Replacing Eduardo Rodriguez: Let’s consider the top free agent starters

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After striking quickly for a little positional help, the Detroit Tigers’ focus quickly turns to pitching in the wake of Eduardo Rodriguez’s decision to test free agency. Adding Mark Canha was a solid move, but it doesn’t turn the offense into a real force either. Picking up Carson Kelly ensures a strong defensive catching group, but does nothing for the offense either. With Rodriguez unlikely to return, the pitching staff needs some serious work to make it a strength that can carry the club in 2024.

There are a lot of pitchers available, but the need to replace a good starter like Rodriguez makes the task more difficult. And even if they land such a pitcher, the Tigers still need to go beyond that to pick up a depth starter/swingman, and should address their bullpen deficiency with another good reliever. If they can’t land one of the better starters on the market in the first place, the whole task of improving the pitching staff becomes really difficult.

The Tigers can hope for a solid return to action from Casey Mize. Maybe Spencer Turnbull finds him way back to some degree. They have some quality pitching prospects nearing the major leagues. But right now the rotation is Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, Reese Olson, and maybe Sawyer Gipson-Long, and that group is one injury from being a disaster.

Free agency opened on Monday, so let’s take a quick look over the Tigers options, highlighting the top five starting pitchers available. There really aren’t that many options available who are clearly better than Rodriguez. Of course, there’s also still the outside possibility that the Tigers end up re-signing Rodriguez anyway, but most of us would prefer to move on at this point.

In this group, I’d put Aaron Nola, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery, and Sonny Gray.

Yoshinobu Yamamoto would be great for Detroit, even at a forecasted seven years, $210 million. The Japanese star is only 25 years old, and it’s rare for teams to have a crack at a potential ace in his mid-20’s. The right-hander has a funky pause and fire delivery, but Yamamoto sits comfortably around 95 mph with his riding fourseam fastball with excellent command and feel for all parts of the zone. His long stride produces good extension and a lower release point offered from his 5’10” frame seems to help the fourseamer play up a bit. He can reach back for more when he wants it, and arguably he’s still getting stronger.

Yamamoto backs that up with a really good splitter and a high spin curveball that both get plenty of whiffs, and a solid cutter that he can use to jam lefties and otherwise keep hitters honest against his fastball. He’s a lot of fun to watch pitch.

Yamamoto posted a 1.21 ERA this season, and for the second year in a row, led the NPB in ERA, strikeouts, and wins, while throwing just short of 200 innings. He walked just 4.4 percent of hitters faced. This is a legitimate Cy Young candidate from the jump.

Obviously, the Tigers have never even seriously pursued a Japanese player. The Tigers have scouted Yamamoto, but it seems highly unlikely that they’re going to outbid big market coastal teams for his services. The Detroit area does have a strong Japanese-American community, so perhaps he’s more likely to come to Detroit than many other teams, but in the end it’s the big spenders in New York, California, and possibly Texas that make the most sense.

That’s unfortunate, as adding Yamamoto could set the Tigers rotation up for years as one of the better units out there and still leave them with plenty of payroll space to add help and pursue a top free agent hitter sometime in the next two years.

Do it Tigers. I dare you.

Yoshinobu Yamamoto 2021-2023

Season IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP ERA
Season IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP ERA
2021 193.2 9.6 1.9 0.30 0.84 1.39
2022 193.0 9.6 2.0 0.30 0.93 1.68
2023 171.0 9.3 1.5 0.10 0.86 1.16

Lefty Blake Snell also makes some sense for the Tigers. Signing Snell would take the Tigers from having an elite lefty in Skubal and a good lefty in Rodriguez, to potentially having the two best left-handed starters in baseball in the same rotation for the next few seasons. The big problem with signing Snell is that he’s already nearly 31 years old and hasn’t been all that durable in his career.

In 2023, Snell really returned to full power, spinning 180 innings for the expensive failure that was the San Diego Padres. The lefty is still averaging almost 96 mph with his fourseam fastball, and packs a superb curveball and changeup combination that carries him to strikeout rates better than 30 percent year in and year out. The stuff is spectacular, and between the strikeouts and the relatively low home run rates, Snell has a great foundation for continued success.

