Yariel Rodriguez and Blue Jays make deal official
Cuban righthander could be key member of Jays pitching staff
In what may have been the worst kept secret of the off-season, first reported as fait accompli back on January 17, by reporter Francys Romero, the Blue Jays, on Friday, made official the five-year, $32-million contract with 26-year-old Cuban righthander, Yariel Rodriguez. There are reported to be several performance incentives included and a complicated opt out after season four.
What does the signing mean? It’s rare that any major-league team is able to confirm the identity of its sixth starter before it has even decided who will open the season in the fifth rotation spot. However, such may be the case for the Jays and their talented free-agent, headed into the spring.
Rodriguez, who returned to his homeland and pitched the entire 2023 season in Cuba, after three years as one of the best relievers in Japanese baseball, made two starts for his country at the 2023 World Baseball Classic. He joins righthander Yosver Zulueta as Cubans on the Jays 40-man roster.
“Yariel brings a diverse arsenal, impressive athleticism, and ability to get swing and miss to our team,” said Jays’ GM Ross Atkins. “He adds starting depth to our pitching group and has a chance to impact our Major League team in multiple roles. We’re excited to welcome Yariel to the Blue Jays and look forward to seeing him on the mound in spring.”
It seems, according to Atkins, Yariel’s role remains in doubt heading to his first Jays’ training camp. Here’s a question for fans: who would you rather have as the 13th pitcher on the staff, a depth-chart eighth reliever who comes in when the game is lopsided, ahead or behind, to eat meaningless outs in multiple inning roles, or a sixth starter with upside, who has a proven international record like Rodriguez, with 72 starting assignments in Cuba. As an ultimate swingman, he has had success in Japan as a reliable, back-end of the bullpen arm. The answer is easy. Atkins hinted at that hybrid pitching role.
Why should that swing role for Rodriguez be considered by the ’24 Jays? The trend or preference among MLB starters is fast becoming five days rest, working every sixth day, rather than in a traditional five-man rotation, the accepted setup since the ‘70s.
Recall, in ‘23, the Jays briefly tried a six-man rotation last July-August when they played 17 consecutive games with no days off and 26 in 27, adding Hyun Jin Ryu and Alek Manoah, recalled from a well-publicized ostracism. When the off-days came back, so did the five-man rotation and it was exit-stage-left for Manoah.
The extra day of rest for that brief 27-day period was much appreciated by the core quartet of Kevin Gausman, Jose Berrios, Chris Bassitt and Yusei Kikuchi. So why not make it a regular part of any game-plan in 2024, at least through the all-star break.
The arrival of Rodriguez for the next four-plus seasons makes the decision easier. He may even become a mid-rotation starter later in the contract. Career splits show all four Jays’ primary starters – Gausman, Berrios, Bassitt and Kikuchi – boast a lower opposition OPS on five-plus days of rest. History surely favours the move.
Let’s dig into the possibility. We know who one-through four are and if Y-Rod jumps into a sixth starter role, it gives added value to his availability out of the pen when he’s not prepping for a start. So, then with 1-4 and six identified, the search will be on at spring training to identify the fifth starter, from among Manoah, Bowden Francis, Mitch White, some pitcher to be named later, and eventually Ricky Tiedemann.
Here's how that proposed, at-least-one-extra-day-of-rest, rotation might break down for the first 98 games leading into the all-star break … at which time, of course, it could be revised based on performance and injury. And remember, at some point in the second half, No. 1 prospect, Tiedemann will likely become a factor.
BLUE JAYS FIRST HALF SCHEDULE THROUGH ALL-STAR
Opening Day: March 28 … All-Star Game: July 16
Calendar Days: 109 days … Off Days: 11 … Games: 98
There are legitimate reasons heading to the season why major-league teams should not be happy simply because they can identify a five-man rotation. Heading to his ninth season as Blue Jays GM, Ross Atkins has needed a total of 105 starting pitchers, averaging 13.1 per year since 2016. Understanding that reality — yes, some of those were bullpen days — the Jays have still averaged over 11 pitchers with multiple starts every year. The exception was 2023, requiring just eight starters which was a huge outlier dependent on lightning-strike good health that is unlikely to repeat itself.
Now, entering the ’24 season more reliant than ever on pitching and defence, the concept of six starters and seven relievers on the 26-man roster, allows for flexibility and imagination when it comes to filling in for the occasional emergency start or a short IL stint and less of that silly limousine shuttle crawling up the QEW between Buffalo and Rogers Centre.
Very few starters these days reach 200 innings anymore and the extra day of rest and recovery would allow more starters to throw 110+ pitches again. The Jays could be pioneers in terms of rotation management with little in the way of downside.
Either way Rodriguez can help no matter his role, but the bottom line is the Jays still need a DH/outfielder and both time and talent are running out.