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Blue Jays sign Yariel Rodriguez: Everything to know about electric Cuban righty

The free-agent righty starred as a reliever in Japan in recent years but will likely get a shot to stick as a starter with Toronto.

Yariel Rodriguez of Team Cuba reacts while leaving the mound in the third inning during the 2023 World Baseball Classic Quarterfinal game between Team Australia and Team Cuba at Tokyo Dome on Wednesday, March 15, 2023 in Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Yuki Taguchi/WBCI/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The top of the pitching market remains stuck in the mud, but the Toronto Blue Jays have provided some kindling for the Hot Stove with an intriguing under-the-radar signing. According to a report from Francys Romero, the Jays have reached an agreement with 26-year-old Cuban righty Yariel Rodriguez.

The exact terms of the deal are still unclear, but reports suggest it’s a four-year contract.

With names like Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery and Dylan Cease taking up most of the oxygen in recent weeks, not much attention has been paid to Rodríguez — who we didn’t rank within our top 50 free agents at the start of the offseason. But while he may be something of an unknown in the States of yet, there’s a reason why a Toronto team whose pitching staff is largely set would make him a target. So just who is he?

Yariel Rodríguez scouting report

Rodríguez, who turns 27 on March 10, began his career in his native Cuba, finding success while pitching mainly as a starter from 2015 through 2019. That earned him a deal with the Chunichi Dragons in Japan’s NPB, where he converted to a bullpen role — and promptly became one of the best late-inning options in the league. Rodríguez put together a monster 2022 season, posting a 1.15 ERA with 60 strikeouts in 54.2 innings.

His global reputation grew even more last spring, when he anchored Cuba’s rotation in the 2023 World Baseball Classic. Rodríguez put up a 2.45 ERA in his two starts while striking out 10 over 7.1 innings.

Rather than return to Japan, Rodriguez was granted an early release from his contact with the Dragons and set his sights on landing with a Major League team. The righty sat out the entire 2023 season, biding his time until he could sell himself to teams this offseason. He did just that in a workout in front of MLB scouts in the Dominican Republic last October, showcasing a five-pitch mix highlighted by a mid-90s fastball:

Back in December, ESPN’s Enrique Rojas reported that the Blue Jays had “taken the lead” in the bidding for Rodríguez, and as the calendar flipped to 2024, it seemed like just a matter of time (and some immigration red tape) until Toronto made things official. The majority of the Jays’ rotation and bullpen is set, with starters Kevin Gausman, Jose Berrios, Chris Bassitt and Yusei Kikuchi and closer Jordan Romano. But you can never have too much pitching depth, and the team’s fifth starter job remains very much up for grabs unless Alek Manoah suddenly rediscovers his old form.

It’s unclear how exactly Toronto wants to use Rodríguez, but it figures to at least give him a chance to stick as a depth starter/swingman, at least initially. The righty would need to build up his innings after not pitching last season, and he might not be ready to make an impact until we get into the summer months. But his stuff is certainly big-league quality, and if he doesn’t wind up being able to go four or five innings every five days, his stuff projects well into at least a middle relief role. In that sense, he’s a nice replacement for the recently departed Jordan Hicks.

The Jays are hardly done with their winter shopping. After missing out on Shohei Ohtani in free agency and Juan Soto — and with holes at DH, second base and third base — Toronto still has its eye on at least one more hitter, preferably left-handed. Cody Bellinger would be the splashiest name and a nice fit, but it’s unclear whether the team wants to meet Scott Boras’ price tag. Brandon Belt, who had 19 homers and an .858 OPS in 404 plate appearances for the Jays last season, has indicated he wants to continue his career. Jorge Soler, J.D. Martinez and Justin Turner are among the right-handed DH types who are still available.