At first glance, the 2021 season seemed like a disaster for Eduardo Rodriguez on the threshold of free agency. The lefthander posted the worst ERA (4.74) of his career while allowing the highest batting average (.277), OBP (.328), and slugging percentage (.437) in any of his six seasons in the big leagues.
So what might his first career foray into the market look like? In all likelihood, he’ll encounter some impressive piles of money.
Within five days of the end of the World Series, teams must decide whether to extend a qualifying offer — a one-year deal set at $18.4 million this year — to free agents who have been with them for the entire season, something that would entitle the team to draft-pick compensation should the player decline the offer and leave in free agency.
Two evaluators of other teams used the same phrase to describe the Red Sox’ decision regarding Rodriguez: “a no-brainer.”
The greater intrigue seems to be whether Rodriguez, who made $8.3 million in 2021, would accept such an offer to return to the Red Sox before testing the market again or whether he’d decline it with the (reasonable) expectation of a multiyear deal, with the Sox or elsewhere.
Why, after Rodriguez’s up-and-down season, do members of the industry see it as a virtual certainty that the Sox will make him a qualifying offer? Front offices are well beyond the point of caring about won-loss records, and pay only slightly greater attention to “surface-level stats” such as ERA or opponents’ batting average. Those stats can act as funhouse-mirror distortions of a pitcher’s actual performance.
Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, after nearly every transaction he’s made, has suggested that “looking under the hood” reveals a different impression of a player than his traditional stats.
Front offices will focus far more on the fact that Rodriguez is 28, and should have more productive years in front of him. In his return from a 2020 season lost to myocarditis following a COVID-19 infection, he was healthy enough to pitch 157⅔ innings, 44th in MLB. While doing so, he posted the highest strikeout rate of his career (28.0 percent) and the lowest walk rate (4.0 percent).
Meanwhile, he would have been justified, on his way off the mound after several starts, to turn to a teammate and whisper, “Et tu, Brute?” Red Sox defensive woes contributed mightily to a .363 batting average on balls in play against him — easily the worst mark in the majors.
While he allowed a .277 average overall, the expected batting average against him (based on exit velocity and launch angle of balls in play) — was .233, according to Baseball Savant. His expected ERA (based on strikeout rate, walk rate, and quality of contact) was 3.55. That xERA (again, calculated by Baseball Savant) was tied with AL Cy Young candidate Robbie Ray of the Blue Jays for eighth-best in the AL.
The industry picture of Rodriguez is formed more on his “expected” stats than his actual results, and they suggest a pitcher with mid-rotation ability. A year ago, Marcus Stroman (who opted out of pitching in 2020) and Kevin Gausman were seen in somewhat similar lights. Both accepted qualifying offers (from the Mets and Giants, respectively), and both are now poised to cash in on lucrative multiyear deals in free agency.
The Rays, meanwhile, declined their $15 million option on Charlie Morton for 2021, a move that in hindsight seemed to have painful consequences for them in the postseason.
The Sox almost surely will need to add a starter this winter. They will have Nate Eovaldi, Chris Sale, and Nick Pivetta returning, with Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock representing potential rotation options.
But the Sox recognize that (a) rotation depth beyond five starters is needed; (b) while Houck and Whitlock have potential, their ability to handle a full-season workload is unknown; and (c) while there are additional options in Connor Seabold and Kutter Crawford, their best minor league starting prospects — Brayan Bello, Bryan Mata, and Josh Winckowski — will need to spend much if not all of 2022 in the minors.
Against that backdrop, it makes sense for the Sox to try to retain Rodriguez, at least for 2022 and perhaps beyond. They already have shown interest in bringing him back. According to major league sources, the Sox made a multiyear offer to Rodriguez during the season (around the same time they extended Matt Barnes), but talks never gained traction.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Sox extend the qualifying offer to Rodriguez and then revisit the question of a multiyear deal, regardless of whether he accepts it.
During the playoffs, manager Alex Cora praised Rodriguez for both the steadiness of his behind-the-scenes work and his emerging role as a mentor to younger pitchers.
“Regardless of the ups and downs — he didn’t throw the ball extremely well at one point — he has been very consistent throughout, he has been making adjustments every start, he has been getting better and better,” Cora said.
“We know his situation. This is a free agent year, and we’ll see where it takes us. We’ll get there when we have to get there, but he’s a guy that represents everything that we ask for in a player: show up, work hard, and do your best out there. He has done that since I got here.”
Will he continue to do so in Boston? That remains to be seen, but there seems little question that Rodriguez will face an interesting array of options in the coming weeks, starting with whether to accept a qualifying offer or reject it in pursuit of a multiyear deal on the open market.