Before we get into the meat of this post, let’s recall a few key facts: (1) The Chicago Cubs need starting pitching more than anything else this offseason. (2) They have money to spend in free agency, but will likely try to avoid anyone attached to draft pick compensation. (3) They were reportedly interested in signing Carlos Rodon last winter. And (4) Rodon is a free agent detached from draft pick compensation coming off a breakout season.
After signing a one-year, $3 million pillow contract with the White Sox last winter, Rodon, 28, finally put it all together in 2021: 2.37 ERA, 2.63 FIP, 4.9 WAR over 132.2 IP, with a 34.6% strikeout rate and a 6.7% walk rate. The fastball was frequently living in the upper-90s, too.
Needless to say, Rodon makes a whole lot of sense as a Cubs target this winter against that backdrop. Of course, there’s always more to consider.
Given his age, pedigree, and All-Star season, Rodon figured to score big in free agency this time around, even if he were attached to a qualifying offer and associated draft pick compensation. Except … he isn’t attached to a qualifying offer, because the White Sox didn’t extend one to him. And while – at first – that made me giddy (now he REALLY makes sense for the Cubs!), I’m having second thoughts.
If the White Sox had extended the $18.4M qualifying offer and Rodon rejected it before signing elsewhere, they would have received an extra pick in the 2022 draft. And since we all expect him to do much better than a one-year, $18.4M deal in free agency this winter, this seemed like a no-brainer. But they didn’t make the offer.
So what do the White Sox know that we don’t?
Let’s start with the explanation from White Sox GM Rick Hahn via Vinnie Duber at NBC Sports Chicago:
“Essentially, it’s a contract offer of $18.4 million for one (year),” White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said Tuesday at the GM meetings in Southern California. “And we made the assessment based on everything we know, which includes our needs and our other targets, that that wasn’t an offer we were comfortable making at this time.”
Now, before we go full tinfoil hat, let’s remember that the White Sox will always have a relatively tighter payroll than most big-market teams. And with a few other key positions to fill this winter, plus an already full rotation (Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn, Dylan Cease, Dallas Keuchel, and Michael Kopech) ahead of what’s likely to be another competitive season, it’s not inconceivable that they didn’t want to run the risk of Rodon accepting the pricy one-year offer, hamstringing them for the rest of the offseason before it even started.
But that’s the whole point of this discussion, and the origins of my concern. There wasn’t supposed to be any risk that he’d accept. So now I’m wondering if there may be a little more to his injuries *this season* than meets the eye.
Rodon is no stranger to the injured list in his career.
In 2017, Rodon made just 12 starts (69.1 IP), missing significant time with a bruised left bicep early on, before ending his season with left shoulder inflammation. In 2018, he began the season on the 60-day IL with the same shoulder injury, eventually making 20 starts (120.2 IP). In 2019, Rodon underwent Tommy John surgery after just seven starts (34.2 IP). And in 2020, he managed just 7.2 innings before being non-tendered by the White Sox at the end of the year.
But, again, it’s 2021 that really has my focus, because that’s what likely informed the White Sox most. By the end of July, Rodon had made a respectable 18 starts with 104.2 IP. There was a little extra time between some of his starts, but realistically, he was only 2-3 starts behind everyone else. Nothing too unusual, especially for a guy with his history and coming off so few innings the year before.
From August to the end of the year, however, Rodon made just six starts, about half as many as he could have, while spending time on the injured list with shoulder fatigue. And, as Duber points out, he was going more than a week between starts at times, even leaving his postseason status up in the air.
And then there’s the velocity.
Average Fastball Velocity 2021:
Before July: 95.9 MPH
After July: 93.8 MPH
That’s a drop of more than 2 MPH at the end of the season as he dealt with the very shoulder fatigue that’s plagued him throughout much of his career, and directly preceding the surprising non-QO decision from the White Sox. The flags are red, my friends. And while I don’t think this should necessarily rule Rodon out entirely for the Cubs, it is something to consider very seriously when you decide what kind of bucket to place him into.
The question is whether Rodon wants to shoot for another one-year contract or if he’ll look to cash in something a little bigger for multiple years at a lower AAV. For what it’s worth, Kiley McDaniel projected Rodon at three years and $51 million ($17M AAV), though I’m not quite sure he’ll be able to get that much anymore. Scott Boras might say he’s happy that the White Sox didn’t make his client a qualifying offer, but it’s going to be seen as a concerning eyebrow-raiser around baseball.
All of this said … the Cubs might just be in the perfect position to pounce. It’ll be a risk, no doubt, but without particularly high expectations of competitiveness in 2022, a ton of payroll space to throw around, and a wide open rotation that could allow Rodon to showcase his talent and/or work through any issues, the Cubs could be the team to gamble on his health. But ideally, any gamble would give them multiple years of control at a price commensurate with the considerable risk of barely seeing him at all next season.