With the Red Sox looking to upgrade a rotation that completely failed them during the stretch run and replace the injured John Lackey, two left-handers Wandy Rodriquez and Gio Gonzalez, have landed on the team’s radar. The two pitchers are quite similar on the mound; both feature a fastball, curve and change repertoire and get ground balls at a fair rate. The choice between the two will likely come down to a few key areas where significant differences exist.
The Houston Astro’s Wandy Rodriquez has been a consistently above average starter for the perennial also-rans, but he carries a contract that will pay him $36M over the next three years. The rebuilding Astros would love to move that price tag for less costly prospects. Oakland’s Gio Gonzalez, on the other hand, is younger, he is still cost controlled, just entering his first arbitration season now, and he is coming off the better season. On those differences alone, Gonzalez is the easy choice. He will be in his prime over the next two seasons and yet still cost significantly less than the 32 year old Rodriquez. He throws slightly harder than Wandy and misses more bats. Were all things equal, Boston would certainly prefer Gonzalez.
All things will not be equal, however. Everything that makes Gonzalez more appealing to Boston also works against him as a trade target. Being cost controlled Gonzalez appeals to a far wider collection of teams than Rodriquez. Small market clubs such Minnesota, Pittsburgh or Milwaukee would be unlikely to chase after a pitcher who is slated to earn $13M a year and would also require some minor league talent to procure, but they could absolutely make a play for Gonzalez, upping the price Boston will need to meet in minor league talent. His age and superior fastball may also attract additional suitors. Gonzalez has only two years of experience as a major league pitcher and it is easy to dream that he will lower his walk rate or up the K’s and suddenly become a top-of-the-rotation arm. Rodriquez is a known quantity. He will not suddenly morph into Jon Lester or Cliff Lee, but he will give you solid innings and a reliable back-of-the-rotation guy to keep you in games every fifth day.
Even with Houston hoping for a strong haul of prospects, the cost for Rodriquez is almost certainly going to be less then the cost of acquiring Gonzalez. More importantly though, Rodriquez might be the better pitcher. Last season, Rodriquez had an off year, posting a strikeout rate significantly lower than in any of the previous three years. He also showed a minor bump in his walk rate. However, his biggest issue was home runs. Wandy had a 13% HR/FB rate, well above his 11% career average and the league norm. As a result his FIP (4.15) was far worse than his xFIP (3.72). Gonzalez had the better K rate and a much lower home run rate, but with his higher walk rate if you normalize that HR/FB rate, he is almost identical to Rodriquez with an xFIP of 3.73. Even with his age and contract status, Gonzalez may not be the better bet.
From 2008-2010, Wandy Rodriquez was a very good pitcher, posting a solid K/9 rate of 8.41 and a walk rate of 2.92 with very average home run rates. If 2011 represents a real decline, Rodriquez will still be at or above league average, but if it is simply an off year and he returns to his 2008-2010 level, he could very easily out perform Gonzalez for the remainder of his current deal.
For all Gonzalez’s upside, there are a few reasons to believe that he is at his ceiling now. The most disturbing issue with Gonzalez is his walk rate. Throughout his time in the minors Gonzalez struggled to keep the free passes under control. As a Major Leaguer, he has never posted a walk rate below 4 BB/9. He has improved his walk rate each season, but he has not been throwing in the zone at an increasing rate, rather hitters are swinging more at pitches out of the zone than before. That could a good sign, but it is tempered by the fact that they are also making more contact outside of the zone. His swing strike rates are good, but he has not managed to up his K rates to the point where they can neutralize such a high walk rate. At 26, he could still improve, but the clock is ticking. If 2012-2013 doesn’t see Gonzalez improve his walk or K rate to a greater degree, he will still be a good pitcher and a valuable addition to most rotations, but he will not be a clear choice over Wandy Rodriquez.
With Boston’s farm system in a state of flux after a down year by many prospects, a pricey trade last off-season and a new CBA that takes away a competitive advantage they routinely exploited, Rodriquez is a better fit for the organization as a whole. His cost is going to be felt primarily on their balance sheet and not out on the farm. If the team is going to choose between these two lefties, Wandy Rodriquez makes the most sense.