The problem here of course, is that Snell is now coming off his second best season and likely to take home his second Cy Young award. Those items make it highly unlikely a team can sign him for a really good price. He’s probably not going to get more than four years considering his age and track record, but those years are likely to cost close to $30M per.

The durability doesn’t concern me that much, but that factor is a bit compounded in that it’s hard to see a way Snell could get much better. The Tigers probably don’t want to commit $120M to a pitcher heading into his age 31 season in the first place, but if they did, they probably want to find someone more durable or someone they think they can improve. Maybe the Tigers could help Snell trim the walks and command the fastball a little better, and it would certainly be great to add him and his postseason experience to what looks like a very young, inexperienced rotation, but don’t expect anything here unless the rumors really start flying.

Blake Snell 2021-2023

Season IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
Season IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
2021 128.2 3.82 30.9 12.5 1.12 2.1
2022 128.0 2.80 32.0 9.5 0.77 3.6
2023 180.0 3.44 31.5 13.3 0.75 4.1

Next on the list is Phillies’ right-hander Aaron Nola. The 30-year-old Nola already has a Cy Young award under his belt, but is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career in 2023. The Phillies are rumored to be ready to move on from Nola, and are reportedly heavily interested in Snell.

Despite their similar ages, Nola feels a lot more likely to maintain his production well into his 30’s than Snell. The right-hander has always sat between 92-93 mph with his fourseam/sinker combination, so there’s no major concern about a loss of velocity really hurting him. Likewise, as a somewhat light-throwing starting pitcher who depends on precision and a fantastic curveball over power stuff, Nola has been extremely durable by modern standards and probably can continue to be for years to come.

The Tigers also have some ways in which they could make Nola better. The Phillies are no slouch in developing pitchers, and after Nola’s struggles in the first half of 2023, they were able to sort his command out to the point that he pitched like a true ace again in September and October. However, it took a while, and Nola was victimized quite a bit by the long ball while still putting up his typically excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio. I don’t think the Phillies are quite on the Tigers level in terms of gameplanning and sequencing hitters. Chris Fetter could do a lot for a pitcher with good stuff and great command that doesn’t depend on velocity in terms of preventing home runs.

Add to that the fact that J.T. Realmuto’s framing abilities have collapsed while Jake Rogers have improved. Rogers posted +5 framing runs above average to Realmuto’s -14 in 2023, and in particular Rogers improved at the bottom of the zone, where Nola likes to spot the sinker. The Tigers are probably primed to get more out of Nola than the Phillies could this season.

Jim Bowden of the Athletic is a bit notorious for missing badly with his projections, so take it with a grain of salt, but he does have a lot of contacts in front offices around the game. He suggests a contract of 5 years, $125 million for Nola, and I’d be thrilled with that. Nola seems like the best bet to give consistently good production over the next five years, Yamamoto aside, and there’s a good chance he has another peak season in him yet.

Aaron Nola 2021-2023

Season IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
Season IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
2021 180.2 3.37 29.8 5.2 1.3 4.4
2022 205 2.77 29.1 3.6 0.83 6.3
2023 193.2 3.63 25.5 5.7 1.49 3.9

Next up we have Texas Rangers postseason hero, Jordan Montgomery. The 6’6” left-hander is another pitcher in the same age group as Snell and Nola, set to turn 31 in 2024. For the past few seasons, Montgomery has been a good mid-rotation arm whose low strikeout totals didn’t inspire a lot of conviction from his teams.

The Yankees traded him to the Cardinals in 2022, and the Cardinals flipped him to Texas in July of this year. At that point, it really came together for the big southpaw as the Rangers simplified his approach and his walk rate, which was always a strength, dipped under five percent. Montgomery put together a string of very impressive starts for the eventual World Series champs.

Jordan Montgomery is different from Eduardo Rodriguez because he packs a very effective curveball and even better command, but in terms of expected production going forward, I’d put those two lefties in the same category. Neither strikes out enough hitters to consistently dominate, but they’re both durable, know how to get weak contact, and rarely make the kinds of mistakes that get hammered into the seats. I’d expect Montgomery to hold up better due to his curveball, whereas without a real breaking ball Rodriguez’s fastball/changeup heavy approach could come undone pretty quickly with a loss of velocity.

