The Blue Jays and Cuban right-hander Yariel Rodríguez had been connected for much of the offseason, but some challenges with immigration reportedly held up the deal. Per reporter Francy’s Romero, those issues have been sorted out with news breaking that the two sides reached an agreement though the details are not yet known.
It is probably safe to assume that it will be a multi-year deal as the soon-to-be 27-year-old Rodríguez came with no shortage of interest from big league teams after his showing in the World Baseball Classic and impressive private showcases.
It’s been a unique ride for Rodríguez who first played professionally in the Cuban National Series at 18 years old in 2015. He mostly worked as a starter, where his stuff sat in the upper 80s, touching 90 mph.
Posting a 3.30 ERA across nearly 500 innings in the CNS caught the attention of multiple teams in Nippon Professional Baseball, with Rodríguez eventually signing with the Chunichi Dragons who moved him to the bullpen.
His stuff really started to jump when he made the move both to Japan and the bullpen. By his age-23 season (2020), his fastball averaged 93 mph before enjoying another uptick in 2022, where he averaged 96 mph on his heater.
Unsurprisingly, Rodríguez’s whiff numbers jumped as well, striking out 28% of batters on his way to a 1.15 ERA and 0.92 WHIP in his final season in Japan. Already a candidate to sign stateside off of his relief ability alone, the right-hander started a pair of games for Cuba in the World Baseball Classic, showcasing his loud stuff on a big stage as well as the ability to pitch multiple innings.
The Blue Jays could decide to follow the Giants plan with Rodríguez, similar to the Giants plan with Jordan Hicks and try him as a five and dive starter with his three-pitch mix that includes a fastball, slider and developing splitter.
The challenge is that we have not really seen Rodríguez stretched out much at all since his uptick in velocity aside from his WBC starts where he pitched 7 1/3 innings in two combined starts. How the stuff and command holds up is a fair question, though there’s plenty of reason to believe that Rodríguez could be effective even at 93-95 mph, rather than 96-98 mph based on his pitch characteristics and overall stuff.
Four Seam Fastball (94-96 mph)
After averaging 96 mph while touching 100 mph in one and two inning relief spurts, Rodriguez averaged 95 mph in his two WBC starts with a few more 93s mixed in than usual. Again, he has had little experience being stretched out since his fastball ticked up to the upper 90s.
The characteristics of the fastball are unique, generating cut/ride that can make for a unique look for hitters. Almost all fastballs–even four seamers–have some sort of natural horizontal movement. The average MLB right-handed pitcher gets about 16 inches of induced vertical break with a little over seven inches of horizontal movement or arm side run.
Some of the fastballs he will throw feature 15-16 inches of induced vertical break and 0 inches of horizontal, helping it play up at the top of the zone, while others will be closer to 8 to 12 inches of induced vertical break with around -1 to -3 inches of horizontal break, meaning it is going to look more like a true cutter and result in more ground balls.
The variance makes it almost two separate pitches, making it somewhat difficult to concretely project his fastball based on the pitch characteristics, but the variance should work in his favor.
In terms of the average shape, Justin Steele’s fastball is similar, a pitch that performed very well at the big league level in 2023 at a lower velocity (92 mph) and higher release height. This bodes well for the effectiveness of Rodríguez’s fastball should he lose a tick as a starter with the ability to get whiff and weak contact on the ground.
Sweeper (82-85 mph)
Rodríguez’s best secondary pitch is his sweeper that he commands well. He went to the pitch around 25% of the time in 2022, landing it for a strike at a near 75% clip. He held opponents to a batting average barely over .100 with gaudy chase rates.
With minimal vertical break, the sweep really plays up, picking up ugly swings from righties with a good enough feel for it to back door lefties or bury it towards their back leg. Command of the pitch and the late movement it features is important for splits as sweepers generally don’t perform nearly as well against opposite-handed hitters.
He will mix in a slurvier breaking ball from time to time with a bit more vertical break, but it can tend to blend with his sweeper some. Since incorporating his new split, the curveball has mostly been phased out.
Splitter (87-89 mph)
A newer addition to the arsenal for Rodríguez is his upper 80s splitter that he began to incorporate in 2022. The pitch is still a work in progress, but helps hedge some concern about splits if the sweeper does not quite play as effectively against left-handed hitters as it did in NPB.
He mixed in a few splitters at the WBC that looked like an above average pitch if he can harness it with some consistency.
While his fastball and slider will likely be his bread and butter against right-handed hitters, the splitter should be effective against hitters from both sides of the plate if the feel for it continues to develop. How the pitch comes along could ultimately have a significant bearing on his chances of starting.
Rodríguez hardly threw in 2023 as he sat out the season in an effort to get his release from the Chunichi Dragons granted. He eventually got his way, meaning the Blue Jays will not even need to pay a posting fee to sign him.
Pitch models like Stuff+ may not love the fastball based on the WBC data, but much like Steele’s cut/ride heater, I expect it to outperform what those models may project. As for the slider, there’s little need for nuance or debate, it’s flat out a plus pitch.
The development of his splitter and how his unique fastball plays against MLB hitters will be key if the goal is to turn lineups over, but Rodriguez has the stuff to be a high leverage arm that helps bolster the back end of the Blue Jays bullpen. He could be a Swiss-Army knife of sorts, especially with the uncertainty surrounding Alek Manoah.
Ultimately, I think Rodríguez will be most effective as a high leverage reliever capable of going multiple innings or even opening some games, but stretching him out as a starter in year one could be challenging…especially after he hardly threw at all in 2023.
No matter how he is used in 2024, the Blue Jays added plenty of talent to their pitching staff for the next several years who could continue to improve as he enters his age-27 season.