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Mariners 2021 Free Agent target: LHP Carlos Rodón

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With a Kikuchi-sized gap in their rotation, the Mariners have both the money and the space to add Rodón—and the pitching development to help him shine

Division Series - Houston Astros v Chicago White Sox - Game Four Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Chicago White Sox surprised the baseball world this past weekend by not extending a Qualifying Offer (QO) to LHP Carlos Rodón. While most free agents don’t accept QOs, instead hoping to test the market to get a bigger and/or longer-term deal, there was a small chance the 28-year-old might have accepted the QO—this year set at $18.4M, not an insignificant amount—in an attempt to rebuild value for a longer contract after a disappointing second half. Instead, Rodón will potentially walk, and the White Sox will receive no draft pick compensation when and if he does.

The White Sox’s motivation in not extending the QO to Rodón is largely a cost-saving (read: cheap) move, especially after they picked up Craig Kimbrel’s $16M option, but there are other factors at play, at well. The White Sox currently have a rotation of Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease, Dallas Keuchel, and Lance Lynn, and want to move Michael Kopech out of the bullpen and into the rotation. With a traditional five-man rotation in Chicago, that puts Rodón on the outside looking in, theoretically, although any 2021 Mariners fan would look at the idea of “five starters is plenty” and have a good old belly laugh. The team also failed to extend a QO to Rodón last year, but were then able to bring him back on a one-year deal.

However, this is a very different year for Rodón. While he finished the second half of the season on a down note, he pitched brilliantly through much of 2021. Mariners fans might remember Rodón’s season debut, in which he blanked the Mariners for five innings, striking out nine batters. In his second start of the season, he threw a no-hitter that was two outs from being a perfect game. He closed out April with a 12-strikeout performance over six innings against Detroit. As the season went on, he earned his first-ever All Star selection with some of the best numbers among all pitchers at the ASB, and even after a second-half slowdown, still finished the year close to a five-win pitcher, striking out almost 35% of batters faced.

Ah, but about that second-half slowdown. Part of the frustration with Rodón, who has never reached his third-overall pick ceiling, is that he’s largely been ineffective when he’s been on the mound, but also has been off the mound often in his career, with a host of shoulder and arm injuries. Those injuries crept up again over the second half of the season in 2021 while his velocity fell off a cliff, and even though he was able to still pitch effectively, giving him solid numbers to end the season on, it was in much shorter stints—four and five innings rather than six and seven, with ample breaks in between.

At this point you’re probably thinking, hey, this sounds familiar: a lefty with good stuff but inconsistent results who had an excellent first half and then fell off in the second half? With bonus added injury scares? No thanks, hard pass. But Carlos Rodón is not Yusei Kikuchi, and there is a whole host of reasons the Mariners should bid for his services this off-season.

Rodón had by far his best season as a pro this year, and it’s pretty easy to point at the biggest thing that changed: the White Sox hired former Mariners MiLB pitching coach Ethan Katz as their MLB pitching coach. Katz used to coach at the powerhouse MLB draft pick-producing high school Harvard-Westlake, H-W alum and staff ace Lucas Giolito referred him to the team, who charmed him away from a job as pitching coordinator with the Giants. As soon as he got to Chicago, Katz overhauled Rodón’s delivery, which he believed was leading the lefty to throw across his body and causing some of his shoulder problems.

Here’s Rodón’s delivery back in 2018:

And in 2020. Look at how upright he finishes; his upper body is doing all the work, with an assist from his quads. This is how a strong man throws, relying on the “power” muscle groups of the quads and biceps, but it’s not a well-integrated delivery, and it’s not a surprise that it led to injury.

And here’s early in 2021. He’s still pretty upright to finish, but you can see a little more squat, a little more activation in the glutes, and more of his lower body getting in on the action.

And here’s July. You can see he’s using his legs much better to generate power and getting down the hill faster, which tracks with the uptick in velocity.

It should also be noted here that Rodón underwent TJ in early 2019, wiping out most of his 2019 and 2020 seasons, so those clips have a lot of developmental space in between them except for the last two. A heavy 2021 workload after a long layoff might also help explain Rodón wearing down towards the back end of the season.

What’s encouraging about the leap forward Rodón took in 2021 is that it suggests that with proper coaching and workload management, he has the talent to achieve his frontline starter ceiling, something the White Sox were hoping for when they took him third overall out of NC State in 2014, where Rodón racked up basically every major award a college pitcher can win en route to a 25-10 career and a College World Series appearance. College pitchers are always fast-tracked through the minors, but the White Sox took that acceleration to the extreme, treating Rodón like a finished product: he pitched fewer than 35 innings in the minors, skipping Double-A completely, before he was throwing 140 innings for the 2015 White Sox. While Rodón was mowing batters down in the minors with a K% of around 35%, Chicago chose to ignore his double-digit walk rate, assuming he would...figure out his command at the highest level of baseball?

Unfortunately, that double-digit walk rate never really receded, at least until the 2021 season, when Katz and Rodón were able to shave it down to a manageable 6.7% for the year, and while other peripherals went haywire for Rodón in the second half, his walk rate actually improved (5.7%!), suggesting his improvements in command are here to stay.

Meanwhile, the quality of Rodón’s stuff all improved under Katz’s watch: his fastball picked up to sit at 95 on average, and he was able to throw it more often, with more command and consistency. Here’s where Rodón was landing his fastball in 2018, the last time he pitched over 100 innings:

And here it is in 2021. He’s successfully locating the pitch up and in on righties now, staying out of the middle of the plate, but still commanding the zone. Rodón actually had reverse splits this year, keeping righties under the Mendoza Line, making him a solid addition to Seattle’s potentially lefty-heavy starting rotation. He’s also getting significantly more whiffs on the pitch than ever before, with a near-30% whiff rate on the pitch, thanks to the combination of improved velocity and location.

Rodón’s slider has always been excellent, but it plays up with the improvement on his fastball, cajoling batters into whiffing on the pitch 40% of the time. With batters in an 0-2 count, Rodón has a slider usage over 50%, with about half of those at-bats ending in a swinging strikeout, many on ugly check swings.

Rounding out Rodón’s arsenal are a changeup that can elicit whiffs but batters punish when they make contact with it, and a newly-added curveball that he didn’t throw a ton in 2021 but had promising results when he did.

Aces are hard to come by, especially on the free agent market, and especially ones who haven’t yet had their 30th birthday. Carlos Rodón isn’t an ace, yet, but there’s enough in his arsenal and results to suggest that with proper pitching development—the kind he might not have had while advancing at warp speed through Chicago’s system—and solid health, he could be. The latter has been arguably the bigger issue for Rodón, and it’s the kind of gamble any team would be taking in offering the injury-plagued pitcher a significant contract. But for a team like the Mariners with decent pitching depth in the minors who are right at the opening of their competitive window, they don’t need Rodón to be an overnight success, but can continue to help him develop and build on his 2021 season—something the Mariners, a team that has earned recognition in the industry for their pitching development, are well-positioned to do. A six-man rotation, if the Mariners choose to stick with that, could also help lessen the stress on his arm as he builds back from a long layoff.

Any significant free agent contract is a gamble, but Rodón’s health and spotty track record make him riskier than most. However, with that high risk comes a potentially enormous reward. The White Sox made a gamble of their own that they could get Rodón to come back for less than the price of either a long-term contract or a relatively low-risk QO. Assuming Rodón’s medicals don’t come back with the arm diagram circled and labeled HAUNTED, the Mariners should assume the higher risk for a potential frontline reward.