Tigers upgrade bullpen at little cost with trade for Francisco Rodriguez
Less than a week after former Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski sent a quartet of significant prospects to the Padres to bring closer Craig Kimbrel to the Red Sox, his replacement in Detroit, Al Avila, has acquired a closer for the Tigers at a relative bargain. On Wednesday, Detroit picked up veteran closer Francisco Rodriguez from the Brewers for minor-league second baseman Javier Betancourt and a player to be named later. Rodriguez, who will turn 34 in January, is owed $7.5 million for the 2016 season ($2 million of which has been deferred to '18) and has a $6 million option for the '17 season with a $2 million buyout.
The active saves leader with 386 and the owner of the single-season saves record (62 in 2008), Rodriguez is no longer the dominant fireballer he was for the Angels in his early twenties. His velocity has dropped dramatically since then, with his average fastball barely exceeding 90 mph in 2015 compared to 95 mph in '07, per Brooks Baseball. You could argue, however, that he was every bit as good for the Brewers last year as he was in in his prime. Now that Rodriguez is no longer capable of blowing away opposing hitters with high-90s fastballs, he appears to have finally conquered his career-long control problems, reducing his walk rate in each of the last three seasons. Before 2013, he had never walked fewer than 3.2 men per nine innings in a single season, but he's now posted a BB/9 under 3.0 in three straight seasons, including a career-best 1.7 BB/9 in '15.
Make no mistake, though: Rodriguez is still getting strikeouts, just not as many, and not by the same method. Whereas Rodriguez was a fastball-curveball-slider pitcher in his prime, his primary pitch is now his changeup, which he can throw at various speeds south of 90 mph, averaging 83. Over those last three seasons, he has averaged 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings, and combined with his newfound control, he's setting new highs in strikeout-to-walk ratio. His 4.40 K/BB over the last three years bests any single-season ratio he posted in his first ten full major league seasons, and his 5.64 K/BB in 2015 was far and away a career-best mark.
This new version of K-Rod saved 82 games for the Brewers over the last two years at a 92% success rate, with an inflated home-run rate in 2013 and '14 as the only blight on his record over the last three seasons. He brought that figure down to league average in 2015, however, and will benefit from moving to homer-suppressing Comerica Park—a stadium that is especially hard on lefthanded power hitters, a benefit for the righthanded Rodriguez—after spending the last three years in homer-friendly Miller Park and, for two months in 2013, Camden Yards as a member of the Orioles.
As for Betancourt, he ranked eighth on Baseball Prospectus’ list of the Tigers' top prospects (published the day of the trade, coincidentally enough)—not a particularly impressive placement given how thin Detroit's system is. BP describes him as a glove-first player with a lack of secondary offensive skills (power and patience) but who makes solid contact at the plate, a profile supported by his .281/.323/.364 career line in the minors. Betancourt will turn 21 in May and spent all of 2015 in high A, which could put him on track to battle for the Brewers’ second base job in 2018, but his most likely major league role is as a utility infielder.
Unless the player to be named later in this deal proves to be a significant prospect (which is unlikely), this looks like a fantastic deal for Detroit, which has been in desperate need of bullpen help for years, and like little more than a salary dump for the Brewers.