Carlos Rodon worth the gamble for Yankees who are searching to get over the hump
Even after re-signing Aaron Judge, Hal Steinbrenner really didn’t have a choice but to keep spending. Otherwise he was going to look like a small-timer compared to Steve Cohen, his new neighbor in New York, at least as far as Yankee fans were concerned.
So Hal surely swallowed hard and decided to gamble on the highest risk/reward player in this this free-agent class, Carlos Rodon, reaching an agreement Thursday night with him on a six-year, $162 million contract.
It’s a gutsy move in that if Rodon stays healthy, he’s a No. 1-type starter and a difference-maker whose presence in a postseason rotation could go a long way toward finally getting the Yankees over the hump in October and back to the World Series for the first time since 2009.
Yet the risk is obvious: Rodon’s history of arm problems throughout his career is daunting, to the point where the Yankees could easily look foolish for giving him a six-year deal.
Still, the hard-throwing left-hander is certainly trending in the right direction, coming off a dominant season in which he pitched to a 2.77 ERA over a career-high 178 innings for the San Francisco Giants, injury-free from start to finish.
And for a franchise that measures itself by championships and since the Derek Jeter years has created outsized expectations in that regard, this was a move the Yankees had to make.
Rodon is that good when he’s right, as he was last year. He’s a power pitcher whose combination of high-octane fastball and nasty slider helped him rack up 237 strikeouts last season, a major-league high of 12 per nine innings.
As such, he pairs with Gerrit Cole at the top of the Yankees’ starting rotation and gives them a 1-2 punch to match up with anybody in baseball, most notably the Mets’ Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander.
That means Nestor Cortes slides to No. 3, followed by Luis Severino and Frankie Montas. Suffice to say, with good health the Yankees could have the deepest rotation in baseball and, most importantly, one that stacks up nicely with that of the Houston Astros.
The question all winter, after all, has been how would the Yankees close the gap on the Astros after taking that four-game beatdown in the ALCS.
And while their lack of offense was the biggest problem in that series, and indeed has been the primary culprit in their postseason failures since 2017, the Yankees simply have to count on Judge delivering in future Octobers, and that alone would make a world of difference.
Re-signing Andrew Benintendi would help as well, because while it may sound like excuse-making the Yankees would have been a lot more dangerous against Houston had contact-hitters Benintendi and DJ LeMahieu not been injured for that series.
In any case, the bigger point is that if the Yankees can go pitch-for-pitch with the Astros, then anything is possible in a short series.
Don’t forget, Verlander is gone from the ‘Stros. So now their 1-2 at the top of the rotation is likely Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier. As good as those two were in the postseason, you can make a case the Yankees would have the edge with Cole and Rodon.
Likewise, Cortes and Severino can match up favorably with any combination of starters the Astros choose for Game 3 and 4.
And don’t overlook the potential of a healthy Yankee bullpen. They badly missed the injured Michael King last October. Clay Holmes should grow into the role of dominant closer. And Tommy Kahnle with his killer changeup is a sneaky good free-agent signing.
Not to mention Jonathan Loaisiga. How good is he? Alex Bregman was recently asked in an interview who he considered the toughest pitcher to face in the big leagues, and he singled out Loaisiga, noting how much movement he has on his 98-mph two-seamer, as well as his sinker and changeup.
All of those pieces are exactly the reason Rodon was a gamble worth taking for the Yankees, in that he can be the final piece to a championship.
At age 30, he should have some prime years left as a pure power pitcher, relying heavily on his four-seam fastball, which he threw 61 percent of the time last season, holding opposing hitters to a .211 batting average against it.
No, Rodon doesn’t trick anybody. His fastball and slider accounted for slightly over 92 percent of his pitch usage, and it’s rare for a starter to lean so heavily on two pitches. But as an executive from another team told me for a story I did a few weeks ago, the lefty can do so because “you can make an argument that he’s got as good a fastball/slider combination as any pitcher in baseball.”
In addition, left-handed starters have always been important to the Yankees, with that right-field porch looming, and Rodon seems to be an especially good fit, as he allowed only 12 home runs last season, even though he lives upstairs with his fastball.
All of which adds up to an easy call on Rodon, except for the obvious.
As one scout told me last night, “If you could count on him staying healthy he’s a bargain for what the Yankees paid. But not many teams could afford to take the gamble.”
Steinbrenner can afford it. His payroll is likely going to be over $300 million after the Yankees sign a left fielder, and that’s probably rarefied air the Yankee owner didn’t want to go to, based on his recent track record.
But with Cohen taking the Mets’ payroll to $350 million, Hal had to keep up appearances, if you will. So now if his giant leap of faith with Rodon pays off, the result might just be that elusive 28th world championship in the Bronx.