This is the second post in a series where I'll be looking at roster decisions facing the Tigers. As I explained in the first post, I'm talking about roster decisions regarding current players. The first post was about Brandon Lyon and a natural follow-up to me is Fernando Rodney.
Rodney is an interesting case. Coming into this season, he was expected to be a valuable part of the bullpen as long as he was healthy. Rodney, after all, has in the past proven to be a fairly effective reliever when healthy. We’ve just had to suffer through a lot of times where everybody tried to figure out if he was or not.
By the time spring training was finished, Fernando Rodney had stepped forward as the winner of a competition for the closer role. You could probably argue Brandon Lyon stepped backward, but the result was the same.
To the surprise of many, it was a role Rodney grabbed a hold of and never let go. His numbers on the season were less than sterling but when the Tigers had played their final game, he had 37 saves in 38 opportunities and the Tigers won the only game he blew.
I view saves as a pretty useless stat, but the Tigers were 73-0 this season when they went into the ninth with a lead and Rodney was a pretty big part of that success. At the same time, the success was unsustainable when you get back to the numbers that matter.
Rodney's strikeout rate (7.3 K/9) was his lowest in a full season and his walk rate (4.9 BB/9) was unacceptable for a closer or ace reliever—whichever moniker you prefer. Those numbers left him as a closer with a K-to-BB ration well below two. Those peripherals combined with his susceptibility to home runs—despite a career high 57.9 percent ground ball rate—left him with an FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) of 4.56.
FIP approximates what a pitcher's ERA should have been based on factors they have control over (walks, strikeouts, homers) and is based on skills that have good correlation from year to year. That makes it a valuable tool for this type of exercise. Based on Rodney's FIP as well as some areas where he had some good fortune (11.3 LD percntage in 2009), it seems safe to say he shouldn't be the Tigers' most trusted reliever.
Here's the thing, though. I've already advocated for letting Brandon Lyon go. If the Tigers let Rodney walk, they will be letting go of both of their highest leverage relievers from 2009.
That's a scary proposal. It's not so scary that they should risk paying those two somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million, but it's going to make a lot of people nervous about the 2010 bullpen. Should they offer Rodney arbitration?
The big reason I'm saying they need to part ways with Lyon is because of his contract. The risk of offering him arbitration, having him accept and paying him like an ace reliever again seems too great to me.
Rodney, on the other hand, hasn't had his salary bloated by free agency yet. He made $2.7 million last season and I expect that if he and the Tigers went to arbitration they'd be looking for some middle ground between $4 million and $6 million.
I still think that's a lot of money for a reliever. Rodney, though, throws in the mid- to high-90s, has a wicked changeup and as I've already mentioned, saved 37 of 38 games this season.
I don't know how attractive he will be on the free agency market, but I think those attributes may very well cause him to turn down arbitration in order to see. He's also expected to be a Type B free agent so if he does that and signs somewhere else, the Tigers will get a compensatory pick in the 2010 draft.
To recap the key points, the Tigers will have to overpay Rodney if he accepts arbitration. Because it's his first year of free agency, they probably won't have to overpay like they would for Lyon. He's also a bit overrated because of his stuff and his role this past season, so he's less likely to accept arbitration.
This means he is more likely (than Lyon) to be less of a burden if he accepts free agency. He is also more likely (than Lyon) to turn down arbitration in favor of looking for a multi-year free agent contract.
I don't think the Tigers can afford to offer arbitration to both Lyon and Rodney. Rodney looks, to me, to be the safer bet for an arbitration offer since he is a lower cost risk (if he accepts) with a higher chance of reward (if he doesn’t). For this reason, I think the Tigers should, and will, offer him arbitration this season.
Considering how much faith they put in him in the final game of the Tigers' 2009 season, I don't really think there's much doubt they will. It sounds like they expect him to turn it down, though. That’s fine for both sides. Fernando gets paid. The Tigers spend their limited resources on a role that’s more difficult to fill with talent either already in the system or cheaply available