Closer or Trade Piece? 2021 Might Have it All For Richard Rodriguez

The Pirates’ 2021 bullpen is likely to include a lot of moving parts, with competition for almost every spot taking place this spring. There are a few spots already filled up, and one of them is occupied by Richard Rodriguez, the presumptive closer.

But is his place on the roster really set in stone, and is it time for the Pirates to move on and look toward the future? Today I’ll be looking at RichRod and the many scenarios in which we could see his 2021 season play out. 

When Rodriguez was brought into the organization after giving up nine runs in five and ⅔ innings in a rough MLB debut with the Orioles, the idea was to hopefully turn him into a solid reliever, as he started on a minor league spring invite. He started the 2018 season in the minors, but quickly made his way up the big leagues on April 13th. 

Not only did Rodriguez grab a spot in the Pirates’ bullpen, but he was even asked to be a late-inning option, often setting up Kyle Crick and Felipe Vasquez in the seventh inning. In fact, 48 and ⅓ of his 69 and ⅓ innings in 2018 were pitched in the 7th inning or later, and his 2.47 ERA really cemented Rodriguez’s spot in the bullpen long-term. 

In 2019, Rodriguez had his “down” season, with a still very solid 3.72 ERA when it was all said and done. The longball really hurt him, especially early, as he gave up 5 homers in 10 May innings. Take that month out and you’re looking at another very good season from Rodriguez.

Last season was yet another really good season (2.70 ERA) for Rodriguez, and Derek Shelton even trusted him enough to assume the closer position for 5 games toward the end of the season, closing out 4 of those. 

Now coming into his age 31 season in 2021, there are a lot of questions surrounding Rodriguez. The first one is the most common, and that is the idea to trade him. I didn’t think the offseason was the best time to trade him, same goes with spring training, and it looks like I will be fulfilled on both of those wishes.

No matter if the Pirates are trying to win or not this season, every bullpen needs a veteran arm or two to lead the pack, and one of those being a reliable closer helps. Plus, the Pirates don’t really have an awful amount of good prospects who desperately need major league innings at the moment, especially since it seems Blake Cederlind could have a Tommy John surgery in his future. 

If they were to get rid of anyone at the moment, the Pirates would likely DFA Sean Poppen or Tyler Bashlor before trading anyone. This obviously does not take away the possibility of a Rodriguez trade or anyone else for that matter, but should a 40-man roster move need to happen right away, like a waiver claim, trade, or a straight up addition, there are other options.

Another thing to pay some attention to is Rodriguez’s contract. According to Spotrac, Rodriguez still has two arbitration-eligible years remaining until he is a UFA. This has almost no effect on a potential trade, but a team looking to acquire him might like the two and a half years of control if he were hypothetically traded at the July 31st deadline. There’s a chance teams could value the team control highly, and if Rodriguez performs well, I am all for a trade. 

What happens if there is no trade at all this year? This is a legitimate possibility, and in my eyes it only happens if Rodriguez is injured at the time like Keone Kela was last year. Remember, Ben Cherington made a whopping zero moves on trade deadline day last year, and now people are talking about how good his offseason was and how he’s re-stocking the system the right way. I, for one, do trust him to take the right approach, until he doesn’t of course.

So what’s 2021 actually going to look like for Richard Rodriguez? Well, anybody’s guess is as good as mine, but if I had to take a crack at it, I would start Rodriguez as the team’s closer, have him try to build up as much trade value as possible, and then see what you can get for him come trade deadline. This is not an automatic trade-now situation as he is not on the last year of his contract. In my opinion, David Bednar is the next man up especially in the event that Rodriguez gets dealt at any point (and also under the assumption Cederlind needs TJ), but anybody could take over. Also, I don’t mind seeing those dreads closing out ball games in PNC Park for a little while longer.

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