K-Rod Traded To Detroit: Stearns Has No Favorites

Since acquiring him from the New York Mets in the summer of 2011, the Milwaukee Brewers have inked Francisco Rodriguez to four separate contracts, including the two-year, $13 million deal with a club option that he signed prior to the 2015 season. His inevitable return to Miller Park has been an ongoing joke within the Brewers’ online community, and to that end, it will be strange to enter the upcoming campaign without K-Rod anchoring the back-end of the bullpen.

The Brewers traded Francisco Rodriguez to the Detroit Tigers on Wednesday morning in return for infield prospect Javier Betancourt and a player to be named later.

It hasn’t always been a perfect fit, but the right-hander has remained in Milwaukee for several reasons:

(1) He’s long been adamant that he prefers to close ballgames. Because the Brewers have historically struggled to develop high-end arms in their farm system, Milwaukee hasn’t had a closer-in-waiting to justify parting ways with Rodriguez. His clearest path to the ninth inning has been with the blue and gold.

(2) Doug Melvin and the coaching staff trusted K-Rod as a positive clubhouse presence. The 33-year-old mentored young Latin American players and displayed a strong work ethic that his fellow relievers could model. Numerous stories can illustrate Rodriguez’s positive affect behind closed doors; however, a recent tweet from Elian Herrera perhaps best sums up his clubhouse value. Although many fans dislike the unquantifiable nature of “clubhouse presence,” I’ve come to appreciate the importance of positive role models for young players. And that’s not uncommon in life. As children and young professionals, we all have benefited from mentors, as we all naturally seek to mimic the successful. K-Rod served that role beautifully for the Brewers during his time in the organization.

(3) The small and familiar market of Milwaukee allowed Francisco Rodriguez to hide his horrific history of domestic abuse accusations. The story benefited from a benign neglect in the Brewers’ media market — something that came up from time to time when trade rumors surfaced, but rarely discussed because it didn’t attract eyeballs. After all, the vast majority of Brewers fans knew about it and either chose to disgruntedly tolerate it or willfully forget about it. Moving to a new (especially larger media market) always risked the possibility that such a story caught national headlines and became a scandal. That was never a risk in Milwaukee.

In the end, though, Rodriguez kept re-signing with the Brewers because Doug Melvin valued him. The club’s former general manager believed in the right-hander’s ability to adapt to declining stuff and believed in his underlying peripherals. That trust paid off in 2013 when the Brewers were able to trade K-Rod to Baltimore for Nick Delmonico — which seemed like a solid return at the time — and did so again in 2015 when he saved 38 game and compiled a spectacular 2.21 ERA. As the rest of us (myself included) saw a pitcher declining, Melvin saw a pitcher evolving. I covered this more in-depth at Baseball Prospectus a couple weeks ago.

This long-standing relationship is likely why K-Rod continuously ended up back in Milwaukee and why the organization failed to trade him this past summer. The veteran reliever was more valuable to the Brewers organization than he was to any other organization in baseball. He had more than on-the-field value to the club and didn’t have the same off-the-field detractions that he would elsewhere. It’s overwhelmingly likely that the Brewers never received an offer they considered to be worth more than the value Rodriguez already provided.

The restructuring of the Brewers’ front office and the complete transition to David Stearns altered the calculus in this equation. I opined earlier this week that Stearns wouldn’t have the same loyalty to Francisco Rodriguez and may not value his clubhouse presence as highly as Melvin, all of which would probably lead to an offseason trade. That came to fruition on Wednesday.

In return, Milwaukee received 20-year-old Javier Betancourt, a middle infielder who hit .263/.304/.336 with the Tigers’ High-A affiliate, the Lakeland Flying Tigers. On Wednesday (by coincidence, surely) Baseball Prospectus rated Betancourt as the eighth-best prospect in Detroit’s minor-league system. The Tigers may have the worst farm system in all of baseball — which means such a high ranking isn’t much of a compliment — but the Venezuelan native does have some tools that could eventually push him to The Show.

Betancourt is a high-floor prospect with a fairly well-defined ceiling. Despite showing some barrel control that could give him a league-average hit tool, he’ll offer next-to-nothing offensively. The power projects to be non-existent, and he won’t walk much. He’s someone who could hit .270-.275 with a .310-.320 OBP and fewer than five homers. That’s essentially what Scooter Gennett did for the big-league club in 2015, and he was barely a replacement-level player. What differentiates Betancourt, though, is the glove. He can pass at shortstop in short bursts and is an above-average defender at second base, making him a potentially useful utility infielder.

Such prospects are unexciting. He doesn’t break the top-20 in the Brewers’ minor-league system, for me, and will need a lot to go right if he’s going to be anything more than a glove-first bench player. In a trade that effectively dumps $9.5 million and frees up a 40-man roster spot, though, someone like Betancourt is a nifty return. It adds youth and versatility. It adds a lower-risk prospect in a minor-league system that is flush with high-end, volatile players. Moreover, it provides depth in the middle infield, which is an under-appreciated luxury in today’s game. In short, Betancourt shouldn’t be penciled into any future Brewers’ roster, but he represents good business. That’s always commendable.

More importantly, trading Francisco Rodriguez to Detroit signals that David Stearns has assumed full control of the Milwaukee Brewers. He’s a general manager with no connections to the veterans of the big-league club and few connections to the minor-league system, which means he doesn’t have any favorites. He’s not afraid or unwilling to trade someone. He’s open-minded and simply focused on positive baseball value and acquiring as many young players as possible in the franchise’s current transition.

This should be a strong hint that past reluctance to discuss Jonathan Lucroy, Ryan Braun, or Adam Lind with other clubs is no longer applicable. David Stearns is his own man with his own staff and his own philosophies. Doug Melvin remains connected to the club as an advisor, but I believe this K-Rod trade illustrates the extent of the relationship between the two front-office members. The former GM has no residual power. He won’t be a shadow that looms over the Stearns regime. He’s precisely what his title implies: an advisor.

I don’t think that Francisco Rodriguez’s departure can be construed as proof of a “full rebuild” or the beginning of a true “fire sale” — whatever connotation one wants to place on those words — as this is a move that should have been completed a half-dozen months ago. Stearns simply changed the valuation calculus. Perhaps this will also prove true for players like Lucroy and Braun. I’m not sure. What this trade does symbolize, though, is that David Stearns is unquestionably in control of the Milwaukee Brewers franchise, and that’s a huge positive for the fan base. Power struggles in baseball front offices never end well for the on-the-field product. And if there was any lingering concern about that in Milwaukee, I think this clearly snuffs out the flame.

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