The Tigers' added a 23-year-old with a 5.83 ERA to 40-man roster. Why?
News, of sorts, was made earlier this week when the Tigers added Elvin Rodriguez to their 40-man roster ahead of 2022.
It should be noted that Rodriguez, 23, started 18 games in 2021 at Double-A Erie and had a 5.83 ERA. It is not the brand of single-category number that typically helps a pitcher who might have been on the bubble as the Tigers allocated precious roster spots.
But that ERA was a bit phony, at least in the Tigers’ organizational eyes. They had other thoughts about a pitcher who last year threw 77.2 innings, which led to 70 hits, 83 strikeouts, and 29 walks (1.27 WHIP). Among the front office’s notes:
►He started strong last May at Erie but then missed a couple of weeks as he returned to the Dominican Republic for paternity leave. The Tigers say that necessary layoff definitely delayed any 2021 development.
►His fastball, which had been topping out at 93 early in the year, later bumped 94, 95, and even 96, with the 96 coming after Rodriguez was able to pitch short-inning relief and step on the gas during a single-game October cameo with Triple-A Toledo.
►Maybe most important, he added a pitch in 2021: a slider, which his bosses very much like. That’s because his previous primary breaking ball, a curve, wasn’t exactly from the Justin Verlander school of spin-rates.
With the probability Rodriguez could be lost to minor-league free agency, the Tigers loaded him aboard the 40-man, setting him up for a likely rotation spot next season at Toledo.
“Didn’t surprise me at all that they threw him on the 40-man,” Arnie Beyeler, who last season was Rodriguez’s manager at Erie, said during a Wednesday phone chat. “He’s definitely a very interesting young guy with a good arm. He’s got starter presence, and possibly offers starter depth, plus he’s a great kid, and a great teammate. He’s very impressive.”
Rodriguez came to the Tigers four years ago, as a 19-year-old, as part of the trade that sent Justin Upton to the Angels.
The Tigers’ minor-league scouts liked his 6-foot-3 frame and his right arm and were inclined to think here was a pitcher — then a longer-term project — who might blossom.
For the gamble to pay off, Rodriguez needs, of course, to reach Detroit — and to have a quiver full of pitches that can defeat big-league hitters. The slider added last season could make a difference.
“It has bigger spin, it’s a little faster,” Rodriguez said Wednesday during a Zoom chat from his home in Dominican Republic, where he’s playing winter ball for the Licey team.
“It was something I’d been practicing and working out a lot with,” he said, explaining that he began showing it more regularly to hitters “almost at the end of the season” as Erie began to wrap up its schedule. “I got the green light in games and started using it."
Forging a fourth-pitch slider was something the gang in Detroit had recommended as manager AJ Hinch, pitching coach Chris Fetter, and others got a bead on Rodriguez’s metrics.
Beyeler liked their strategy.
“His curveball was kind of a rolly get-me-over curve,” Beyeler said. “He could command it, and it had a ton of depth. But metrics-wise, they didn’t like it, so they suggested going to the slider, and he was using it in that second half.
“He still likes his curveball. It’s something he can throw when behind in the count. But moving forward, with good spin on his fastball and an average change-up, and from the standpoint of his metrics, it all made sense.”
Beyeler, though, believes there was one basic reason for Rodriguez’s lukewarm ERA, which more to the point, featured only 77 innings in 18 starts.
It was fatherhood.
“What happened with Elvin is he got off to that great start,” said Beyeler, who watched Rodriguez hold opposing hitters to a .123 batting average in four May games, “then his wife had a baby and he went home.
“With the process (COVID protocol included), it ended up taking about two weeks to get him back, and by the time he was ready to pitch, he missed about a month.
“We had to get him back up (starter stamina), so he’d pitch two innings here, three innings, back to where he could throw five innings. But his velocity kept climbing, it seemed like very day: 94, 95, and then up to 96 when he threw that clean inning (relief) at Toledo.”
Rodriguez will resume pitching for Licey in the winter league in a few days, he said, explaining by way of Tigers interpreter Carlos Guillen that a “tiny issue, health-wise” had shelved him temporarily.
By spring, he and the Tigers will be aiming to make a right-handed starter just that — a man who can throw a good many more than the 77 innings he tossed in 2021. The Tigers are aching for rotation depth. They’re still of the opinion a man who was 19 when they dealt for him has stuff enough to help in Detroit.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.