'Pushing for a championship': Eduardo Rodriguez ready to help Tigers get to next level
Detroit — When Tigers general manager Al Avila and manager AJ Hinch flew to Miami to have dinner with free agent pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez a couple of weekends ago, they figured it was going to be the first of many get-to-know-you meals.
Turns out, it was one and done.
By the time they paid the check and tipped the waiter and sent the valet for their cars, they’d agreed on a five-year, $77 million deal to bring the veteran left-handed starter to Detroit.
“Once we met with him and started to learn more about him as a person and a little more about what makes him tick, we weren’t getting out of that restaurant without signing him,” Hinch said Monday as the Tigers formally introduced Rodriguez. “It’s really a good marriage because what he does well is what we preach, and with what we preach we feel we can unlock a few things to make him even better.”
Rodriguez, who will be 29 next April and can opt-out of the contract with the Tigers after two years, spent the first six seasons with the Red Sox. Despite missing the 2020 season with COVID-19-related myocarditis, he posted a 64-39 record with a 4.16 ERA (110 ERA-plus) in 153 starts.
“I want to thank Al and AJ,” Rodriguez said. “They came down to Miami and I think they saw how excited I was to sign with you guys and be part of this club. There is a lot of history with this franchise and I see a young team that’s hungry to win more championships. That’s what I want to be part of it.”
Rodriguez did his homework. He sought out his Venezuelan countryman and friend Miguel Cabrera and got the 411 on what playing in Detroit is all about.
“He told me how everything is here,” Rodriguez said. “And I faced them the last six years. When I was in the minor leagues I saw what Detroit was like when they were in the playoffs. And year by year I see a lot of young guys and now I see them growing into a championship team.
“I see everything they have here. I see the reconstruction and I know they are pushing for a championship.”
The Tigers signed Rodriguez to anchor a young starting rotation that features Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning all entering their second full season in the big leagues.
“He’s just a winner,” Hinch said. “When he goes out to pitch, he gives his team a chance to win, which is what you ask of a pitcher every five days.”
Rodriguez won Hinch over with one of his first questions. He wanted to know the reasons Hinch takes his pitchers out of a game. He made it clear he expects to go six innings and 100-plus pitches every start, regardless if that means going through a lineup three or four times.
“When you look at what he’s done, his track record, how he goes about it, his pure stuff, his competitiveness, durability, his ability to miss bats, to get soft contact on the ground — there’s nothing not to like about him,” Hinch said. “He comes in and immediately improves our rotation.”
Rodriguez had some rocky moments last year, understandably after missing 2020. His velocity was down a tick and he initially struggled to find a feel for his change-up and cutter. But he still grinded out 31 starts and 157.2 innings, and over his last five outings he posted a 2.11 ERA with 26 strikeouts and eight walks in 21 innings.
Overall, he posted a career-high in strikeouts per nine (10.6) and a career-low in walks per nine (2.7). He also made three postseason starts.
“We just want him to be himself,” Hinch said. “What he’s done speaks for itself.”
Rodriguez adapted well to pitching at Fenway Park, where the Green Monster in left field has been a bane to many a left-handed pitcher. In 2018 and 2019, he was 16-6 at Fenway, with a 3.40 ERA. He faced 749 hitters at Fenway and allowed just 16 home runs.
Imagine how well he might adapt to spacious Comerica Park.
“I feel like no matter where I pitch, no matter how big or small the park, you just go out and try to get through six or seven innings,” he said. “If you are pitching in the biggest ballpark in the league or the smallest ballpark in the league, you still got to pitch and get guys out.”
He paused, smiled and said, “But I know I am going to have really good help here with this ballpark.”
Throughout his career, Rodriguez has had a problem with tipping his pitches to the hitters. It was more pronounced earlier in his career. These days, it’s something he can use as a weapon.
“I feel like over the years I learned how to control that part of the game,” he said. “I learned it the hard way, for sure. But I learned how to do it. I feel like I’ve fixed all that. Sometimes I play with the hitter’s mind. Like, oh, he thinks I’m tipping, so if he thinks I’m tipping my fastball, I will go the other way and throw a change-up.
“Now if they think I am tipping, I can just go out there and mess with the hitter’s mind.”
Leaving Boston wasn’t easy for Rodriguez. He grew up in that organization, helped them win a World Series (2018), built life-long friendships. But players work hard to reach free agency and Rodriguez seemed intent on making the most of it.
He fired off the best line of the press conference when he was asked if he ever seriously considered taking the Red Sox $18.4 million qualifying offer.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” he said. “Do you prefer 18 (million) or do you prefer 77? Just being honest with you.”
He will have some fun next season when the Tigers play the Red Sox. He’s already told Xander Bogaerts he plans to strike him out repeatedly.
“Yes, I had a really good time with Boston,” he said. “Winning a World Series was special for me. Every playoff game. I loved everything I do there, my teammates, my managers (John Farrell and Alex Cora). But for me, it’s time to move on and go to the next part of my life. Which is what I am starting here today.”