/FB rate had been steadily rising over the previous couple of seasons. It jumped from 6.5% in 2011 to 12.3% in 2012. It rose again from 12.3% to 15.2% in 2013. Then the wheels came off last season and it went haywire to finish at 23.3%. For a fly ball pitcher who is past his prime and has shown signs of diminishing velocity, that's kind of a frightening trend. It's possible that his current 9.1% HR/FB rate (while near the league average) is going to tick up a bit in the second half.
What's his contract status?
Rodriguez actually has a very team friendly deal. He signed a two year deal with an option for $13 million guaranteed this offseason. Rodriguez is making $3.5 million this season (~$1.2 million remaining). He's under contract for $5.5 million next year. His 2017 option is $6 million with a $4 million buyout. Essentially, buying him out wouldn't make sense unless he completely drops off the table, as it's just a $2 million difference to keep him. For someone who could fill that setup role through next season and possibly hold down the closer's role in 2017 if Storen walks as a free agent, that's pretty reasonable.
Of course, the Brewers do seem to be in sell mode. They've improved since Craig Counsell took over, but with teams like the Cardinals, Cubs, and Pirates in the division, they're going to have to do a lot to be able to improve enough to contend next season. Keeping a closer slated to make $11.5 million over the next two years doesn't make a ton of sense for an organization that will need everything to break right to be in contention for the wildcard.... provided they can add a long term asset or two by trading him.
What will the Brewers be looking for?
Milwaukee will probably be targeting pitching more than anything else. They could probably use some long-term help on the infield, but they've graduated quite a bit of their starting pitching depth in the upper minors the past few years with mixed success. Kyle Lohse will be gone next season, and Matt Garza hasn't really worked out all that well for them so far. Adding cheap quality arms is always a priority for a mid-market team like Milwaukee.
What could/should the Nats offer?
As was the case with Clippard, I don't think that the Nats should be going over the top to acquire Rodriguez. He'd be a nice asset to add at the deadline, and his team friendly deal (provided this season's production isn't a mirage) does make him an attractive option to add for a couple of seasons. He's worth more than a couple of lottery tickets and far less than a top prospect. If the Nats try and put together a package revolved around a starter, we're probably looking at pitchers in the same class as I mentioned for Clippard (Pivetta? Voth?) because of the team friendly deal. Maybe they jump at an arm like Taylor Jordan, who has some big league experience and has performed well at AAA this season, to get someone closer to the majors. I doubt it, but there's a chance.
Stat of the day
Francisco Rodriguez holds the single season record for saves with 62 in 2008 for the Angels. That's five more than any other closer has recorded in any single season (Bobby Thigpen, 57).
Will the Nationals trade for Francisco Rodriguez?
It seems unlikely. His contract status and performance this season make him an interesting target. Closers generally throwing one inning per appearance don't necessarily age all that poorly, though relievers can often have big fluctuations in numbers from year to year. Finding a proven right-hander who can handle the pressure of late inning leverage spots for $11.5 million over the next two years isn't as easy as it sounds, as the Nats can attest. The cost doesn't seem like it will be exorbitant compared to most of the other relievers on the market.
He'd be a great pickup, and the buzz is that he isn't getting as much interest as some of the bigger name relievers that are on the market. Maybe it's time for Mike Rizzo to swoop in and grab him while everyone else is looking the other way.