After a mediocre season in 2011, the back end of the Blue Jays bullpen was in need of a makeover. Many analysts targeted Francisco Cordero as a potential closer option, citing his 327 career saves and affordable price tag. Instead, Toronto boldly acquired Sergio Santos. But in a neat twist they signed Cordero anyway, giving them an experienced mentor for Santos and a quality Plan B. Cordero wasn’t always seen as a power reliever. Now he sits 12th all-time in saves. Here’s an in-depth look at how that happened - and how long we can reasonably expect him to remain effective.
Francisco Cordero was signed by the Detroit Tigers as a minor league free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 1994. He is a cousin of former Blue Jays first baseman Domingo Martinez. He began his career at 16 in the Dominican Summer League, going 4-3, with a 3.90 ERA in 12 games before moving to North America in 1995.
Back then, Cordero was actually a starter in the Tigers system. He kicked off his first year stateside with the low-A Fayetteville Generals and short-season Jamestown Jammers. He had a live fastball but struggled with consistency, going 4-10, 5.42 in 108 innings with a 73/49 SO/BB in 18 starts.
He started 1997 in extended spring training before returning briefly to Fayetteville and Jamestown. In June he injured his elbow and missed the rest of the year. He only threw 18 innings but his elevated 8.5 SO/9 stood out. Cordero had an explosive fastball and a nasty slider at this point. Power stuff. When he returned, the Tigers converted him into a closer to lessen the stress on his arm. The switch sped up his timeline to the majors. And changed the course of his career.
Healthy again in 1997, Cordero starred for the West Michigan Whitecaps of the Midwest League, going 6-1, 0.99 in 54.1 IP with a 67/15 SO/BB for a slick 11.1 SO/9 rate. He also collected 35 saves, earned the Tigers’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year honours and heard raves from scouts. Baseball America called him the best prospect in the league and he was now seen universally as a legitimate relief arm. In the offseason, he consolidated his gains playing winter ball in the Dominican for Leones del Escogido. The Tigers hoped to fast-track Cordero through their system and skipped him skip past high-A.
He started the 1998 season with the AA Jacksonville Suns, at one point setting up for Matt Anderson, the former first overall pick, whom the Tigers had a lot invested in. But Cordero pitched only 17 games before suffering another serious arm injury – this time a stress fracture to his right elbow – and underwent season-ending surgery in July. The Tigers would have to wait. When healthy, Cordero’s stuff was still dynamic. But injuries were now threatening to derail his career.
Cordero managed to start the following season on time. He was reassigned to Jacksonville but this time he excelled. In 47 games, he went 4-1, 1.38 in 52.1 IP with 58 SO (a 10.0 SO/9) and 22 BB. He paced the Southern League with 27 saves and was named its Pitcher of the Year. He also pitched in the Futures Games in July. The Tigers were set at closer with Todd Jones. But they were terrible otherwise and couldn’t resist getting a look at Cordero in the majors. They called him up in August and he stormed out of the gate, throwing up zeroes across his first 11 appearances. He finished 2-2, 3.32 but he was also walking almost a batter an inning (19/18 SO/BB in 19IP) and was sometimes criticized for overthrowing. Nothing unusual for a rookie. Elsewhere, Anderson always seemed to be hurt or flailing. So Cordero represented hope. He was chosen to transport home plate from storied Tiger Stadium to the new Comerica Park (with Jeff Weaver and, yes, Anderson) and had an inside track at a bullpen job entering 2000. But Detroit was looking for a bankable star to bring fans to Comerica and sent Cordero to Texas as part of a six-player package for Juan Gonzalez. Twelve years later, Cordero’s generated a higher WAR than any player in the deal. Juan Gone included.
He made the Rangers out of spring training and won his first appearance, ultimately spending most of 2000 learning on the job in the Texas bullpen. In 56 games, he went 1-4, 5.35 in 77.1 innings. He was very hittable (.285/.383/.475), especially against lefties (.310/.461/.496), and couldn’t harness his control (49/48 SO/BB). He also uncorked 7 wild pitches. Refinements were definitely needed. But with a 95+ mph fastball and a filthy slider to work with more chances would come.
Just not soon. In early 2001, Cordero suffered a stress fracture in his lower back and could only make 15 appearances between Texas and the Triple-A Oklahoma RedHawks. Lingering pain and tightness limited his workload but the minor league numbers he put up during his rehab were better than ever: 0-1, 0.59 with a 20/3 SO/BB rate in 15.1 IP. Cordero again seemed poised to assume a late-inning role in the Texas ‘pen – if he could keep himself on the field.
In 2002, Cordero finally broke through. He split time between Oklahoma and Texas, eventually giving the Rangers 39 games, 2-0, 1.79 in 45.1 IP with an impeccable 41/13 SO/BB line. He only gave up 2 runs after June 1 – an incredible span stretching 33 games and 38.1 innings. With Jeff Zimmerman sidelined by a blown-out elbow the Rangers struggled to close games – even trying Hideki Irabu there at one point. No one could hold Cordero off for long and he ultimately finished in the closer’s role, netting 10 saves. He landed on the shelf (again) in June with a right shoulder strain but rebounded splendidly. His injury history suggests a pitcher perpetually on the verge of breaking down. Instead, Cordero’s never missed time in the ten years since. Relievers are unpredictable like that.
Cordero looked ready to continue closing going into 2003. But Texas elected to sign veteran stopper Ugueth Urbina. Undeterred, Cordero just kept on performing and manager Buck Showalter ultimately turned to him more than any other Ranger. He lead the team with 73 games and went 5-8, 2.94 in a whopping 82.2 innings with a potent 90/38 SO/BB rate. Urbina was gone by midseason, Cordero finished with 15 saves and established himself as a full-time stopper. He had cemented himself at last.
