Lakeland, Fla. — The first time Francisco Rodriguez was in a contract year, 2008, he saved 62 games for the Los Angeles Angels.
Of course, he’s played 512 games, faced 2,055 batters and made 222 saves since then — and instead of entering his age-27 season, he’s entering his age-35 season this year.
Needless to say, pitching for a new contract won’t be a distraction for him.
“No,” he said Thursday. “If they ask me this question in 2008, the first time I was a free agent, I might be a little worried about it. But I’ve been in this situation before. It doesn’t bother me.”
Make no mistake, though, Rodriguez is playing for another contract. The game’s active saves leader, fourth all-time with 430, isn’t feeling or pitching like he’s at the end of his career. Also, he feels like he has some unfinished business in Detroit.
“We fought until the last day of the season last year without some key players that we need,” he said. “I know the fans, they expected a lot of changes. But they (Al Avila and the Tigers’ front office) trust us. They kept the ball club together because they know what we have in this clubhouse.
“I am happy with what we got and we are going to fight together until the end.”
Rodriguez arrived in Lakeland on Wednesday night and went through all the drill work Thursday — though he didn’t throw off the mound. He said he has been conditioning for the better part of three months, in preparation for his third stint with Team Venezuela and the World Baseball Classic.
“I do what I do every year, every season,” he said. “I just (start) it a week before. I’ve been in the last three classics, so I know what to expect and how to prepare for it. I don’t want to try to be 100 percent when I’m not. That can create bad habits or you can get hurt. That’s the last thing any player wants.”
The tournament, always immensely significant to the fans in his homeland, will have more import this year, Rodriguez said, given the economic and political unrest in Venezuela.
“It is huge in my country,” he said. “It doesn’t mean wearing this jersey (Tigers) isn’t special, but when you wear the name of your country across your chest, it’s another level. The people in Venezuela are really looking forward to these three games in Mexico.
“It’s not a secret what’s going on down there. It would be great for us to give them something to distract them and not to think of the problems they have. We need to make sure we are ready to compete.”
Rodriguez thinks the first game he might pitch in the WBC, March 10, would have been about the same time he would have made his first exhibition outing had he stayed in Lakeland.
Tigers right-hander Jordan Zimmermann throws free and easy in second bullpen session. Chris McCosky, The Detroit News
No leg up
The Tigers obviously thought left-hander Daniel Stumpf could compete for a roster spot, or else they wouldn’t have selected him in the Rule 5 draft last winter. But that alone, manager Brad Ausmus said, doesn’t give him any kind of edge in the competition.
“The nature of the Rule 5 draft is you are hoping to find an unprotected player who may help your team,” Ausmus said. “But a bullpen spot on a team that is expecting to win, you have to go with the guy that will help you win.”
It is yet to be determined if Stumpf fits the bill. He is competing with lefties Blaine Hardy, Chad Bell and Kyle Ryan and right-hander Mark Lowe for one of the last spots. He has been impressive in his early bullpens, moving the ball to both sides of the plate with a deceptive delivery.
“It’s something I went through last year,” said Stumpf, a Rule 5 pick of the Phillies last year. “That was the question some of the coaches asked me: ‘How do I think about going into camp as a Rule 5 guy?’ I just said I’m not going to change anything I do. Just go out and be the same pitcher I’ve been the entire time.”
He throws a low-90s fastball with a change-up and slider.
“I get movement on both sides of the plate that just comes natural from the way my arm comes across my body,” he said. “And I am pretty deceptive with how I set up in my stretch. If I go inside, the ball cuts and if I go away, I get the natural left-handed run.”
There already has been a lot of media attention around right-handed reliever Joe Jimenez ,and Ausmus did his best to put that in perspective Thursday.
“You have to be careful with young guys who are highly touted and have come through the system quickly,” he said. “The big leagues is a different animal. People think it’s just a natural progression. You go from A ball to Double A to Triple A and then the big leagues.
“It is a big step from A ball to Double A and then to Triple A. But it is a huge step to the big leagues to be successful for the long haul.”
Ausmus reiterated what the organization has already impressed upon Jimenez — he still needs to develop and improve a secondary pitch — be it his slider or change-up. Neither is big league ready yet.
“It’s a process and rushing that process can be just as detrimental as anything,” he said. “He has a big league fastball right now. The secondary pitch — he may only need one — needs to get to a certain level to be successful over the long haul.”
Around the horn
Omar Infante, who spent eight years of his 15-year career with the Tigers, was back in Lakeland for the first time since 2013.
The Tigers signed him to a minor league deal and invited him to big league camp over the winter, when they thought they might be trading second baseman Ian Kinsler. Kinsler was not traded and Infante is now trying to win a spot as utility player.
If he does not win a roster spot, he will likely opt out of his minor league deal.