I, along with many others, was glad when the White Sox non-tendered Carlos Rodón at the outset of the 2020-21 offseason.
Rodón had been a talented, but horrendously unreliable pitcher who never fully delivered on his prospect pedigree as a No. 3 overall pick due to a cascade of injuries (though, to his credit, he turned out a helluva lot better than the two guys picked ahead of him).
I was equally livid when they brought him back to be the fifth starter in a season where they had World Series aspirations. While the $3 million price tag wasn’t exorbitant, it seemed like a waste of precious resources on a team that had just decided that they couldn’t afford to get a real right fielder — and for a pitcher who didn’t appear a good bet to be in one piece by the time postseason play started.
Could Rodón be counted on to give you $3 million worth of production? Sure, I suppose. Could he be counted on to lock down that fifth starter spot and keep the White Sox from having to call on depth that was sorely lacking? That was the much more debatable part, and unless you were a huge believer in Reynaldo López, or that Michael Kopech could fill in at some point, there was little confidence that Rodón was going to contribute in a meaningful sample size.
Rodón went out and proved the skeptics wrong — while simultaneously somehow also proving them right.
For the first half of the season, Rodón was an AL Cy Young frontrunner. His fastball averaged 95.4 mph, a full tick faster than his previous high, and touched 99 mph, something we had never seen him do previously. The filthy slider, his best weapon largely absent for several seasons, had returned with a vengeance. Though his changeup quality lagged well behind the other two pitches, it helped his ace offerings play up deeper into games.
Quite frankly, nobody saw this coming. This was literally the best Rodón had ever looked as a professional, and by far. He became the pitcher we thought we were getting when the White Sox went to their maximum draft penalty to pay his signing bonus.
Rodón was durable like he’d never been, going at least five innings in his first 16 starts (including a no-hitter in his second start of the season), posting an ace’s 2.14 ERA that was legitimized by a sterling 2.21 FIP. In half of those starts, he hit a triple-digit pitch count. It seemed like the low-risk gamble the White Sox made on the fifth starter spot had unexpectedly produced a cheap No. 1 starter.
Then, as was feared, the wheels started to come off. In Rodón’s next two starts his stuff was clearly diminished, and he lasted only four innings in each, giving up six runs in those eight innings. While he was effective through five innings in his next start, he left with only 89 pitches thrown and clear signs of distress, which was confirmed when he went on the 10-day IL shortly thereafter.
Upon returning, Rodón just did not look the same. The fastball velocity had dipped to where he was sitting 89-91 at one point, and the slider had lost much of its sharpness. While he pitched relatively well outside of a single, three-inning disaster in his penultimate start for the regular season, the White Sox were cautious with him, limiting him to five innings in an attempt to get him through what they hoped was merely a dead arm period before the playoffs came.
Fully-rested for the playoffs, Rodón’s fastball velocity returned, but it was all he had against a Houston team that clobbered fastballs. In the end, for their $3 million the White Sox got a little more than 100 innings of ace quality production, but a clearly diminished player when the calendar flipped to September and October. Somehow, Rodón had managed to far exceed everybody’s expectations — while simultaneously confirming our worst fears.
So now, with that performance leading into what will be one of the more intriguing free agent cases of the offseason, should the White Sox try to retain control with a qualifying offer ($18.4 million) — and would he accept it?
Honestly, it is not an especially difficult call to say the White Sox should not be offering Rodón the QO. While I wouldn’t necessarily fault them for it, if it hamstrings their finances from solving other problems, then the opportunity cost is simply too high. This team had its problems put into glaring focus by a clearly superior Houston Astros team, and there are too many problems to solve without throwing $18+ million at a starting pitcher who just had a career year that amounted to 132 2⁄3 innings of work that cratered in the season’s final days.
Of course, there is the chance that Rodón declines the QO and elects to go to free agency, with the chance for the White Sox to get a compensation pick (in Compensation Round B, which takes place after the second round) in return should he sign elsewhere. This is where the narrative gets very difficult to project.
The odds are very high that, Scott Boras client or no, Rodón would accept the QO. I don’t see any team offering him $18+ million for 2022, and possibly not much more than that even on a two-year deal. His injury history, to include his 2021 campaign, may very well scare teams away from any sort of multi-year deal that is not laden with durability incentives. Boras is more of a factor in that it will probably be next to impossible to hammer out a deal to keep Rodón in Chicago while the White Sox have exclusive negotiating rights (now, until Monday). Short of a one-year windfall like the QO would bring, I don’t see Boras willing to talk until he has other teams to leverage.
So, should the White Sox bring Rodón back? I don’t know, maybe. Yes, I know that’s an unsatisfying answer, but I think any contract offered to Rodón has to acknowledge his limitations and come from a club willing to do what it takes to work around those limitations. The White Sox are no doubt going to be trying to build up Michael Kopech to take some starts in 2022, though he’s no guarantee to pitch 130+ innings any more than Rodón is right now.
However, being able to manage their workloads in tandem could help keep them fresh over the course of the season’s grind and be of a benefit come the postseason rather than a hinderance. Moreover, it gives them a bit of insurance against Dallas Keuchel’s second-half collapse being a harbinger of things to come and not just a blip on the radar. But that would require a managerial team savvy enough to make that balancing act work, and I’m not sure I trust Tony La Russa to suddenly get flexible with how he utilizes a starting pitcher.
Regardless, any Carlos Rodón reunion has to be cognizant of the resources committed, because there are a lot of positions to fill and, with four rotation spots pretty much locked down for 2022 (Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn, Dylan Cease, Keuchel) and Kopech the heir apparent for the fifth, Rick Hahn may look elsewhere to invest eight figures for improvement in the team’s fortunes and wait until June to see how things play out.
While I wouldn’t mind seeing Rodón back in the fold, $18.4 million is just way too much to commit to (or risk committing to) a player who brings his own inherent set of problems. Rodón has the looks of a Rich Hill-type right now, and only a team that spends like the Dodgers can really make that sort of thing work, with a legion of similar arms stored in their closet.
Hahn should be focused on other, more glaring roster holes, and see what the starting pitching market is like afterwards.