General manager Al Avila has patiently waited.
“When Al and I feel the time is right, Al is going to have the resources to go out and sign the free agents that he needs to add around our homegrown base and core of talent,” Ilitch said in February 2020. “That day will come and we’ll be ready for it and he’ll have the resources to do that.”
The time is now.
Like, right now.
The Tigers signed left-handed starting pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez to a five-year, $77 million contract Monday morning. The club has not yet announced the agreement, as it is pending a physical. Rodriguez, who declined the $18.4 million qualifying offer from the Boston Red Sox, has an opt-out after the second year, a no-trade clause and can earn up to $3 million in performance bonuses.
Just like that, the Tigers made their biggest splash since agreeing to a five-year, $110 million deal with right-hander Jordan Zimmermann in November 2015. Back then, the Tigers were trying to make the postseason and win the World Series.
Entering this winter’s offseason, the Tigers finally felt confident in their homegrown talent, thanks to the developments of starting pitchers Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning. Outfielder Akil Baddoo emerged as a Rule 5 draft pick, while third baseman Jeimer Candelario established himself, second baseman Jonathan Schoop signed a two-year contract extension and Robbie Grossman collected 23 home runs and 20 stolen bases. Top prospects Spencer Torkelson (first baseman) and Riley Greene (outfielder) are expected to make their MLB debuts in 2022.
The foundation for long-term success is in place, but the Tigers knew they need established players.
“It’s an exciting time to be a Tiger,” manager AJ Hinch said Oct. 3, after his team finished 77-85. “Our goal on the field was to make this a desirable place and to show the arrow pointing in the right direction. There’s a number of guys that can help us. We need help. We need to get better.
“I know there’s going to be a lot of attention on different parts. Just the fact that it’s possible, we’re in a good place on this date in time. Where it leads to how you build a team that can contend, compete and get into the playoffs, the options are really endless.”
Avila acquired veteran catcher Tucker Barnhart — a two-time Gold Glove winner — from the Cincinnati Reds in an early November trade. He will make $7.5 million this season and is a candidate for a contract extension.
What to know about Eduardo Rodriguez
There are three important metrics to understand when evaluating Rodriguez: earned run average, fielding independent pitching and batting average on balls in play.
But first, here is the background check.
Rodriguez, who turns 29 in April, made his MLB debut in 2015 for the Red Sox. (The Baltimore Orioles signed him as an international prospect in 2010 but traded him at the 2014 deadline for reliever Andrew Miller.) The Red Sox employed Juan Nieves as the team’s pitching coach in 2013. Although he was fired in May 2015, he formed a bond with Rodriguez during spring training. Nieves is set to enter his second season as the Tigers’ assistant pitching coach and his fourth season in the organization.
Rodriguez, a 6-foot-3 lefty has pitched 159 games (153 starts) in his six-year MLB career, boasting a 4.16 ERA with 294 walks, 892 strikeouts (8.1% walk rate, 24.5% strikeout rate), 3.83 FIP, .312 BABIP and 1.313 WHIP. He averages 1.1 home runs, 3.1 walks and 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings. Along with 11 games in the postseason, Rodriguez made at least 31 starts in the previous two seasons he has pitched in
But his career was put on hold in 2020. He tested positive for COVID-19 and developed myocarditis, a heart condition. This came just after he finished sixth in 2019 American League Cy Young voting with a 3.81 ERA, 75 walks and 213 strikeouts in 203⅓ innings, making 34 starts.
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Rodriguez, though, bounced back in 2021.
This is where his ERA, FIP and BABIP become crucial. Rodriguez finished last season with a 4.74 ERA (47th of 53 starters with at least 150 innings), 3.32 FIP (13th) and .364 BABIP (53rd), along with 47 walks and 185 strikeouts in 157⅔ innings. Sticking with the 150 innings marker, his single-season batting average on balls in play is the worst since 1930, when Claude Willoughby finished with a .367 BABIP in 153 innings for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Essentially, Rodriguez had one of the most unlucky seasons in baseball history.
Rodriguez’s FIP explains how Boston’s sloppy defense severely impacted his performance. The Red Sox made 108 errors and had a .981 fielding percentage last season, both second-worst in MLB behind the Miami Marlins.
What FIP separates the controllable from the uncontrollable. The metric removes results on balls in play and focuses solely on the outcomes a pitcher is responsible for during the game: strikeouts, unintentional walks, hit-by-pitches and home runs.
Rodriguez had a career-best 3.32 FIP last season, a reminder that Boston’s defense didn’t help him. His FIP ranks fifth among pitchers with at least 150 innings and a .340 BABIP in a single season since 1930. This means, when compared to the other unlucky pitchers over the past 91 years, Rodriguez was really good in 2021.
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Here’s another way to view last season’s happenings: Opponents facing Rodriguez combined for a .277 batting average, .756 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and 87 runs. The expected results, which the Statcast database compounds from basically everything except defense, paint a completely different picture: Opponents should have finished with a .240 batting average, .671 OPS and 69 runs.
That’s why it’s not fair to judge Rodriguez based on his 4.74 ERA.
How Eduardo Rodriguez fits in
The Tigers pursued Rodriguez in free agency because of his strikeout rate (27.4%) and walk rate (7.0%) in 2021, further indication that the Venezuela native will be a key addition for Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter.
Last year, Detroit’s starters had an 18.8% strikeout rate (27th in MLB) and a 7.8% walk rate (16th).
Adding Rodriguez gives the Tigers four starters they can count on entering spring training: Rodriguez, Mize, Skubal and Manning. The three returning youngsters completed their rookie campaigns in 2021 while veteran starters Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull were sidelined with injuries that required surgeries. (The Tigers will look to add a fifth starter in free agency, but he is expected to be a veteran or bounce-back candidate.)
“An established starter would be a necessity, yes,” Avila said Oct. 3. “There’s two ways of building. One is, if you have really good, established starters that can go five-, six-plus innings, that really is a big plus for you. If you don’t have that, then you’re going to have to mix and match more of your bullpen.
“If you can add an established starter that can give you those types of innings, that’ll be a big plus for us. If we can’t, for whatever reason, then again, we’re going to have to mix and match more often. If we could come in and sign a good, established starter to be part of that rotation, it’s a big plus.”
But the Tigers need help at a different position, too.
Back in August, Ilitch admitted the Tigers needed a better shortstop and said spending big “could happen this winter” in free agency. One month later, Ilitch put the responsibility to acquire new and improved talent on Avila’s shoulders: “He’s got a plan and will execute his plan.”
Avila executed the first step of his plan by acquiring Barnhart, then he checked off another box by signing Rodriguez to a multiyear contract. But there’s a glaring hole at shortstop, which could be filled by one of five premier players on the open market: Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Trevor Story and Javier Baez. (The Tigers also have an interest in shortstop Chris Taylor.)
Correa, 27, is the best player available at his position, has competed in 79 postseason games and spent five of his seven years with the Houston Astros alongside Hinch. He Correa turned down the Astros’ $18.4 million qualifying offer and is likely seeking at least eight years and $300 million.
A Hinch/Correa reunion makes sense, as long as money and contract commitment don’t get in the way.
So far, Ilitch has followed through on his promise to spend money to upgrade the Tigers ahead of the 2022 season. There’s still more to accomplish if the team wants to get back into the playoffs for the first time since 2014, but everything that has happened since the World Series concluded is a massive leap in the right direction.
Those playoff-hungry Tigers are finally back.
Signified by Eduardo Rodriguez.