A Closer Look at Wandy Rodriguez and Houston as a Trade Partner

Earlier this morning, Michael discussed the decision that the Nationals organization needs to make regarding catcher Jesus Flores. Michael concludes that the catcher deserves an opportunity to start and unfortunately that opportunity likely will not come anytime soon in Washington due to the presence of Wilson Ramos. So, in searching for a location where Flores might be given an opportunity, Michael concludes that perhaps a trade with the Houston Astros involving starting pitcher Wandy Rodriguez is in order.

Now, I don’t believe that the Nationals currently intend on trading Flores this winter. There will be a need for a backup catcher on the roster so that Ramos can take the occasional day off. Flores is currently the most likely option within the organization, as prospect Derek Norris likely is not ready quite yet. The past few seasons have seen Ivan Rodriguez serving in the backup role, but he is currently a free agent and despite enjoying his time in Washington there doesn’t seem to be an intense level of mutual interest in continuing the relationship. Personally I’d like to see him return for one more season in order to continue mentoring Ramos and to share some of his vast knowledge of the position with Norris. But, should Rodriguez sign elsewhere, there aren’t many other viable options on the free agent market – at least none that would be superior options to Flores.

But, moving beyond trading Flores for a moment, Michael brought up an interesting name that we have not yet discussed here at DoD. The same name was brought to my attention earlier this week as well, as Alex from Climbing Tal’s Hill took a look at the very possibility that the Nationals could be a potential suitor for Rodriguez. So, let’s take a look at Rodriguez and see if he truly is an option worth considering as the team continues their efforts to improve the starting rotation.

Rodriguez was originally signed as an International Free Agent out of the Dominican Republic in 1999. He would not make his US professional debut until the 2001 season, however, but worked his way up to Double-A over the next few seasons. While he showed signs of promise – recording 11 wins in both 2002 and 2004 – there were numerous inconsistencies that prevented the left-hander from ever being considering among the game’s top prospects. Over the four seasons from 2001 through 2004 Rodriguez saw increases in his BB/9 (2.4, 2.5, 3.3, 3.6), H/9 (6.6, 9.4, 8.3, 10.0), and ERA (1.58, 3.78, 3.49, 4.48). He also saw decreases in his K/9 rates (8.1, 7.7, 5.8) as the competition he faced grew tougher.

Yet, despite the average (not poor, but certainly not spectacular) results over his minor league career, the Astros called Rodriguez to the Majors during the 2005 season for his MLB Debut – a 4-1 loss at the Chicago Cubs in which Rodriguez allowed 4 runs in 5.2 innings on 6 hits, including home runs by Jeremy Burnitz and Corey Patterson. Despite losing that first start, Rodriguez would remain in the Astros rotation for much of the remainder of the season. He’d finish his rookie campaign, at age 26, with a 10-10 record, 5.53 ERA, 5.6 K/9, and 3.7 BB/9 in 128.2 innings.

Rodriguez has shown enough of his career to remain a constant in the Astros rotation. Over seven big league seasons he holds a career record of 73-75. Consistency has been key for him, as he’s won at least 9 games each year. However, he’s only once (2009, 14) won more than 11. The rest of his career line is as follows: 4.07 ERA, 8.9 H/9, 3.2 BB/9, 7.7 K/9.

Prior to the start of the 2011 season the Astros signed Rodriguez to a significant contract extension. The deal bought out his final year of arbitration and his first two free agent years. He received a $1.5 Million signing bonus and a $7 Million salary last season, but his salary rises to $10 Million in 2012 and $13 Million in 2013. There is also a team option for 2014 worth $13 Million (or a $2.5 Million buyout). That’s at least $25.5 Million (assuming the 2014 option is declined) that is still owed to the soon-to-be 33 year old.

Considering the current state of the Houston organization (though yesterday’s approval of Jim Crane as the new owner finally allows the team to begin rebuilding) it’s no surprise that there is a willingness to deal Rodriguez if the team is able to receive something in return that will help the rebuilding process. In all likelihood, however, the team will be focused on acquiring prospects in any deal as opposed to being focused on salary relief. There is simply too much money remaining on Rodriguez’s extension for another team to be willing to take on the entirety of that debt. Houston will have to be willing to eat a portion of that contract if they hope to actually deal Rodriguez. I’d guess they’ll need to eat at least $15 Million to make a deal worthwhile. The more money they are willing to pay, the better the prospects they could potentially receive.

At this point we are left with two questions: What prospects would the Nationals need to part with in order to acquire Rodriguez? And if Houston is willing to eat $15 Million, is Rodriguez worth acquiring in the first place?

In order to speculate what it might take to acquire Rodriguez from Houston it’s worth noting what the team already has in place so let’s take a quick look at the team’s current 40-man roster. At quick glance, the team appears set at closer (Mark Melancon), the infield (between Jose Altuve, Jimmy Paredes, and Chris Johnson they should have three spots covered), and at least one corner outfield spot (presuming they let J.D. Martinez play). First base also seems set for 2012 given that either Brett Wallace or Carlos Lee will man the position.

Beyond the above names there are a few players within the team’s minor league system that are likely to be a part of any rebuilding plan. First baseman Jonathan Singleton and pitcher Jarred Cosart were acquired from the Phillies this past summer in the Hunter Pence trade. Shortstop Jonathan Villar had been picked up the year before in another trade with Philadelphia, this time for Roy Oswalt. While outfielder George Springer and second baseman Delino DeShields Jr. were recent draft selections. None of those five players are near MLB-ready but will all be important in the team’s future so they cannot be discounted here.

