This past off-season it seemed as though Wandy Rodriguez would sit near the top of available pitchers at the deadline. The Astros were going nowhere, and Rodriguez was set to hit free agency after the season. But out of nowhere the Astros signed him to a three-year, $34 million contract that covered 2011 through 2013. In itself that’s still a tradable contract, but the $13 million option changed the story. If traded it becomes a player option, which makes a deal far less likely. Written that way, the inclusion of the option clause made it seem as though the Astros intended to keep Rodriguez. And yet here we are in August, hearing talk of a possible waiver trade.
We have four distinct bits of information related to this matter, which may be in conflict with one another.
1) It appears a given that the Astros will place Rodriguez on waivers this month. This isn’t out of the ordinary, since some teams place their entire roster on waivers.
2) According to CBS Sports’s Danny Knobler, there is a “growing belief” that a team out there will place a claim on Rodriguez, thus limiting Houston’s potential trade partners to one.
3) Also from Knobler: the Astros won’t just dump Rodriguez and his contract on a claiming team, but will instead seek a trade in which they receive players and perhaps provide a level of salary relief.
4) Via Jayson Stark, new Astros owner Jim Crane is seeking to lower payroll to $50 million. We had heard a $60 million figure previously.
These bits of information lead to two questions. First, which team would claim Rodriguez, knowing that they could own his entire contract, including the 2014 option? Second, would the Astros actually pull back Rodriguez if they couldn’t work out a trade with a claiming team? Let’s start with the second question first.
While Knobler’s sources say that the Astros won’t just give up Rodriguez, I find it hard to believe that given the current circumstances. The Astros already have $47.25 million committed to the 2012 payroll, and that covers just four players. If the Astros were to pull back Rodriguez, it would make a $50 million payroll nigh impossible. They could attempt to trade him again in the off-season, but it appears that few, if any, teams are willing to take on Rodriguez without receiving salary relief. The payroll restriction makes it seem as though dumping Rodriguez is a priority.
Even if payroll is set at the original level we heard, $60 million, the Astros still could have trouble piecing together a big league roster. Carlos Lee and Brett Myers combine to make $31 million in 2012, which is more than half of that stated budget. They’re not going anywhere, so they might as well budget for a $30 million payroll. Of that Rodriguez will consume more than a third, and combined with Brandon Lyon they’ll take up more than half. Essentially, then, the Astros would have to find 21 players who will make a combined $14 million. Even if all 21 were reserve clause players that would still amount to roughly $9 million. Add in the team’s arbitration cases and it’s likely that they cross that $14 million mark with ease.
The main reason I think the Astros would take the opportunity to dump Rodriguez’s contract involves the extension itself. Again, Rodriguez was slated to hit free agency after this season. The only thing that prevented him from walking was the extension, which he signed under a GM that likely won’t be around this off-season. If other teams are seeking salary relief in a trade for Rodriguez, and he would have been a free agent after this season anyway, why not just dump him on the claiming team if a favorable trade isn’t in the cards?
It make sense, then, that the Astros would broadcast their intention to pull back Rodriguez rather than dump his salary. It might lure a team into claiming him. But I don’t believe other GMs are that blind. Any claiming team has to know that there is a real risk the transaction. It’s not only possible, but I’d consider it likely that a claiming team would end up with Rodriguez at $36 million from 2012 through 2014. Perhaps there is a team out there that would have signed him to such a deal through free agency, had the Astros not signed him to an extension. Only that type of team would dare put in a claim.
The teams that could easily take on Rodriguez’s salary — the Yankees and Red Sox — appear not at all inclined to do so. The Yankees already asked for significant salary relief when talking trade with the Astros in July, and the Red Sox already have four starters under contract for 2012. It’s also unclear whether Rodriguez would fare well with a move to one of the two toughest divisions in baseball. Any other team would have some level of concern with picking up that much money for the next three seasons.
The Indians, Tigers, Rangers, and Angels could probably use the help in the rotation, if not for this season then certainly in 2012, but they all have internal options who could provide decent production. The Indians are the most interesting here, since they just traded their best two pitching prospects. They acquired Jimenez with an eye on the next few years, and Rodriguez would make them stronger in that period. But the question of salary remains, and I doubt the Indians would risk putting in a claim. Maybe with a bit of salary relief, but I can’t see them taking on the entire thing.
National League teams would get first crack at Rodriguez, but it’s unclear which team has the available payroll to risk putting in a claim. The Brewers are a real interesting team to watch here. They have a solid five starters, but Chris Narveson will miss at least three starts after cutting his thumb. But Rodriguez would represent an upgrade over Narveson, anyway, and would give the Brewers five solid starters for 2012 as well. The payroll issue is a big question, especially if they’ll make a big play for Prince Fielder this off-season. But they remain the most intriguing possibility in the NL.
Because there are so few teams that would risk the possibility of having Rodriguez and his salary dumped in their laps, it remains unlikely that any team will claim Rodriguez on waivers. There might be a growing belief that a team will make a claim, but if we examine the whole picture it just doesn’t seem feasible. It also doesn’t seem feasible that the Astros would pull back Rodriguez rather than dump him wholesale on a claiming team. They need to cut payroll, and Rodriguez represents a decent chunk of their 2012 commitments. They might prefer to get something in return, but they’re not in a position to be picky right now.