Detroit — The Tigers new closer will be 34 when he throws his first pitch next season. That’s five years younger than Joe Nathan was when he first pitched for the Tigers, 14 months younger than Jonathan Papelbon and just nine months older than Darren O’Day, who is seeking a four-year deal.
Age is not an issue.
The Tigers' new closer features a fastball that averaged 89.6 mph last season. But he has a change-up that draws comparisons to Trevor Hoffman, whose 601 career saves is second only to Mariano Rivera.
Fun fact: The Tigers new closer is the major leagues active leader with 386 career saves; 103 more than Rivera had through his age 33 season.
The Tigers new closer is a six-time All-Star, including the last two seasons when he converted 82 of 89 save opportunities (92 percent) and posted a 135-29 strikeout to walk ratio.
Welcome to the Tigers, Francisco Rodriguez, aka, K-Rod.
“It’s great,” fellow Venezuelan Miguel Cabrera told Venezuelan reporter Wilmer Reina. “We were waiting for years to have a quality closer (like) The Kid.”
The Tigers acquired Rodriguez from the Brewers on Wednesday for minor league infielder Javier Betancourt and a player to be named later. The Tigers could get a player to be named back in the deal, as well, though that is based on other unannounced contingencies.
“We explored a lot of options out there, a lot of free-agent pitchers, but none of which had extensive closing experience,” said Al Avila, Tigers executive vice president and general manager. “We saw what our needs were and we had good reports on him. Our staff, our scouts feel it was a good option. He’s been doing a great job the last couple of years and we feel he will continue to do that.”
Rodriguez said he was sleeping when he got the call that he’d been traded, but he wasn’t surprised.
“I was expecting it,” he said. “I knew the rebuild-mode the Brewers organization is going through right now. Me and my family were expecting something. It was just a matter of time that I would end up going somewhere.
“I am glad for this opportunity with the Tigers. I’m taking it with a lot of pride.”
Rodriguez last season had 38 saves with a National League-best 0.860 WHIP with 62 strikeouts in 57 innings. In 2014 he had 44 saves with a 0.985 WHIP and 73 strikeouts in 68 innings.
“K-Rod is a perennial All-Star closer, has pitched on a World Series championship team, and is someone who will provide experience at the back end of our bullpen,” Avila said. “We had strong recommendations from our scouts on Frankie, and he has the proven track record we targeted in our search for a bona fide closer.”
He will make $5.5 million next season and the Tigers will have a club option for $6 million with a $2 million buyout for 2017. He will get $2 million in deferred payments in 2018 from the Tigers. Avila said the deal gives the Tigers flexibility to continue to search for other bullpen pieces, as well as two starting pitchers.
“We are open to adding more than just one person (to the bullpen),” he said. “The closer was our biggest need and we are happy with this move and we will continue to move forward and acquire more pitching — starting pitching and relief pitching.
“This move gets us started in the right direction. Now we will move on to the rest of our needs.”
Avila said the acquisition of Rodriguez also allows the Tigers time to groom some younger pitchers already in the system for late-inning roles — possibly Michael Fulmer, Shane Greene, Bruce Rondon, Alex Wilson and others.
“One or two of those guys might be closers in waiting,” Avila said. “This gives us depth that we’re going to need down the road.”
A closer who barely touches 90 mph certainly runs counter to the major league norm of using flamethrowers in the back end of games. Truth is, hitters swing and miss at Rodriguez's change-up nearly as often as most plus-90s fastball throwers.
Hitters swung and missed at his change-up 40 percent of the time last season, getting just 11 hits on 112 balls in play.
“Some guys throw 95 and it looks like 90 and others throw 90 and it looks like 95,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “When I look at Frankie, I see a little bit of Trevor Hoffman, a guy who came up throwing 95 but has turned to the change-up. Both have tremendous change-ups, swing-and-miss change-ups.”
Rodriguez has pinpoint control of all his pitches and he throws the change-up from different arm angles, which enhances its effectiveness.
"I just kind of reinvented myself,” he said. “I got the opportunity to learn how to pitch early in my career when I was throwing hard. It's something that is working for me now at the end of my career. Just not to go out there and blow people away, but read hitters, figure out what they are trying to do and go by the situation of the game.
“The game and the inning says how you are going to pitch. That's one thing I developed and it's something I put a lot of pride in — read the swing, read the situation. ...I just learned how to pitch, just go out every day and compete."
Rodriguez has only pitched 23 games in the American League (for the Orioles in 2013) since 2008. He’s not sweating it.
“I’m not going to change anything,” he said. “Just trust my stuff. I am confident with all my pitches in any count in any situation. I don’t think I make any changes to my approach at all.”
Rodriguez has finished 602 games in his career — including 302 in the American League. That’s an important number for Ausmus.
“There is a big difference between pitching the seventh, eighth and ninth inning,” Ausmus said. “There is a mentality to pitching the ninth and getting those last three outs of a one-run game. Some pitchers with all the stuff in the world just can’t do it. Others have the knack for it, they have the makeup for it.
“Frankie has proven he has it.”
Betancourt, 20, played second base and hit .263 with a .640 OPS at high Class A Lakeland last season.