The 29-year-old Rodon is arguably the top starter on the market at this point after a breakout 2021 season. The former No. 3 overall pick returned from a series of injury-marred seasons to turn in the finest performance of his career, dominating the American League for much of the season. Through late July, Rodon was one of the favorites for the Cy Young Award, having pitched to a sparkling 2.14 ERA with a sensational 36.6% strikeout rate against a 6.8% walk rate.
Rodon overwhelmed the Astros on July 18, pitching seven innings of scoreless, one-hit ball and racking up 10 punchouts. That, however, would be the last time the southpaw pitched more than five innings in an outing. Rodon lasted just four frames and allowed four runs in each of his next two starts. He rebounded to dominate a stripped-down Cubs team that had traded away most of its lineup, tossing five shutout innings with 11 strikeouts on Aug. 7.
Rodon then hit the injured list with shoulder fatigue and went on to make only five starts over the regular season’s final 39 days. He reached 80 pitches in just one of those five appearances, and his fastball sat at a greatly diminished 93.2 mph in that time. Rodon was still effective in that time (2.35 ERA in 23 innings), but his strikeout rate was down to 27.2% — still strong, but not quite elite.
Heading into the postseason, Rodon’s status was a question mark though he was ultimately included on the ALDS roster and deemed good to go for a Game 4 appearance. Rodon came back out slinging his fastball in the upper 90s, but he lasted just 2 2/3 innings in a game that would eventually result in Chicago being bounced from the playoffs.
On the whole, Rodon finished out the regular season with a 2.37 ERA, a 34.6% strikeout rate and a 6.7% walk rate in 132 2/3 innings. He ranked among the league leaders in terms of swinging-strike rate, opponents’ chase and overall strikeout rate. Statcast generally felt that Rodon’s breakout ERA was legitimate, pegging him for an “expected” 2.68 ERA in addition to a .189 expected opponents’ batting average and .316 expected slugging percentage.
As if the late-season shoulder woes weren’t troublesome enough, though, further questions surrounding Rodon’s health emerged after the White Sox opted against issuing him an $18.4M qualifying offer. The fact that the team that knew Rodon best wasn’t comfortable with a one-year deal even after a season of that caliber cast serious doubt on the status of his shoulder.
Friday morning, however, SNY’s Andy Martino tweeted that the medicals on Rodon were “actually very good,” citing multiple teams who’d looked into the southpaw. Clearly the Giants agree, as they saw fit to promise Rodon more than double what he’d have received upon signing a qualifying offer. Because Rodon did not receive the QO, the Giants won’t have to surrender any draft picks to sign him — and the White Sox won’t receive any compensation for his departure.
Rodon’s contract may have two guaranteed years, but it’s essentially a more modern version of the oft-seen one-year “pillow” contract. If he remains healthy and pitches well, Rodon will be a lock to opt out of the contract in search of a nine-figure guarantee heading into what would be his age-30 season in 2023. If not, he’ll still have the safety net of a weighty salary for the 2023 season — after which he’d have another bite at the free-agent apple.
The signing isn’t without its risk for the Giants. Beyond Rodon’s late-season shoulder troubles, the left-hander had simply never performed anywhere near this level prior to the 2021 season. This is the type of performance that both the White Sox and their fanbase hoped for when Rodon was drafted No. 3 overall and immediately ranked as one of the sport’s best pitching prospects. However, Rodon was more of a third or fourth starter for the bulk of his career in Chicago, pitching to a 4.01 ERA through 494 1/3 innings from 2015-18. Along the way, he dealt with a litany of injury troubles, ranging from minor issues like a wrist strain to more severe problems in his shoulder (which required surgery in September of 2017) and in his elbow (which required Tommy John surgery in May of 2019).
Red flags aside, this type of short-term, high-annual value structure is one with which Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi is quite comfortable. Zaidi, the former Dodgers general manager, pursued arrangements of this type often in Los Angeles, and since moving to the Giants he’s had a clear preference to avoid long-term contracts — even if it means paying a higher annual premium. Under Zaidi, the Giants haven’t given out a contact of more than three years in length to any free agent, and it was reported early in the offseason that the team was disinclined to pursue players expected to command nine-figure deals.
Notably, Rodon’s $22M annual rate of pay is a match with that of now-former Giants righty Kevin Gausman in Toronto, but Gausman commanded a five-year pact. Gausman has a greater track record of durability, of course, but Rodon certainly has the ability to match or even exceed Gausman’s production, provided he can remain on the mound.
Rodon becomes the fourth and presumably final rotation addition for the Giants this winter. Four of San Francisco’s five starters — Gausman, Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood and Johnny Cueto — reached free agency at season’s end, leaving only budding ace Logan Webb as a lock for the ’22 rotation. The Giants have since re-signed both DeSclafani (three years, $36M) and Wood (two years, $25M) while also adding veteran righty Alex Cobb (two years, $20M).
Some additional depth could always be brought in behind that quintet, as there’s little in the way of experience behind them. Out-of-options right-hander Tyler Beede is likely ticketed for a long relief role and is the sixth man up on the depth chart, but the other names on the Giants’ 40-man roster are either light on experience or haven’t pitched in the majors at all. San Francisco has Corey Oswalt in camp on a minor league deal, but the front office hasn’t exactly loaded up on depth options to cover rotation innings in the event of an injury. Given that each of Rodon, Wood and Cobb have extremely lengthy injury histories, some additional veteran stability would be prudent.
That said, with Webb and Rodon now forming a formidable one-two punch and a trio of strong mid-rotation options behind them, the Giants have the potential to be one of the better staffs in the National League.
The Giants still have work to do and seem likely to look for some punch to add to the lineup in the coming days/weeks, but the rotation is in good shape and, unlike last season’s unit, can potentially remain in place for at least one year beyond the upcoming campaign.