Prior to this offseason, the Yankees had given three nine-figure free agent contracts to a pitcher. In each case, he was an established ace (though not all of them in MLB). In each case, it has – at least so far – worked well.
CC Sabathia received a seven-year, $161 million deal after the 2008 season and played a pivotal role in a 2009 championship. Masahiro Tanaka won a seven-year, $155 million deal (in addition, the Yankees paid an additional $20 million in posting fees), and he was an excellent pitcher with a flair for the big game. Gerritt Cole still holds the record for the most money guaranteed to a pitcher with his nine-year, $324 million deal. Although there is a feeling of wanting more, Cole has played like an ace in his three seasons with the Yankees.
Now, in the group photo, Carlos Rodon has a six-year, $162 million contract. He’s pitched like an ace the past two seasons — much like Cole did in his two seasons in Houston before joining the Yankees. But Cole, Sabathia and even Tanaka (from Japan) had far fewer questions about them.
It’s a reminder that the Yankees had their best success with free-agent starters when they went to the upper market for the undisputed ace. Their four biggest free agent pitching signings before this offseason were Sabathia, Tanaka, Cole and Mike Mussina, whose six-year, $88.5 million pact came after the 2000 season. The Yankees were 4 for 4 in this arena.
The Yankees haven’t fared so well when speculating on high-end stuff or a good season or two leading up to free agency, with pitchers like AJ Burnett, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright. The caveat is that in an uneven first season, Burnett was durable and authored three huge playoff efforts around two clunkers in one championship season. But that was it. The contract subsequently became rancid for the team.
No pitcher who has made more than 77 starts for the Yankees (Burnett made 98) has had a worse ERA in franchise history than his 4.79. And the Yankees traded the right-hander to Pittsburgh with two seasons remaining on his five-year, $82.5 million contract — and ate $20 million of the remaining $33 million.
Rodon falls somewhere between the two camps. He is neither pure speculation nor an undisputed ace. You could see Cole or Coal in the bottom of the Yankees. Because there are left-handed Burnett — crushing stuff, but a lot of concerns about health and how he’s going to handle the Yankees cauldron — in Rodon.
You can convince me today that the Yankees signed a pitcher who has figured out how to tap into a top echelon repertoire, stay mostly healthy and is on his way to long lasting durability and shine into his 30s . And you can convince me that the Yankees just re-signed Burnett, but at about double the price.
I spoke to several people who were around Rodon with the White Sox and Giants. Everyone loved his stuff.
If you want a sample: “an electric, swing-and-miss arsenal.” And, “His fastball-slider combo is elite – the speed and movement are pretty unique. A southpaw who throws that hard and generates that much run and carry and is able to do it as a starter is almost unicorn. And, “He’s got some aberrant stuff on the left side. He’s very special on top of his game.”
But those I spoke to were also concerned about durability (Rodon’s walking year represents the only 30-start or 170-plus inning season of his career) and his temperament during the transition to New York. Nobody painted Rodon as a problem, but more questioned the maturity, the pressure on himself and the management of larger reporting groups and a more passionate critical fan base if he came up against at a time of poor performance.
As one said, “I think he would need some media coaching prep after the start as he can sometimes be very responsive to questions if it doesn’t work out as expected. So, yes, he will say the wrong things in a moment and come back to apologize the next day. He’s a good, shy boy who doesn’t mean anything bad.
Another said: “It’s maturity, not character. He puts a lot of pressure on himself and sometimes struggles to deal with the ups and downs – and now he has the contract to justify.
As recently as the 2020 season of just four games, two starts and an 8.22 ERA, Rodon went unbidden and signed with the White Sox for a year at $3 million. By then, in six seasons, his ERA-plus was exactly league average at 100, and he had made just 92 starts. In the past two seasons, one for the White Sox and one for the Giants, Rodon has honored being the third overall pick in the 2014 draft. He was an All-Star each season, combining for a 156 ERA- more in 55 starts.
Of the 83 pitchers who have hit 250 combined innings in 2021-22, Rodon is third in batting average against (.196), behind just Cristian Javier (.176) and Max Scherzer (.195), and has the best rushing percentage. strikeouts at 33.9 percent, ahead of Cole’s 32.8. If the Yankees get this version in tandem with Cole, Nestor Cortes, Luis Severino and Frankie Montas, they could have the best rotation of the majors.
Rodon has found success for the past two years as the left-handed version of Jacob deGrom – essentially straddling his two irresistible strengths, a fastball and a slider. Of those who threw 900 pitches last year, Rodon threw a fastball or slider 92.3% of the time (Baseball Savant), which was fourth highest. DeGrom was in 10th place with 86.7%.
And the comparisons don’t stop there. Rangers bet five years at $185 million this offseason on deGrom — betting on the gimmicks and swallowing the worries, including about health. If you bet, who would you bet will start more games in the next five years: deGrom or Rodon? Who will win more Cy Young votes?
Rodon received the same $162 million as Brandon Nimmo (albeit over eight years from the Mets). And what they have in common (besides Scott Boras as an agent) is that they had their healthiest season of their walking year.
That’s how the money flowed this offseason. Teams are betting on high-end talent more than anything despite high prices and long-term commitments. Rodon is a top-notch talent. For a franchise so desperate to win a title as the Yankees headed for a new stadium in 2009, they were willing to bet on the elite stuff and what that might mean by October. It’s like when the Yankees spent big in the same offseason on Sabathia and Burnett.
For the Yankees, will Rodon’s first impression be CC or AJ?