Montgomery would make a perfectly fitting replacement for E-Rod, and like Snell would give the Tigers a really good pair of left-handed starters. In Snell’s case, you’re buying runs of dominance interspersed with more injuries. In Montgomery’s case, you’re buying durability and command, putting him in a somewhat easier park to pitch in, and expecting just good, consistent production that is a little more dependent on the Tigers’ defense than in the case of Snell, or Nola and Yamamoto, for that matter.

The issue is Bowden’s projection of five years, $125 million for the left-hander. Pass. He’s probably a minor upgrade over Rodriguez, but if you’re spending that much anyway, go big and get Nola, Yamamoto or Snell.

Jordan Montgomery 2021-2023

Season IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
Season IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
2021 157.1 3.69 24.5 7.7 1.09 3.2
2022 178.1 3.61 21.8 5.0 1.06 2.7
2023 188.2 3.56 21.4 6.2 0.86 4.3

As a backup option, I’ll throw in right-hander Sonny Gray as an outside possibility who still belongs solidly in the top tier here. More Gray than Sonny these days as he goes into his age 34 season, you wouldn’t know it from his performance as the veteran right-hander put together the best season of his career in 2023, mainly by staying on the mound for 184 innings, the most since his early 200 inning seasons in 2014-2015 for the Oakland Athletics.

Gray has always been good. And while he’s typically not durable enough to make 30 starts, he’s made 20 or more every full season of his career. In 2023, he was able to stay on the mound for 32 starts, the Minnesota Twins helped him re-shape his slider into a pretty nasty sweeper, and Gray did the rest with his typically good command. With health came a bit more fastball velocity, and despite averaging about 93 mph, his fourseamer was a better than average pitch for him, while the sweeper/curveball mix was lethal.

Like Montgomery in Texas, I tend to expect Gray to re-sign with the Twins. Considering his age, he’s not going to get a ton of years, but they should all come at a pretty high average annual salary. Say three years, $72 million. You’d expect that Gray will return to being a 20-25 start per season pitcher, but the new breaking ball gives extra reason to think he can remain a well above average pitcher for several more seasons to come.

Sonny Gray 2021-2023

Season IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
Season IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
2021 135.1 3.99 27.0 8.7 1.26 2.5
2022 119.2 3.40 24.0 7.4 0.83 2.4
2023 184.0 2.83 24.3 7.3 0.39 5.3

I chuckle evilly at the thought of adding Aaron Nola, but I’m downright maniacal thinking about Yoshinobu Yamamoto. Either one would immediately make the Tigers much more formidable. It’s worth remembering that Eduardo Rodriguez was a 3.0 fWAR/3.5 rWAR pitcher this season. That’s a significant loss. If the front office picks up a pair of project starters and calls it good, the Tigers outlook, at least on paper, will be worse than it was in 2023. No one is expecting the Tigers to sign any of the names mentioned here, but it sure would be nice to be pleasantly surprised for once.

Paying Sonny Gray after his best season is probably a recipe for a little overpay, but it would avoid the kind of long term deal the Tigers presumably are wary of at this point, while putting an upgrade from Eduardo Rodriguez into the rotation. Gray’s habit of missing 6-7 starts per season isn’t a problem, as the Tigers will be happy to have opportunities for their top prospect starters along the way.

Snell would be great. Facing Tarik Skubal and Blake Snell in a series would be very uncomfortable for a lot of major league lineups. And while the Tampa Bay Rays are great at developing pitchers and gameplanning, the San Diego Padres are not so good. Snell would likely be great in Detroit. You just have to be willing to take the ups and downs.

In my next article, we’ll take about the mid-tier options that could feasibly replace Eduardo Rodriguez without a significant loss of performance. There aren’t so many, as pretty quickly the free agent list gets into bounceback candidates and project starters.

We better hope the Tigers can land someone really good, however. Pitching has to be a strength for this club to have any realistic hopes of contending in the AL Central in 2024. Trying to piece something together all year just isn’t good enough unless there’s a major addition coming elsewhere on the roster, and that would be a real surprise this offseason. We’re conditioned to never expect the Tigers to land the big free agent, and clearly Harris and Greenberg prefer to find less obvious options rather than going toe-to-toe with the biggest spending teams, but they’re going to be very hard pressed to make it work without one of these five arms in the fold.

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