Last year, the Orioles won 93 games and made the playoffs thanks in large part to their bullpen. The 'pen helped them go an all-time best 29-9 in one-run games, not to mention 16-2 in extra-inning games. While the team is again positioned for a wild-card berth, the Orioles' magic hasn't been the same in close games. They're 13-14 in one-run contests and 5-3 in extras. On Tuesday, they made a move designed to bolster their bullpen, acquiring former All-Star closer Francisco Rodriguez from the Brewers in exchange for minor league infielder Nick Delmonico.
Though he's still only 31 years old, Rodriguez — "K-Rod," during better times — is years removed from his heyday with the Angels and Mets. From 2005 through 2009, he averaged 46 saves and 69 innings a year, with a 2.62 ERA and 11.2 strikeouts per nine. During that span, he earned All-Star honors four times, led the AL in saves three times, and set a single-season record with 62 saves in 2008. But after leaving the Angels for the Mets via a three-year deal after the 2008 season, the velocity on his mid-90s fastball and power breaking ball waned, and so did his effectiveness. While walking 5.0 men per nine in 2009, his ERA rose to 3.71.
Though his performance showed signs of improving the following year, Rodriguez's career took an ugly turn when he was arrested for assaulting Carlos Pena, the father of his girlfriend, in the Mets team clubhouse on Aug. 11, 2010. He tore ligaments in his thumb and the surgery to repair them would have been season-ending had he not already been placed first on the restricted list and then on the disqualified list, means via which the Mets didn't have to pay his salary while he was physically unable to perform. He was charged with third-degree assault, second-degree harassment and criminal contempt for sending 56 text messages to his girlfriend in violation of a protection order. He pled guilty to the assault charge and was ordered to attend a year-long anger management program.
The Mets took him back in 2011 and he spent the first half of the season as their closer, but on July 12, they dumped him on the Brewers for two players to be named later. In Milwaukee, he was moved into a setup role in front of John Axford, which cost him a shot at another long-term contract, though after he helped the Brewers make the playoffs, the team re-signed him to a one-year, $8 million deal, an exorbitant one for a setup reliever. The Brewers didn't get much of a return on that investment, as Rodriguez put up career worsts in home run rate (1.0 per nine) and ERA (4.38) (he was actually 0.2 wins below replacement).
The off-field problems continued as well. He was again arrested on a domestic abuse charge in Sept. 2012, but news of that didn't surface until October. Those charges were dropped when his girlfriend and the witness to the alleged assault returned to Venezuela.
Rodriguez's performance and ugly personal history cooled interest in his services, but in mid-April the Brewers nonetheless signed him to a minor-league deal. He was recalled May 16 and soon took over closer duties. Thus far, he has saved 10 games in 10 attempts while posting a 1.09 ERA and 9.5 strikeouts per nine in 24 2/3 innings for Milwaukee. But with Axford, Jim Henderson and lefty Mike Gonzalez in the fold, the Brewers (41-57) have no shortage of experienced closers to offer up in a trade. And with the recent suspension of Ryan Braun for a PED violation, they have enough pariahs on their roster.
Despite Rodriguez's rap sheet, the Tigers, Red Sox and Dodgers were reportedly among the teams interested in trading for him. If he can pitch to the level of effectiveness he's shown throughout his career, he can help the Orioles, whose team bullpen ERA has risen from 3.00 (third in the AL) in 2012 to 3.68 (eighth in the AL) in 2013. Two of last year's key setup men, Luis Ayala and Pedro Strop, are gone via trades, the former to Atlanta in April, the latter to the Cubs earlier this month after putting up a 7.25 ERA for the O's. Closer Jim Johnson, who saved 51 games in 54 attempts with a 2.49 ERA last year, again leads the league with 35 saves, but he's already blown six as well, and has a 3.55 ERA.
Rodriguez wasn't acquired to supplant Johnson as closer, but anytime a guy with 304 career saves is added to the roster, the possibility looms. As general manger Dan Duquette noted in the aftermath of the trade, "We like Franky Rodriguez's experience, especially in pitching in the seventh, eighth and ninth inning."
To get Rodriguez, the Orioles sent Delmonico, the team's sixth-round 2011 pick out of a Knoxville, Tennessee high school, to the Brewers. A 21-year-old lefy-swinging infielder who's the son of former University of Tennessee baseball coach Rod Delmonico, he's currently hitting .244/.351/.471 with 13 homers at high-A Frederick of the Carolina League. He came into the year ranked among the top 10 prospects in the Orioles system by both Baseball America (fourth) and Baseball Prospectus (sixth), but not in the top 100 of either publication. After Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, the quality of the team's prospects drops off considerably.
Delmonico draws praise for his high baseball IQ and advanced approach at the plate, but not his raw tools. Scouts view him as having average hit and power tools, with a solid arm but below-average running. He split last year, his first in pro ball, between first and second base, but was seen as being too slow with both his hands and feet to turn the double play at the latter position. He's played mostly third base this year, and the results have been ugly. Statheads aren't supposed to cite fielding percentages, but the rule of thumb is that it's allowed for entertainment purposes when they start with an "8," as in .867. He has made 14 errors in 42 games, or one for roughly every seven times he's handled the ball. In early June, BP's Zach Mortimer summarized, "….potential solid-average hit tool; developing power with solid-average ceiling; below- to well-below-average glove; solid-average arm; will need to stay at third to fit profile," adding on Tuesday, "The bat shows signs of life, but he is going to have to play first base." For the Orioles, who have bigger game in mind — not to mention Chris Davis at first — Delmonico was expendable, and Rodriguez fills a need. For the Brewers, whose minor league system is so bereft of options that in the wake of injuries to Corey Hart and Mat Gamel, they've played the execrable Yuniesky Betancourt (.197/.227/.335) at first, Delmonico rates as a decent addition, particularly so for two-plus months of a reliever they weren't going to keep, and won't miss. Expect more such deals as July 31 approaches.