Pros and Cons: Should the Mets sign Carlos Rodon?

Carlos Rodon treated art November 2022
Carlos Rodon treated art November 2022

Depending on what happens with Jacob deGrom's free agency -- which remains shrouded in mystery -- the Mets are either going to have to engage in a massive rebuild of their starting rotation or a moderate one.

As things currently stand, only Max Scherzer and Carlos Carrasco are guaranteed to be in the rotation to open the 2023 season.

In addition to deGrom, Chris Bassitt and Taijuan Walker are also free agents, though the writing seems to be on the wall that Walker will be playing elsewhere in 2023.

In the event deGrom leaves, should the Mets look to replace him with another ace or seek to build the rotation in a different way, with Scherzer at the top followed by four guys who don't have ace upside?

If the Mets want to go for another ace, Justin Verlander -- whose possible Mets fit we examined here -- could make a lot of sense if he's willing to leave the Houston Astros.

The only other free agent out there who profiles as a top of the rotation starter, unless you think Japanese free agent Kodai Senga qualifies, is Carlos Rodon.

So, if the Mets lose deGrom, should they target Rodon?

CONS

The first warning sign that jumps out about Rodon is his injury history. Rodon's career, until the 2022 season, had been pockmarked by various health issues -- some of the very serious variety.

Rodon was slowed by biceps bursitis and shoulder inflammation in 2017 (which required offseason arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder), shoulder issues again in 2018, and Tommy John surgery in May of 2019. During the 2021 season, Rodon dealt with shoulder fatigue in August that resulted in an alarming velocity dip upon his return.

Rodon got through the 2022 season without incident, but was handled with kid gloves by the San Francisco Giants, starting on regular (four days) rest just 10 times in 31 starts as he tossed a career-high 178 innings.

As far as innings, 2022 was the second time during his eight year-career that Rodon threw 165 or more. He threw just 132.2 in 2021 in his first full year back from 2019 TJS, was limited to 120.2 innings in 2018, and 69.1 innings in 2017.

San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Carlos Rodon (16) throws a pitch against the Chicago Cubs during the fourth inning at Oracle Park.
San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Carlos Rodon (16) throws a pitch against the Chicago Cubs during the fourth inning at Oracle Park.

When it comes to the many injuries Rodon has dealt with, it isn't fair to ding him too much for having TJS. Many pitchers -- including Verlander and deGrom -- go through it and come out just fine on the other end. But Rodon's shoulder issues are a huge concern.

There's also the fact that along with all of his injury problems, Rodon's track record of being elite is tiny. Specifically, he was elite in 2021 and 2022 after being mediocre for the first six seasons of his career.

From his debut with the Chicago White Sox in 2015 through 2020, Rodon had a 4.14 ERA (4.26 FIP) and 1.37 WHIP with 525 strikeouts in 536.2 innings over 97 games (92 starts, five relief appearances).

The above made Rodon literally a league average pitcher over his first six seasons (his ERA+ during that span was 100), which is something that's valuable. But he's about to get paid like an ace. Is he actually an ace? And can he be relied on to stay relatively healthy?

Another thing any interested team has to consider this offseason with Rodon is that he's attached to a qualifying offer. Because the Mets exceeded the luxury tax threshold in 2022, their penalty for signing a player who gets and rejects a QO is higher than teams that didn't exceed the threshold. That penalty would be the loss of a second-and fifth-round pick in the 2023 MLB Draft, and the loss of $1 million in international bonus pool money.

Of course, the Mets shouldn't let that stop them if they think Rodon (or Trea Turner, or someone else with a QO attached) is the right fit. But it's definitely something to consider in the case of Rodon, especially since Verlander and Senga aren't attached to the QO.

PROS

When Rodon is on, he's one of the best and most overpowering pitchers in baseball.

Over the last two seasons, Rodon has a 2.67 ERA (2.42 FIP) and 0.998 WHIP with 422 strikeouts in 310.2 innings over 55 starts -- a rate of 12.2 strikeouts per nine.

Carlos Rodon
Carlos Rodon

Looking at 2022 only, Rodon had a 2.88 ERA (league-leading 2.25 FIP) and 1.02 WHIP with 237 strikeouts in 178 innings -- a league-leading 12.0 strikeouts per nine for qualified starting pitchers -- as he made his second consecutive All-Star team.

Along the way over the last two seasons, Rodon has gone from a guy who averaged 3.9 walks issued per nine to someone who averaged 2.5 walks per nine.

Rodon has been terrific when it comes to keeping the ball in the park, allowing just 25 home runs combined over the last two seasons. He has also been among the best in baseball in hits per nine, averaging 6.2 allowed in 2021 and 6.6 in 2022 after giving up about a hit per inning over the first six seasons of his career.

And a look at Rodon's advanced stats show that what he's been doing is sustainable -- if he remains healthy, of course.

Via Baseball Savant, Rodon was in the 89th percentile or above in 2022 in xERA/xwOBA, xBA, xSLG, and strikeout rate, was well above average in whiff percentage, fastball velocity, and fastball spin, and was above average in chase rate, barrel percentage, and walk rate.

One concern was that Rodon was below average in hard hit percentage and average exit velocity in 2022, but the positives in his performance far outweigh the negatives. 

Carlos Rodon
Carlos Rodon

When it comes specifically to Rodon's fastball velocity, which cratered in 2019 when he averaged 91.5 mph before his TJS and averaged just 92.9 mph in 2020 after returning from the procedure, the velocity is not only all the way back, but as high as it's ever been. Rodon's average fastball velocity in 2022 was a career-high 95.6 (after being 95.4 in 2021). Before 2021, his previous career-high was 93.4 in both 2015 and 2016.

One interesting thing as it pertains to Rodon's repertoire is that he basically abandoned his changeup in 2022, throwing it just 2.0 percent of the time while mixing in a curve that he threw roughly 6.0 percent of the time.

At this point in his career, Rodon -- after having a three-pitch mix from 2015 to 2021 (though he was still heavily reliant on the fastball), is now primarily a two-pitch (fastball and slider) pitcher after throwing those offerings a combined 92.2 percent of the time in 2022.

VERDICT

The upside of Rodon is tantalizing.

Entering his age-30 season, Rodon is a powerful left-hander with the ability to be one of the best pitchers in baseball. And if an interested team believes in his health going forward, signing him makes a whole lot of sense.

But when you combine Rodon's injury history with his small sample size of being elite, add in that he's attached to the QO, will likely be seeking a five-year deal, and consider that the other pitchers at the top of the market (Verlander, Senga, and of course New York's own free agents deGrom and Bassitt) would cost just money with no QO ramifications for the Mets, it makes Rodon a hard sell.

You can say that deGrom is also an injury risk, but the issues that cost him a year combined in 2021 and 2022 weren't related. He's also the best pitcher in baseball with a long track record of dominance. You can say Verlander is too old, but he's about to win the Cy Young award in his age-39 season.

Could Rodon stay healthy over the duration of a five-year deal and be elite throughout? Yes. But it's a tough thing to gamble on. If I'm the Mets, I'm much more comfortable inking deGrom to a three-year deal, going after Verlander on a deal that will likely be one or two years, or even taking a chance on Senga.