He was even better in 2004: 3-4, 2.13, 71.2 IP with a 79/32 SO/BB line in 67 games and the Rangers improved by 16 wins, buoyed by Cordero’s franchise record 49 saves and 9.92 SO/9. He only gave up one home run and had streaks of 19 and 21 straight saves. Cordero made his first All-Star team and even received MVP votes. More of the same followed in 2005. Cordero secured 37 saves while also flashing a career-high 10.3 SO/9 and an excellent 14.2% swinging strike rate. He was now undeniably among baseball’s elite firemen.
But in 2006 Cordero got off to a dreadful start, blowing 5 saves in April and finishing the month with an 11.45 ERA. Showalter flinched and installed new free agent signing Akinori Otsuka in the ninth inning. Cordero was undeniably terrible. But the 55 plate appearance-sample size was small. Still, it seemed the damage was done. In mid-summer, with Texas chasing the Athletics and Angels, the Rangers sent Cordero to the Milwaukee Brewers for Carlos Lee (and a throw-in bat named Nelson Cruz). The Brewers badly needed a closer and Cordero embraced the change of scenery. He kicked off his Brewers career by converting 16 straight saves and finished 3-1, 1.69 with a 30/16 SO/BB rate. His walks spiked but still looked better than Derrick Turnbow’s. The Brewers (and Rangers) finished well out of the playoff race. But Cordero was now comfortable and set to play a leading role on an improving Brewers team.
And so it went. He pitched 66 games in 2007, going 0-4, 2.98 in 63.1 IP with a franchise-record 44 saves and a fantastic 86/18 SO/BB ratio. He generated a career-best 12.2 SO/9, a sterling 4.78 SO/BB and held hitters to a .218 BAA. He nailed down his first 22 saves in a row including 10 in April. Later, he earned saves on five consecutive days. He made the All-Star team and was a major reason the Brewers finished second in the NL Central. His home/road ERA splits were severe (1.09/6.55) but Cordero set himself up beautifully for his first crack at free agency. And cashed in with a four-year, $46 million deal with the fifth place Cincinnati Reds – the biggest contract ever signed by a relief pitcher at the time.
Over the next four years, Cordero gave the Reds exactly what they paid him for. He pitched 283 games, going 18-18, 2.96 in 279.1 innings with a cumulative 237/126 SO/BB and a whopping 150 saves. He made his third All-Star team in 2009 and helped the Reds win the NL Central in 2010. Alas, the Reds never got a lead and Cordero didn’t get to pitch in the playoffs. The Reds also rewarded his community work, nominating him for the Roberto Clemente Award. Dusty Baker rode him hard over the years, sometimes pitching him four and five days in a row. But Cordero didn’t miss any time. And only required one late-September microfracture procedure to remove a bone spur from his right foot. For the last decade, he’s been one of the most reliable and durable relievers in the game.
His 2011 season is very interesting. Cordero pitched 68 games, saving 37, and went 5-3, 2.45 in 69.2 IP – but with an underwhelming 49/22 SO/BB rate. His 5.43 SO/9 was the lowest of his career. But so was his 6.3 H/9. He also dramatically reduced the walks he allowed (2.84 BB/9, his best rate in 10 years) and produced a strong 1.02 WHIP. He had four bad outings before the All-Star break but managed an excellent 1.80 ERA in the second half. He was absolute murder on righties (.159/.245/.220) and showed he could still be effective against lefties (.243/.302/.435). He recorded an unsustainable .214 BABIP but also delivered the best ground ball (50.0%) and line drive rates (16.2%) of his career. He was tough to get on against. 20 of his 37 saves were 1-2-3 innings. Yet he lost some velocity on his fastball (down to 93 mph) and virtually threw it only 41.2% of the time – down from 66.7% in 2010. Instead, Cordero threw three times as many changeups (18.8% from 6.7%) and introduced a new show-me curveball (9.8%).
Many are attributing this change to declining stuff. Fair enough. He’s 37 in a month. But it’s possible Cordero’s fundamentally changing the way he attacks hitters. In interviews, Cordero insists he now strives to be more economical on the mound by inducing weak contact. The ground ball and line drive rates seem to back this up. The question moving forward is: Has a 37-year old closer reinvented himself as a crafty specialist or did he get lucky at the same time his stuff started to fade? We’ll soon find out.
In the new-look Jays bullpen, Cordero’s job is simple. He’ll be asked to enter close games, attack right-handed hitters and be prepared to slide into the ninth when called on. He should also guide Sergio Santos. Cordero still looks capable of doing all these things and there is no situation Santos will encounter this year that Cordero hasn’t seen.
He is now entering the Roberto Hernandez stage of his career. He may have fewer chances to influences games but will be but will be counted on for guidance and stability – especially with fastball-slider guys like Santos and Joel Carreno. He’s been worth 21.4 WAR in his career. Has saved 30 games 7 times and sits second among pitchers in saves and fifth in games pitched.Who could have guessed Cordero and Darren Oliver, teammates on the 2000 Texas Rangers, would still be going strong all these years later?
Expect Cordero to pound RHH, be more susceptible to home runs and rack up a whack of holds and add a few saves. His margin for error is shrinking and he could still break down at any time. But I’m betting there’s another season or two left.
Francisco Cordero, RP
05/11/75 Bats: R Throws: R HT: 6-3 WT: 245
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Signed: By Detroit as an amateur free agent June 18, 1994.
Acquired: Signed by Toronto in February 2012.
Contract Status: Free Agent in 2013.
Service Time: 12.046