Insider: Rays Add Fernando Rodney To Bullpen

The Tampa Bay Rays agreed to terms with free agent relief pitcher Fernando Rodney on a one-year contract worth $2 million. According to Enrique Rojas of ESPNDeportes, the deal calls for a $1.75 million base salary in 2012 and a $250,000 buyout if the club does not exercise a $2.5 million option for 2013. Rodney spent the last two seasons with the Los Angeles Angels after six-plus years with the Detroit Tigers.

On the surface, the marriage of Rodney and the Rays is a bit of a head-scratcher. The tight-budgeted organization guaranteeing $2 million to a 34-year-old reliever with a checkered injury past and a career 4.29 ERA does not seem very Tampa Bay-like. Sure, Rodney has closing experience (87 career saves), but was never an elite reliever and has experienced extreme bouts of wildness throughout his career.

For his career, Rodney owns an unintentional walk rate of 4.40 per nine innings. In 2011, he walked more batters (28) than he struck out (26). When he is not walking batters it might be because he is hitting them as he has issued 27 career hit-by-pitches. In addition to the control problems, he suffered a back strain last season (35 games) and has previous shoulder and elbow issues – including Tommy John surgery in 2004.

While the flaws are pretty easy to pick out, we know there is something the Rays see in Rodney’s right arm. In fact, they felt strong enough about it that they guaranteed him $2 million at a position that is not necessarily a need. With that in mind, here are some things that could explain the process behind the signing…

Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman called Rodney’s pure stuff “top-notch.” Led by a fastball with an average speed of 95 mph, he also throws a pretty potent circle change-up and uses a slider as his third pitch. He throws two variations of the fastball: a standard four-seamer and a hard, sinking two-seamer.

Rodney’s stuff has garnered decent strikeout rates in his career. He has struck out 8.23 batters per nine innings and owns a swinging strike rate of 11.1% That said, last year he struck out 7.31 batters per nine with a swinging strike rate of 8.2%.

Although he throws the fastball most often, Rodney’s best pitch is the change up. Over the past three seasons he has thrown it about 35% of the time with a whiff rate just over14%. The off-speed pitch has been effective against batters of both sides, giving him relatively neutral splits throughout his career.

I consulted with pitch f/x expert Mike Fast about Rodney’s arsenal. He found that the reliever went to his slider against right-handed batters more last year than he had in years past. In theory, that is the correct way to use the pitch – with the platoon advantage – however, Fast noted that he could not throw it for strikes. This led to somewhat of a reverse-split in 2011, meaning Rodney was slightly more effective against lefties than he was versus like-handed hitters.

Rodney’s batted-ball profiled has jumped around a bit, but with a 49% career groundball rate, he has done most of his work close to the Earth. Mike Fast explained that he has increased the usage of his two-seam fastball since 2009 which has led to a groundball rate north of 55% over the past three years. Despite his recent struggles, he posted a career-high 58.5% groundball rate in 2011.

For a pitcher who hands out a lot of free passes, the groundball can be a life saver. It comes in handy for double plays and minimizes the chance for baserunners to score on balls hit along the infield. The Angels provided Rodney with an above-average defense last year; however, advanced metrics rated the Rays defense as the best in the American League with most of their defenders returning in 2012.

Undoubtedly, there are reasons for the Rays attraction to Rodney that go beyond public metrics. Speaking about his new reliever, Andrew Friedman said “we feel he will be able to maximize his ability with us.” That means the organization probably knows a thing or two that we do not.

What we do know is that information is king. From statistics to scouting, the Rays crave knowledge. With that in mind, one would think pitching coach Jim Hickey’s track record of harnessing wild arms like Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit factored into the decision. There’s also a chance that an in-house analysis like Josh Kalk found a mechanical flaw they feel can be fixed. More likely, it was a mix of ideas and information that went into the decision. And while most players do not undergo sweeping changes at age 35, relief pitcher is probably the easiest position to make a transformation.

Unlike most of the Rays transactions, finding the process behind the Fernando Rodney signing is not that easy. He is not the worst relief pitcher available; however, his track record does not inspire much confidence. And unlike the Kyle Farnsworth signing of last year, it does not appear that Rodney has changed much in his profile to suggest otherwise.

On the other hand a one-year, $2 million deal is not a huge risk; not even for the financially-challenged Rays. If Rodney is a league-average reliever and pitches 50 quality innings then the deal does no one harm. If he crashes and burns, his salary as a sunk cost would not cripple the franchise. Meanwhile, if he takes some of the positives listed above, and finds some control under the Rays’ roof, he could be a an unlikely low-risk/high-reward signing.