No one would have been surprised last summer, had Wandy Rodriguez been dealt by the Houston Astros. Instead, Rodriguez stayed in Houston and was signed to a three-year, $34 million deal with an option for 2014.
There were two thoughts that came to mind after this deal: one, the Astros had no idea what they were doing, and no concept of just how poor their team and it's short-term future were; or two, the Astros felt Rodriguez had more value in a trade if he were under contract.
If number two is correct, the Astros gave themselves the friendliest year of the deal at $7 million (plus a $1.5 million signing bonus) in 2011. The remaining $23 million is wrapped up in 2012 and 2013, and if Rodriguez is traded, his 2014 option becomes a $13 million player option that has a chance of being picked up or could automatically become guaranteed based on performance, making his 2012-2014 value $36 million.
The perception is that $36 million is a lot of money to invest in a pitcher like Rodriguez, who has never been thought of very highly in his career. He started out poorly; from age 25 through 28, Rodriguez posted an ERA of 5.17 with a 1.9 K/BB ratio and just 6.8 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. Since 2008, though, Rodriguez has been a different pitcher entirely: in his last 685 innings, Rodriguez has struck out 8.2 batters per nine, posted a 2.8 K/BB, and completely reversed his ERA fortunes with a 119 ERA+ -- that's 22nd best among the 81 pitchers with at least 500 innings since 2008.
Rodriguez isn't an ace, even though he's been asked to fill that role in Houston. He's an excellent third starter or a good number two on many teams, and, for an average annual value of $12 million, you could do a lot worse. Depending on who you ask, a win via free agency costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $4.5 million -- Rodriguez has averaged 3.5 rWAR a season since 2008, and has been worth 2.5 wins in 2011 with over a month to go. He wouldn't be a bargain at $12 million with that production, but he would earn his keep, especially for a team in contention.
For clubs fighting for playoff spots, the value of an extra win in dollars is easily justified. In Baseball Between the Numbers, Nate Silver wrote about the "marginal economic value" of each extra win, and found that for teams close to contention, the ends justified the means in terms of spending. Before that, Silver wrote about the "sweet spot" for teams where their playoff odds jumped quickly, in between 86 and 94 wins. That spot correlates nicely with this chart that shows the marginal value of a win, as that figure climbs and drops within the same range:
Silver used a six-win player as an example to explain the above:
- Royals: The free agent, who allows them to win 71 games rather than 65, is worth about $4.1 million ($590,000 per win).
- Mets: The free agent, who allows them to win 91 games rather than 85, is worth about $17 million ($2.8 million per win).
- Cardinals: The free agent, who allows them to win 101 games rather than 95, is worth about $4.8 million ($800,000 per win).
Remembering that those dollar values are from 2006 and therefore appear deflated by today's standards, what the concept means is that New York and Boston don't necessarily need to claim Rodriguez, but that someone like the Tigers, Diamondbacks, and maybe even the first-place Rangers should be all over him. Detroit and Arizona are on pace for 87 wins, and the Rangers, with a rotation that is solid but could be upgraded, at 92. The Diamondbacks are also just one game up in the NL West, and their rotation is their weakest component, while the Tigers have been searching all year for a dependable third arm behind Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.
Outside of 2011, though, Rodriguez makes sense for either the Red Sox or the Yankees. Both teams have the money in place to eat Rodriguez's remaining deal, and both teams could use him during the entirety of his contract. The Red Sox are without a serious pitching prospect in the upper levels of the system, and Daisuke Matsuzaka, the fifth starter entering the year, will be out until at least the midway point thanks to Tommy John surgery, and will then be a free agent after the season. The Yankees do have pitching prospects that could step in, but they also have the finances to snag more of a sure thing in Rodriguez if they wanted to. The Rangers come into play here as well, as C.J. Wilson is a free agent this winter.
At this point, we're not sure if the Astros are just seeing what they can get for Rodriguez in an August trade, or if their hope is to unload every penny of the deal on an unsuspecting claimer. What we do know, thanks to Rodriguez's history, the extension, and the marginal win value for teams in contention's sweet spot, is that a team on the edge that could use a pitcher would be silly to turn down this chance to get one.