After a lengthy wait, the Blue Jays have formally announced their signing of right-hander Yariel Rodriguez. It’s a five-year, $32MM deal for Rodriguez, per the team, as opposed to the four years and $32MM that was previously reported. In order to open a spot on the 40-man roster, Toronto has designated utilityman Otto Lopez for assignment. Rodriguez is jointly represented by WME and Born To Play.
Kaitlyn McGrath of The Athletic reports that the fifth year on Rodriguez’s contract is a player option valued at $6MM. If Rodriguez declines that option, the team will then have the ability to exercise a $10MM club option. That could take the contract to $36MM over five years, though Francys Romero reports that the total money can climb as high as $40MM, which suggests there are some additional incentives baked into the arrangement.
It’s been more than three weeks since Rodriguez and the Jays agreed to terms on a contract, but he’s been unable to finalize the pact while awaiting a visa allowing him to enter either Canada or the United States. The expectation has been that whenever Rodriguez acquired the requisite documentation to enter either country, a physical would be completed and the deal would be finalized in short order.
Just 26 years old, Rodriguez has starred for los Ganaderos de Camaguey in his native Cuba and for the Chunichi Dragons in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball. His work in NPB, in particular, caught the eye of Major League scouts, and with good reason. Rodriguez’s 3.03 ERA in three seasons with the Dragons is impressive on its own, but his most recent season featured 54 2/3 overwhelmingly dominant innings: a 1.15 ERA, 27.5% strikeout rate and 8.2% walk rate out of the Chunichi bullpen.
It should be noted, of course, that those numbers came during the 2022 NPB season — not in 2023. Rodriguez pitched for Team Cuba during last year’s World Baseball Classic but did not return to the Dragons for the 2023 season as he set his sights on a move to Major League Baseball. The Dragons placed him on the restricted list for the 2023 season and granted him his release in early November. He’s since hosted multiple showcases for MLB teams and been viewed as one of the more fascinating free agents on the market.
Of course, Rodriguez is also one of the most volatile free agents in play this winter; it’s hard enough to project how much of a player’s success in the Cuban National Series and/or in NPB might carry over to an MLB setting — but that’s all the more complicated when he didn’t even pitch during the preceding season outside of a brief WBC appearance. There’s a good bit of upside, to be sure, but given the long layoff, acclimation to a new culture and step up in overall level off competition, there’s a wide range of plausible outcomes for Rodriguez in MLB — specifically in his first season.
It’s not yet clear just what role Rodriguez will fill with the Jays. He made some starts in NPB but worked primarily as a reliever — exclusively so in his final season with the Dragons. Back in Cuba, be worked primarily out of the Camaguey rotation. Toronto general manager Ross Atkins issued a statement today praising Rodriguez’s ability to generate swings and misses before noting that he provides “starting depth” but could also fill multiple roles on the team.
Given Rodriguez’s lengthy layoff from pitching — and even lengthier layoff from working a full starting pitcher’s workload — it’d be a surprise to see him jump right into the Jays’ rotation. In all likelihood, he’ll be on an innings cap this year, and it’s even possible that Toronto could want to get him some work in Triple-A before thrusting him into the MLB spotlight. Logically speaking, it’s natural to think he could fill a long relief/spot starter role and build up innings this year, with an eye toward stepping into the 2025 rotation on a more permanent basis. But, if the Jays have a need in the late innings Rodriguez clearly has the raw stuff to pitch in that type of leverage role as well.
Baseball America’s Kyle Glaser profiled Rodriguez and several other international free agents (Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Shota Imanaga, Jung Hoo Lee, Yuki Matsui, Woo Suk Go) earlier in the offseason, writing that Rodriguez’s fastball sits around 96 mph and can reach triple digits on occasion. Glaser credited the hard-throwing Rodriguez with an above-average slider but called his splitter “fringy” and his curveball “below-average.” The Jays could certainly help the 6’1″ Rodriguez refine some of those offspeed offerings, but even if he’s operating with “only” a plus heater and above-average slider, that could be enough to make him a viable big league setup man or multi-inning reliever.
As for the 25-year-old Lopez, he’ll now be traded or placed on outright waivers within the coming week. The right-handed hitter has appeared in the big leagues sparingly over the past two seasons, collecting six singles in ten at-bats. Lopez looked to be on the cusp of breaking through to the majors for a larger opportunity when he batted .297/.378/.415 in 391 Triple-A plate appearances in 2022, but his bat took a sizable step back in 2023, evidenced by a tepid .258/.313/.343 slash in 346 plate appearances at that same level.
Scouting reports on Lopez have touted his plus hit tool and speed, but he has bottom-of-the-scale power, evidenced by the fact that he’s never topped five homers in a season and has just seven long balls in 931 Triple-A plate appearances. He’s swiped 90 bases in 518 minor league games but has only a 70.8% success rate. Lopez has seen time at second base, shortstop, third base and in the outfield, but skeptics question whether he has the arm to play on the left side of the infield.
Because he’s out of minor league options, Lopez would’ve needed to make the Blue Jays Opening Day roster or else be traded elsewhere or placed on waivers (likely following a DFA). The Jays made the move proactively rather than carry Lopez throughout spring training. He’ll now be available to the other 29 clubs via trade or waivers, but any team that acquires him will need to carry Lopez on its own Opening Day roster or else try to pass Lopez through waivers before sending him down to the minors.