Yankees’ Carlos Rodón’s lackluster spring barely gives silver lining

TAMPA, Fla. — By the most basic measure, New York Yankees lefty Carlos Rodón’s spring training was a success. The 31-year-old made all five of his starts. His fastball lived mostly in the mid-90s — where it should be. He’s healthy.

By the measures used to judge a pitcher making $26 million this season, however, Rodón didn’t give the Yankees much reason to party. He was inconsistent. A fastball-slider specialist, he still doesn’t seem to have zeroed in on a go-to third pitch. With ace Gerrit Cole expected to miss at least three months with elbow nerve inflammation, Rodón — brought in to be Cole’s No. 2 — didn’t exactly pitch like the other kind of No. 2. But he hardly finished camp smelling like roses.

That was the case in Saturday’s 6-6 tie against the Philadelphia Phillies at George M. Steinbrenner Field — Rodón’s final exhibition start. He lasted four innings, giving up six runs (five earned) on 82 pitches.

“Now it’s real,” Rodón said. “Now these games matter and whatever this spring training was — it doesn’t matter.”

Except, it does. If the Yankees are going to be excited about Rodón’s health, they can’t ignore his middling performance and 4.66 ERA.

Rodón said he was encouraged by his spring training. Last season — the first of his $162 million, six-year deal with the Yankees — he made just one spring start before getting sidelined for months with a forearm injury and a lower back injury. His first start of the season will come Friday against the Houston Astros in Minute Maid Park, the Yankees’ second game of the year. He said he’ll spend the days leading up to it working to improve his delivery.

“I feel confident in myself,” he said.

On Saturday, Rodón surrendered seven hits and a walk while striking out two, though his defense didn’t exactly bail him out. He got just four whiffs on 36 swings. His fastball topped at 96.2 mph and averaged 94.1 mph. He worked in 13 cutters as he searched for a pitch to get righties off his fastball and slider.

Rodón gave up a first-inning double to No. 2 hitter Whit Merrifield, who stole third base before Bryce Harper scored him with a sacrifice fly. In the second inning, after a one-out ground-rule double to Cristian Pache and a single to Jake Cave, the Yankees couldn’t turn a close double play on a Johan Rojas grounder, allowing Pache to score. Then Rodón didn’t bounce back, walking ninth hitter Garrett Stubbs before Bryson Stott singled in another run for a 3-0 Phillies lead.

Rodón then pitched a 1-2-3 third inning, and in the fourth, Pache singled, moved to second base on shortstop Kevin Smith’s throwing error and scored from third base when catcher Ben Rortvedt’s throw to second base on a steal bounced into center field. A Stubbs sacrifice fly made it 5-0 Philadelphia.

And in the fifth, Merrifield led off with a single before manager Aaron Boone pulled Rodón, who walked off to mostly indifference from the sold-out crowd.

Asked how he felt about the outing, Rodón searched for positives. First, he mentioned how he had five “ups” — trips from the dugout to the mound. He highlighted throwing 82 pitches. Then he got to his performance.

“Got hit around a little bit,” he said. “Fastball was over the plate. I think at the end it was a little better. Kind of started feeling my move a little better. I wish I had a few more pitches, but they called for 82, and now I’m just getting ready for this first start.”

“He’s in a good space physically,” Boone told reporters. “I just go back to where he’s been the last four or five months, he’s just been building into a good spot. He’s laid a nice foundation to go out there and be successful.”

More than ever, the Yankees need Rodón to step up, but it’s unclear how hopeful they should be it’ll happen. When they confirmed Cole wouldn’t be able to start on Opening Day, they first offered the opportunity to start in the first game of the year to Marcus Stroman — not Rodón. They landed on lefty Nestor Cortes, who, like Rodón, comes into the season with serious health questions after spending much of 2023 on the injured list.

Last season, Rodón pitched to a 6.85 ERA and a 3-8 record in 14 starts. He drew the ire of fans for his poor performance and his attitude. He taunted heckling fans by blowing a kiss at them while walking off the field. In his last start of the year, he turned his back on pitching coach Matt Blake as Blake visited him on the mound to try and help stem what became an eight-run, zero-outs-recorded meltdown.

It’s been clear, however, that Rodón wants to rebound. He dropped weight in the offseason and showed up to spring training in better shape. He was able to stay out of the trainer’s room. Still, even Rodón said he was “frustrated” with his final spring training outing.

“Luckily,” he said, “(stats) don’t count. But they will.”

But will Rodón make them count?

(Photo: Julio Aguilar / Getty Images)

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