The starting rotation is an area that Houston will likely need to look at, particularly if they deal Rodriguez. Brett Myers, Bud Norris, J.A. Happ, and Jordan Lyles are likely in line to fill out the first four turns. Aneury Rodriguez and Lucas Harrell could compete for starts in Spring Training but there aren’t many additional internal options that could be ready for 2012. Paul Clemens and Brett Oberholtzer (both acquired from Atlanta in last summer’s Michael Bourn trade) could be additional depth options, though likely not before late in the 2012 season as neither has significant experience above Double-A at this point.

Michael’s original trade idea – that triggered the idea for this post – involved sending a catcher to Houston as part of a package for Rodriguez. While it would certainly seem at first glance that the Astros are in need of a catcher – because let’s face it, it’s been a difficult position to find consistency out of for the past few seasons – that initial appearance isn’t quite what it seems. Remember, Jason Castro is currently on schedule in his recovery from surgery performed last Spring on his right knee. It is expected that he will be able to resume full workouts with the rest of his teammates as Spring Training begins in February and he’ll likely begin the season as the team’s starting catcher.

The Astros have not had success in recent years with developing catchers. J.R. Towles is the team’s most recent failed experiment. Originally drafted in 2004 (20th round), Towles put up decent offensive numbers throughout his minor league career. He was even named to Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospect list (#53) prior to the 2008 season. Yet, Towles was never able to put things together at the Major League level. He’s batted .187/.267/.315 with 11 HR and 50 RBI in 484 career plate appearances. Towles was outrighted off the team’s 40-man roster after the 2011 season, a sign that the Astros have finally moved on.

We don’t know that Castro will have a similar fate to that of Towles, but we can’t simply write him off after missing one season to injury. It seems unlikely that Houston will write him off at this point as well. As such, Jesus Flores may not be the most attractive trade chip to the Houston organization unless they are seriously concerned about Castro’s ability to remain healthy. It is likely safe to say the team will look to acquire pitching in any deal involving Wandy Rodriguez. It’s reasonable to think that the team could also have interest in either a corner infielder or outfielder as well.

The Nationals could likely come up with a package that would entice the Houston Astros to deal Rodriguez to them. There currently are enough potential options within the team’s minor league system that they could deal an arm or two, perhaps with an additional player in order to get a deal done. However, assuming the Astros are willing to pickup the roughly $15 Million that I estimated it might take for another team to take on Rodriguez, I’m still not certain that a deal is worth it for the Nationals.

Rodriguez would be under team control for at least two seasons, at roughly $5 Million per season, under such a scenario. For such a sum Rodriguez wouldn’t be a bad acquisition. However, in addition to the monetary costs and the cost in prospects that would need to go to Houston, there is also the consideration of who Rodriguez would bump from the current starting rotation. Naturally Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann aren’t going anywhere. Chien-Ming Wang also seems safe. The team has remained consistent in their desire to let Ross Detwiler, Brad Peacock, and Tom Milone battle for the last spot in the rotation.

This means that John Lannan could be the one bumped in order to make room for Rodriguez. Lannan is younger and more cost affordable than Rodriguez. He’s due to go through the arbitration process two more times. In 2011 he earned $2.75 Million. It is possible that his two coming arbitration seasons could cost less than the $10 Million that Rodriguez would potentially cost, depending of course on what his 2012 salary ends up being and how he performs on the mound moving forward. More importantly, however, Lannan is already in place in the Nationals rotation. He already knows the team, the organization, the city, and the fans. Aside from striking out fewer batters than Rodriguez, the two pitchers are largely similar with regards to many of their career statistics. Both are even left-handed.

One additional problem, is the fact that Rodriguez doesn’t exactly meet one of the key criteria that the Nationals are currently hoping to meet in whatever pitcher they do bring aboard. The team has made no secret that they are in search of an innings eater, someone that has a demonstrated ability to pitch 200 innings a season. Over his seven career seasons Rodriguez has only once reached the 200 inning plateau – pitching 205.2 innings in 2009. Yes, he’s exceeded 191.0 innings each of the past two seasons since but Rodriguez doesn’t exactly scream “innings eater” to me and doesn’t seem to fit the mold of exactly what the organization is looking to acquire.

Bottom line, the Nationals could make a run at Rodriguez with a package of minor leaguers that could appeal to the Astros. However, even with Houston paying a large portion of Rodriguez’s salary, the cost to acquire him would ultimately outweigh the value that the organization may need to give up. Sure, Lannan could be traded in a separate deal to solve another need the team currently has (i.e. center field) but ultimately I’d be more comfortable keeping Lannan in the rotation and trading the prospects elsewhere in a deal for a center fielder. I don’t see Rodriguez as being a good fit for the Nationals and it would seem that Houston isn’t an ideal trade partner either.

Tags: Brad Peacock Chien-Ming Wang Derek Norris Houston Astros Ivan Rodriguez Jesus Flores John Lannan Jordan Zimmermann Ross Detwiler Stephen Strasburg Tom Milone Wandy Rodriguez Washington Nationals Wilson Ramos

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