Rodriguez hints Tigers might have gotten prize in Upton trade

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Elvin Rodriguez

It was a surprising goodbye for the Tigers last August when they traded Justin Upton to the Angels a few hours ahead of the conventional summer deadline.

The motive was understood but hard to accept for a fair share of Tigers followers. Upton and his agent had revealed they were opting out of an expensive contract with Detroit, which was their team-agreed right, so that a power-hitting left-fielder could gamble on an even better deal as an autumn free agent. And he indeed scored as the Angels tacked on another year to a $100-million-plus package.

The Tigers that August afternoon got from the Angels a right-handed pitcher, Grayson Long, whose profile wasn't terribly exciting. They also were promised a player to be named later, which generally consists of three or so youngsters from which the Tigers would, at season's end, have their choice of one.

Their scouts and their analytics sleuths settled in September on a 19-year-old, right-handed starter who in 2017 had pitched in 14 games at two low-end Angels stops. 

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He was Elvin Rodriguez, and he was easy to overlook as Tigers minor-league pieces were assessed heading into 2018. That was a mistake, as an analytics staffer or two implied ahead of spring camp.

Score another for the numbers gurus. 

Rodriguez in his last three starts at West Michigan has thrown 18.1 innings, allowed 13 hits, three runs, walked five -- and struck out 27.

He turned 20 in March.

"I think the thing that's impressed me most from the beginning till now is that he's become a pitch-maker," said Lance Parrish, the Whitecaps manager who watched Rodriguez in his last start shut down Dayton on three hits and one run in seven innings, during which Rodriguez whiffed 12 and walked none.

"He's got the stuff, but it's his overall command, especially in that last start. He was putting everything where he wanted to. Good fastball, good velocity, and a really good breaking ball that he's becoming more consistent with.

"And he throws a change-up, as well. I don't want to overlook that pitch."

Room to grow

Rodriguez is 6-foot-3, 160 pounds, and as Parrish said, "I don't want to be indelicate, but he's skin and bones."

It wasn't said critically. It was mentioned as part of Rodriguez's upside. He will add muscle and bulk as he grows into his 20s and could find more horsepower for a fastball that runs in the low-to-mid 90s.

His breaking pitch is in that zone between a slider and a curveball but qualifies most authentically as a curve.

"Everybody's got a little variation to their curve," Parrish said. "His isn't as big as Manning's (Matt Manning, Tigers first-round pick from 2016). It's got a little shorter break, it's a little crisper. But he spots it real well. And has real good command with it."

Rodriguez was signed four years ago as a 16-year-old from San Cristobal, Dominican Republic.

It can be daunting, as students of the minors know, for players to arrive in the United States from Latin America. They are still adolescents. There is a new language and culture blindsiding them at every turn. There is new cuisine. And they are playing a man's game, with professional expectations and growth pressuring them from the first day.

Parrish's assessment of Rodriguez begins with five words:

"He's a great human being."

It isn't because Rodriguez learned English so quickly and seemingly so easily, even if a manager marvels at his facility there.

Rather, it's his daily comportment. It's the gentlemanly style, the warmth, the reality, in Parrish's words that "he's fun to be around."  And, yes, it's the fury Rodriguez shows on a pitching mound that most delights a skipper.

"He does not like to come out of a ballgame," Parrish said, "and that's the other thing I like about him. Even when his pitch count is up, you get the feeling he's saying, 'This is my game.'

"Unfortunately for him," Parrish said with a chuckle, "there are other realities involved."

More than Manning

The Whitecaps a year ago were playing as if they wanted a piece of the Houston Astros in October's World Series.

They won every day, it seemed. This year? The roster doesn't overwhelm as that pitching-heavy bunch from 2017 so often did.

But there are players who impress, well beyond Manning, who is walking too many batters (22 in 30.2 innings) but who otherwise is evolving nicely in his second full year of pro ball.

Parrish talks about "big Rey Rivera (6-6, 250), who has some tools," and of Dylan Rosa, "who has been whacking the ball" (two home runs during the past week)."   

And he could hardly be more happy with Cole Peterson, a shortstop who last June was a 13th-round pick from St. Bonaventure, and who's batting .281 with a .332 on-base average.

"If there's been any one guy who has been absolutely amazing, it's been him," Parrish said of Peterson, a left-handed batter who goes 5-11, 160. "And I play him about every game. I worry about wearing him out, but he's kind of been the spark plug on this team.

"He's a fabulous defensive player, makes all the plays, and as I said, I worry about hurting him, offensively, by keeping him in there. I ask him if he wants to come out for a game, and it's always, 'No, no, no, no.'

"And I appreciate that."

Parrish can also grin when a young starter puts his team in shape to win a ballgame. Of late, that has been Rodriguez, who could be a consolation prize the Tigers galaxy last August never saw coming as Upton headed west.

Twitter @Lynn_Henning