Tigers Get Guy With Saves, But Pay Reasonable Price

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

The Al Avila era is very much picking up where his predecessor left off. The Tigers went into the offseason with a bad bullpen and the first move they made was to acquire someone with a long history of earning “saves.” Granted, getting a guy who’s been a successful closer isn’t inherently a bad thing – it’s just a sign that the Tigers might be the same as they ever were, in more ways than one.

The particulars are this: the Tigers sent infield prospect Javier Betancourt and a PTBNL to the Brewers for Francisco Rodriguez (aka K-Rod) and a PTBNL. K-Rod will enter his age 34 season with one year and an option left on his current deal. He’ll get paid $5.5 million in 2016 with $2 million deferred and has a $6 million option/$2 million buyout waiting for 2017. It’s unclear exactly how that will all shake out and if any money is changing hands. Betancourt will be 21 in 2016 and had 531 PA in High-A in 2015. We’ll assume the PTBNLs aren’t substantial names.

Really, the move comes down to how much you think K-Rod has left. Presumably, the Tigers are counting on paying him about $13 million over two seasons, which is probably a bit less than someone like him would make on the free agent market this winter. In other words, the Tigers will save a couple million at the expense of losing Betancourt. Your opinion of Betancourt depends on your opinion of his future offensive profile. He grades out as a solid but unspectacular defender at second base, so if you buy him as someone who can hang in a major league lineup, he has a nifty future. If you think of him as someone who is probably not going to provide slightly below average offense or better, he’s probably nothing more than a fungible utility guy.

In assessing this particular exchange, you have to also consider the time horizons. Betancourt likely won’t be sniffing the big leagues until at least late 2017 and even if he winds up being a worthwhile contributor, that’s probably not until 2018-2019. This requires that you discount his potential value because the future matters less than the present, and as a result, it doesn’t require much more than a “meh” view of his bat to lead you to be comfortable with this deal.

Realistically, while Betancourt might someday be a useful big league infielder, combining the odds of that with how far away that day would be makes it a pretty low cost move. Remember of course that acquiring K-Rod improves the team, but you aren’t comparing him to the current relievers, you’re comparing him to what you could have bought this winter with the money that’s now been allocated to his salary. So this trade saves the Tigers a few million and costs them a prospect who might be a fringe-average player in three years. A fine swap if you’re into grading the exchange.

But more broadly, we should now consider exactly whom the Tigers acquired. We’ve agreed that the cost is fine, but how did picking up K-Rod move the needle for the 2016 team?

There was a time when he was among the best relievers in baseball. From 2004-2007, he was outstanding. He was very good in 2008, meh in 2009, very good again in 2010 and 2011, meh in 2012, and then pretty good in 2013. He was solid enough in 2014 and then good again in 2015. In other words, he has a track record of success with some off years mixed in. But seasons eight and ten years ago mean very little in the life of a reliever. We only care about K-Rod today.

He still gets lots of strikeouts, but while his walk rate has improved in recent years, he’s also become more vulnerable to the long ball. He still limits contact and he’s had better control as of late. In other words, he’s not the star he once was, but still pitches like the kind of guy you’d want in your bullpen. He’s still a good reliever. He doesn’t throw mid-90s anymore, but shifting from a fastball dominant approach to a changeup heavy offering in 2015 is interesting:

Brooksbaseball-Chart (4)

K-Rod was very good in his younger days and has maintained a solid level of performance as he’s transitioned to a guy with a low 90s fastball. As long as he’s healthy, and his track record on that is good, he should be a nice addition to the bullpen.

So in summation: cost fine, addition good. But there is the 800 Tiger-shaped elephant in the room.

This. Can’t. Be. All. 

The Tigers have historically been obsessed with acquiring single, elite relievers who can solidify their entire bullpen. Yes, K-Rod is a nice addition, and yes, he has 386 career “saves,” but neither of those facts mean that one quality reliever is a game changer. The Tigers need to do more, either in free agency or on the trade market. Having a good reliever pitch the 9th inning when the lead is three runs or fewer doesn’t make other relievers pitch better, it just bumps the worst guy from the bullpen and moves everyone down a slot. The Tigers needed to add three pretty good relievers when the winter began, now that number is down to two. The fact that he has been a “closer” in his career does not change that calculation.

The cost was fair and the player was needed. As long as the front office is clear on the degree to which Rodriguez can impact the team, the baseball side of this is good.

Of course, there is another dimension to Rodriguez. He’s known for being a bit of a hot-head and has had run-ins with teammates over the years. Those are the kinds of things you can brush aside in most cases, but he’s also been arrested for assaulting the father of his girlfriend and charged in a separate incident for assaulting the mother of his child. Those are not the kind of issues you want to brush aside. The details of the second incident are somewhat limited and it is possible that Rodriguez has made efforts to change over the last few years. It should not immediately disqualify him from employment with the team to have had these incidents in his past, but you don’t feel good about it either.

The Tigers are no strangers to putting allegedly violent and dangerous people in uniform, including Miguel Cabrera, Evan Reed, and Alfredo Simon in recent years. The reports about Rodriguez sound less egregious than those the Tigers have already embraced, but that doesn’t mean Rodriguez doesn’t have a shameful past which the Tigers should be worried about. At the very least, it won’t be easy to cheer for his personal success. Most of the world doesn’t care about athletes who get into fights and beat women. If you’re a good athlete, people will make excuses for your behavior because they care about winning more than they care about what is morally right. I’m not interested in doing that, but I understand that many of your are.

I wouldn’t have traded for K-Rod without evidence that he’s sought counseling for his personal flaws, shown remorse, and changed his ways. But in a baseball only vacuum, the trade does help the team.



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