While most of Braves Country was slipping into a carbohydrate, tryptophan, and Lions/Vikings induced stupor, the Atlanta Braves made a rare Thanksgiving Day transaction, signing super-utility player Sean Rodriguez.
Sources: #Braves in agreement with free-agent infielder Sean Rodriguez on two-year deal for more than $11M, pending physical.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 24, 2016
Probably like most fans, my first thought was that signing Rodriguez is an attempt by Atlanta to build more versatility for the bench. If Rodriguez is known for anything, it’s positional flexibility. A follow-up tweet by ESPN’s Buster Olney followed that line of thought.
Braves' intended role for Sean Rodriguez is to mostly use him at second base vs. lefties, but he'll fill in at SS, 3B, OF, 1B, as well.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) November 24, 2016
Then I looked up his numbers from last year and HOLY MOTHER OF BEN ZOBRIST!
|162 Game Avg.||162||437||388||50||91||20||2||12||46||7||3||30||110||.234||.303||.390||.693||91|
Career highs in all three major rate stats and home runs? Rodriguez was sensational for the Pirates in 2016 at the plate after an 8-year career of being a light-hitting, multi-positional bench option. His 2016 wRC+ of 129 ranks 33rd with major league players with a minimum of 300 plate appearances. His 1.9 fWAR would have been third on the Braves among position players, behind only Freddie Freeman and Ender Inciarte.
Extrapolating his season to 600 plate appearances, he would have generated 3.3 fWAR if he maintained that performance, which again finishes behind Freeman and Inciarte, but puts him nearly three times as valuable as Nick Markakis or Tyler Flowers.
Is This The Real Life?
Naturally, though, nobody can possibly believe that Sean Rodriguez could really be a 3+ fWAR player suddenly at the age of 31, right?
According to analysis by Ronnie Socash at Beyond the Box Score, the offensive surge that Rodriguez produced last season could be real. According to Socash:
In 2016, we see big changes. Reminiscent of the leg kicks we see from Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson, Rodriguez started using his lower-half to generate bat speed and power. In 2008, it was Bautista who re-invented his swing after flaming out as an infielder with the Pirates. Rodriguez has now seemingly flipped the script through the same leg-kick that turned Bautista into an all-star.
If the offensive changes Socash details allow Rodriguez to come close to maintaining the performance he exhibited with Pittsburgh, what the Braves have signed for an average salary of $5.5 million over each of the next two seasons could potentially be an incredible bargain. A 3+ fWAR player who can also provide major league average defense at all infield positions plus the outfield corners is… Ben Zobrist. And the Cubs signed Zobrist last offseason to a contract that costs them on average $12 million per year for four years.
What Rodriguez really brings to Atlanta though is options. Depending on what the Braves’ major league scouts think about Rodriguez, he could fit in a wide variety of roles.
At minimum, he could be super-Chase d’Arnaud – essentially a bench support player. And maybe that’s all Rodriguez is after all, which is what he’s been the first 8 years of his major league career.
At maximum, he should absolutely be starting every day for the Atlanta Braves. He’s a better option at third base than Adonis Garcia. He’s a better option at second base than Jace Peterson. He’s a better option in left field than Matt Kemp. And he’s a better option in right field than Nick Markakis. This is regardless as well of the handedness of the starting pitcher. While he has platoon splits that favor him against left-handed pitching, his splits against right-handers were still better than those of Garcia, Peterson, Kemp, or Markakis.
The truth is probably, as in so many things, somewhere in between. But his presence does have some potential repercussions for the rest of the Braves off-season as well.
Is This Just Fantasy?
Rodriguez represents an option for the Braves if they decide to move major league assets in trade this offseason. The presence of Rodriguez immediately makes the prospects of trading any of Garcia, Peterson, Kemp, or Markakis easier for Atlanta.
If none are traded, Rodriguez allows the Braves to more easily send Mallex Smith to AAA for more seasoning if they are so inclined, as Rodriguez could act as the fourth outfielder.
If Rodriguez is just the platoon partner for Jace Peterson, as Olney suggests, that duo should provide enough value that the team shouldn’t feel compelled to try to rush prospect Ozzie Albies to the big leagues if they aren’t sure he’s quite ready yet.
Finally, Rodriguez represents a legitimate major league option that could hold down either third or second base if the Braves do want to use Albies or third base prospect Rio Ruiz in a larger trade. (Note: I do not advocate for this. To see my thoughts on the player I think Albies could be, please check out Get to Know a Prospect: Ozzie Albies on this very website).
For most of the off-season to date, the focus has been on improving the starting rotation, as it should be, considering it was the most disappointing single unit of the team in 2016. The signing of Sean Rodriguez however is a clever move from a confident front office that could simply be a move to bolster a very weak bench… or it could be much more, a pebble in a pond that could ripple the major league roster.