The Brewers and Francisco Rodriguez can't seem to quit each other. For the fourth year in a row, K-Rod has closed a deal with the Brewers—this time, a two-year, $13 million pact, with $4 million of that deferred, plus an option for a third year. It's the first time he's signed a multi-year deal since 2008, and while it guarantees him just under a quarter of what that contract with the Mets did, the extra security reflects the now-33-year-old righty's rebound from poor performance and some off-field ugliness. It also represents roughly half of what recent Brewers trade target Jonathan Papelbon would have cost, though some portion of the latter's salary would have presumably been picked up by the Phillies.
After starting the 2014 season with 19 scoreless innings and 15 straight saves, Rodriguez finished with a 3.04 ERA and 44 saves—good enough to tie for third in the NL—and his highest total since setting the still-standing single-season record with 62 in '08, his final year with the Angels. He managed all of that despite serving up a career-high 14 homers 68 innings, a gaudy 1.9 per nine; homers figured in all five of his blown saves and two other games in which he recorded a loss. He whiffed 9.7 per nine and pitched well enough in the first half to make an All-Star team for the first time since '09, his first season with New York.
The 44 saves boosted Rodriguez’s career total to 348, which ranks 10th all time, 304 behind Mariano Rivera, and second among active pitchers behind Joe Nathan’s 376. Supplanting Rivera would appear to be a longshot, as Rodriguez would have to average 38 saves per year over the next eight seasons, taking him through age 40. Given that his average fastball velocity has declined from a peak of 95.1 mph in 2007 to 91.5 mph in '14 (via Brooks Baseball) and that his strikeout rate has receded along with that, such a scenario seems unlikely.
For a shorter term, however, Rodriguez isn’t a bad bet at that price. Via the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Tom Haudricort, the new deal guarantees him $3.5 million for 2015 and $5.5 million in '16, with the rest deferred, and a $6 million option for 2017. Without factoring the discount (since we don't know what the terms are), that's the sixth-largest free agent deal for a reliever this winter, and the ninth multi-year deal for one:
Currently, 10 relievers are under contracts that pay them a higher average annual salary than Rodriguez's $6.5 million average. Papelbon's $12.5 million is the highest among that group, which also includes Milwaukee's Jonathan Broxton, who's making $9 million in the second year of a two-year, $14 million deal. Earlier this winter, the Brewers explored the possibility of dealing for Papelbon, who is making $13 million in the final year of his deal but is in line for a $13 million option to vest if he reaches 100 games finished in 2014-15 (he needs 48 to do so). Talks broke down earlier this month, reportedly because Milwaukee wanted to include Broxton—presumably lessening the amount of money the Phillies would have had to absorb—instead of surrendering a key prospect.
For the Brewers, the structure of the deal should help keep the team’s 2015 payroll in the general vicinity of last year’s Opening Day mark of $103.7 million. With K-Rod in the fold, Milwaukee has $96.5 million committed to 13 players, with the other 12 roster spots likely to be at or slightly above the current minimum salary of $507,500. The $3 million Rodriguez is guaranteed this year is not only $250,000 shy of what he made last year, it’s a big step down from the $11.5 million peak salary of a pitcher who once held a claim as the game's top closer—though some of that was simply based on a combination of durability and opportunity.
Though Rodriguez made an instant splash when he became the Angels' secret weapon out of the bullpen during their 2002 world championship run—pitching 18 2/3 innings in the postseason after just 5 2/3 in the regular season—he didn't take over full-time closing duties until '05, upon the departure of free agent Troy Percival. From 2005-08, Rodriguez saved 194 games, 33 more than any other pitcher, and led the league three times while helping the Halos to three more postseason appearances (six in all from 2002-08). The Angels' 202 one-run games in that span tied with division rival Oakland for the majors' second-highest total; the team's .564 winning percentage was tops in the game. Even so, Rodriguez's 2.35 ERA during that span was roughly half a run behind those of Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan and Papelbon, and his 10.6 WAR ranked fourth among that group, with Rivera's 14.2 head and shoulders above the rest.
Rodriguez was able to parlay that run into a three-year, $37 million deal with the Mets, who were still smarting from missing the playoffs by a single game in back-to-back seasons due in part to bullpen woes. His stay in New York was a tumultuous one, however. His ERA ballooned to 3.71 in 2009, his save total sank to 35 and he became the first pitcher in 14 seasons to surrender two walk-off grand slams in the same year. In June, he got into an on-field shouting match with Yankees reliever Brian Bruney, who had recently called his chest-pounding mound antics "a tired act."
While Rodriguez's performance improved in '10, he didn't pitch after Aug. 14, when he tore a ligament in his right thumb during a Citi Field clubhouse altercation with the 53-year-old father of his girlfriend, Daian Pena. Arrested on site, he eventually plead guilty to one count of attempted assault and two counts of disorderly conduct, the latter stemming from a series of text messages to Daian in violation of a protection order. He avoided jail time, was ordered to pay the elder Pena's medical bills, to complete anger management therapy and to comply with another protection order; after undergoing surgery on the thumb, he forfeited more than $3 million in salary for his time on the disqualified list.
With his $17.5 million vesting option for 2012 looming over their plans, the cash-strapped Mets were understandably eager to unload Rodriguez. After he saved 23 games in the first half of that 2011 season, the team traded him to the Brewers for two players to be named later, agreeing to pay $4.9 million of his salary plus a $3.5 million buyout of the option; with closer John Axford having emerged as a surprise success story, Milwaukee wanted Rodriguez to be its setup man. He pitched well upon arriving, putting up a 1.86 ERA while helping the Brewers win the division and reach the NLCS before bowing to the Cardinals.
In December 2011, Rodriguez accepted an arbitration offer from Milwaukee, agreeing to an $8 million salary plus incentives—a pay cut from his $11.5 million salary the year before but still a considerable sum given that he was targeted for a setup role. Alas, he pitched to career worsts with a 4.38 ERA and -0.2 WAR. Even with Axford's ERA ballooning to 4.67, the team left the two players in their roles from the previous season; Rodriguez netted just three saves.
In October 2012 it was reported that Rodriguez had again been arrested for a domestic violence complaint in September, accused of striking and injuring his 23-year-old girlfriend. The charges were dropped in November after the woman, whose name was not released, and a household employee who witnessed the alleged incident returned to their native Venezuela.
In the wake of those legal troubles and his mediocre performance on the mound, the market for his services was so frosty that he was forced to settle for a minor-league deal from the team on April 17, and he didn't make his 2013 season debut until May 16. Once he returned, he posted a 1.09 ERA and reclaimed the closer role long enough to go 10-for-10 in save opportunities before the Brewers traded him to the Orioles in exchange for minor league infielder Nick Delmonico on July 23. Despite an apparent window of opportunity to unseat incumbent closer Jim Johnson, Rodriguez never notched a save for Baltimore while delivering just a 4.50 ERA with five homers allowed in 22 innings.
Hitting the market again that winter, Rodriguez opted to re-sign with Milwaukee via a one-year, $3.25 million deal. While he couldn't maintain his hot start, his 44 saves and 1.5 WAR provided an excellent return on the Brewers’ investment, though their late-season fade cost them a playoff berth.
Rodriguez's signing leaves just one major free agent on the market, closer Rafael Soriano, who made $28 million over the past two seasons with the Nationals and likely faces a steep pay cut once he signs.