This X-factor could determine Yankees' chances of returning to AL East prominence

After a lost 2023 season, a return to form for Carlos Rodon makes a good Yankees team great.

2024 New York Yankees Spring Training
2024 New York Yankees Spring Training / New York Yankees/GettyImages

While Juan Soto has been the talk of the town during Yankees spring training, the buzz surrounding starting pitcher Carlos Rodón has been quietly mounting. After a disappointing season, the veteran starter reported back to camp already in fighting shape, and with strengthened resolve.

2023 was hardly the introduction he or the Yankees envisioned when the two sides agreed to a six-year, $162 MM contract before the 2023 season. Nagging injuries to his back and forearm would delay the start of Rodón's Yankee career until the left-hander made his first start against the visiting Cubs on July 7, a game the Yankees would lose three to nothing.

Rodón made just 14 starts in 2023, posting an abysmal 6.85 ERA and 1.45 WHIP across 64.1 innings - a jarring contrast to his brilliant 2.67 ERA in 310 innings of work between 2021 and 2022. When asked about his performance after a 7-3 loss at the hands of the Angels, the ever-candid Rodón did not mince words.

"I suck in this moment. I suck right now. I do. I know that. So what do I need to do to not suck or suck less?"

Carlos Rodón

Rodón's season came to a brutal end on September 29 at the hands of the 56-win Kansas City Royals in perhaps the worst start in franchise history. He failed to retire a single hitter in the contest, allowing eight earned runs on six hits, two walks, and one home run on just 35 pitches. Banished to the offseason just a few days later, Rodón took some time to reflect and step away from the game after a grueling season.

"Just looking forward to taking a little bit of time to myself and getting away from baseball."

Carlos Rodón

Now, it seems Rodón is determined to turn things around - reporting to the Yankees facility in Tampa in the first week of January, and in much better shape than last seen in 2023. Not only has the fireballer lost some real weight, but pitching coach Matt Blake says there is "another gear" to Rodon's fastball - already up to 97 mph despite finishing the season at 93.6 in his final start.

Notably a two-pitch pitcher, Rodon relies solely on his fastball and slider, hurling the former at a 61% clip for his career. With such a limited arsenal to work with, an uptick in fastball velocity is essential for any type of foreseeable resurgence from the left-hander.

In pure Matt Blake fashion, Rodón also showed off a new pitch in his first spring training start: a cutter. While this cutter didn't have much success, finding the concourse in left field off the bat of Blue Jays catcher Alejandro Kirk, the attempt to diversify the repertoire could be another element to elevate Rodón's game this season.

A return to form would be massive for the Yankees rotation. Adding a pitcher of Rodón's caliber to the likes of AL Cy Young winner Gerrit Cole and newly acquired Marcus Stroman creates one of the nastiest three-headed monsters atop any rotation in baseball. This is not to mention the absence of Jhony Brito, Mike King, Randy Vazquez, and Drew Thorpe leaves the Yankees in need of high quality innings eaters.

While likely not destined to return to his 2021 and 2022 heights, anything feels possible for Carlos Rodón, who is still just 31 years old. Despite the lows of last season, it's hard not to be cautiously optimistic. So far, he has reported to camp over a month early, dropped weight during the offseason, said all the right things to the media, is tinkering with a new pitch, and most importantly, clocked a fastball at 97 mph. While spring training should always be taken with a grain of salt, it's encouraging to see Carlos Rodón putting everything he has into the coming season.