Rodney's role likely key for Tigers
Whether it's as a closer or setup man, resurgence is important
DETROIT -- The Tigers' search for help in their bullpen rolls on into the holiday season. Yet one way or another, a Detroit recovery on the baseball field will have to include Fernando Rodney.
As options for a closer dwindled on the free-agent and trade markets, the more Rodney seemingly became a topic in the Tigers' public remarks. He is the incumbent closer, of course, and until -- or maybe unless -- the Tigers bring in someone else, he is Detroit's current closer.
"Hey, if Fernando Rodney throws the ball great, he can close games -- if he throws strikes," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said during last week's Winter Meetings.
Yet for someone who could end up holding onto his role, the question around Rodney still revolves around whether he can fill it effectively. He'll turn 32 years old in March, yet faces some of the same questions as a perennial prospect. The issues surrounding him, and the points he has to prove, are big for the Tigers no matter in what situation they have Rodney pitch.
For all the twists and turns -- many of them unwelcome -- to Detroit's 2008 season, arguably no Tiger had as many of them as Rodney. He reported to Spring Training last February primed to be Detroit's primary setup man, a critical role while Joel Zumaya recovered from shoulder surgery, before Rodney's own throwing shoulder started giving him trouble. After repeated stops and starts lingered into mid-April, the Tigers sent Rodney to Dr. James Andrews expecting that he would need surgery, only to be told there was nothing wrong that rest and medication couldn't heal.
Once he did return, the stops and starts applied to his command of the strike zone. He gave up a go-ahead three-run homer in his first game back June 16 at San Francisco, then walked back-to-back batters on eight pitches in his next outing four days later. A pregame mound session aimed at shoring up his delivery set him up for five straight dominant outings from there.
From there, with all due respect to Todd Jones' nickname, the Rodney roller coaster was out of the boarding area. He walked 10 batters in a six-outing stretch as closer from late July to mid-August, including a three-walk blown save at St. Petersburg, before racking up four saves in five outings with eight strikeouts after that. A bizarre three-walk blown save Sept. 16 at Texas preceded a run of three saves in as many days over the season's final weekend against the Rays.
About 42 percent of Rodney's plate appearances ended in either a strikeout or a walk, including exactly half of his situations with two outs and runners in scoring position. Of the 38 games he pitched, he walked the first batter he faced nine times, but struck him out just as often.
Now, with the Tigers' closer situation still unsettled, they're back pondering Rodney's potential place and debating what it could take for him to emerge as a shutdown reliever. The one new factor they have now is Rodney's next contract.
"I think that the stuff is definitely there to close," manager Jim Leyland said. "The mentality has been there part-time and not all the time. And I think that we do have one advantage, which is normally players that are free agents are going to be prepared on a daily basis to do everything they can to enhance their opportunity at the end of the season. So that's good news.
"Is the stuff there? Yes. Are the poise and the charisma there yet? Sometimes, not all the time."
Rodney is eligible for arbitration after finishing up a two-year contract. Whether the financial security free-agent relievers have found the last couple years will be there for him next winter depends a lot on whether he's there for the Tigers next season, whatever the role.
"He's a free agent in a year," Dombrowski said. "You know he's driven to be successful and do whatever he can."
From a pure pitching standpoint, Rodney has reason for encouragement. The slider that he abandoned following Tommy John elbow ligament transplant surgery in 2005 came back this year, and bullpen coach Jeff Jones encouraged him to throw it with more regularity. The fastball topped out at 99 mph on some stadium radar readings, setting up an offspeed pitch that some regard among the best in the American League now that Johan Santana is in the National League.
Rodney pitched well in his first couple outings in the Dominican Winter League after taking the last couple years off to rest and rehab his arm.
As Leyland said, the stuff is there. The key will be to put it together and command it in a consistent delivery that can get the swings and misses without as many of the free passes. If it turns out that he has to do it in the ninth inning, it's all the more important.
"Somebody's got to close the game for you," Dombrowski said. "Somebody's going to be your guy that pitches the ninth inning."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.