02/04/2004 4:53 PM ET
K-Rod a work in progress
Angels reliever honing skills in winter ball
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- He was everyone's Rookie of the Year before the 2003 season, and sure enough, Francisco Rodriguez lived up to the potential and won that award -- in Venezuela.
|Francisco Rodriguez is polishing his skill playing winter ball. (Doug Miller/MLB.com)
Yes, despite the stated wishes of Angels general manager Bill Stoneman, the prized reliever who gained Major League prominence -- and the flashy nickname "K-Rod" -- in the 2002 World Series returned to his native country and played for his Winter League team, Los Tiburones de la Guaira.
The 21-year-old is in Estadio Quisqueya this week pitching for the Venezuelan champion Aragua Tigers as a reinforcement player in the Caribbean Series, and he says he's glad he decided to play ball this offseason.
"I needed to work on my control so I don't have a slow start this year like I did last year," Rodriguez says.
"If I keep working, every day I can learn something new about this game."
Rodriguez was a September call-up in 2002 and struck out 13 batters in 5 2/3 scoreless innings. He waltzed into postseason play, flashing a mid-to-high-90s cut fastball and cartoon slider, and left with a World Series ring and his name in the game's annals.
Rodriguez's first five big-league victories were recorded in the postseason, tying the all-time record for playoff wins in one year set by Randy Johnson in 2001. Rodriguez's 28 postseason strikeouts were the most by a reliever in October in Major League history, 10 more than Jesse Barnes in 1921 and John Rocker in 1999.
The next year, with magazines clamoring for his mug during Spring Training and with him practically anointed the 2003 American League Rookie of the Year before the first pitch was thrown, something strange happened.
The kid turned into a kid again.
Operating as the Angels' setup man for closer Troy Percival in April, Rodriguez struggled with an ERA close to 5.00 and lost his job to bullpen mate Brendan Donnelly.
He kept his cool, fixed a few mechanical flaws, and ended up having a quietly outstanding year: an 8-3 record, 95 strikeouts in 85 innings, a respectable 3.03 ERA and a league-leading batting-average-against statistic of .172.
"He had a good season," Stoneman says. "Here's a guy who left people with expectations that would have been difficult for anybody to fulfill based on what he did in the postseason in '02, but he had a good year. He's still on the learning curve."
That's exactly what this winter has accomplished, according to Rodriguez.
He says he's taken key points he worked on with Angels pitching coach Bud Black and applied them to his work in the Caribbean. The result was a 2.62 ERA, 59 strikeouts in 34 2/3 innings, and the Venezuelan rookie honor for the kid from Caracas.
"It's all about my location and keeping the ball down in the zone," Rodriguez says. "Coming to play here, it has given me the chance to learn more."
One area where Rodriguez has learned the most is in his attitude, according to Aragua pitching coach Rick Knapp, the Minnesota Twins' minor-league pitching instructor during the regular season.
"A lot of people are forgetting that he's still so young," Knapp says. "He's still having ups and downs. He had an amazing run a couple of years ago, but there's going to be some down times. He's well aware of that and he's adjusted to it."
Consider this: Rodriguez, who is the Aragua teammate of 20-year-old 2003 World Series hero Miguel Cabrera of the Florida Marlins, says he has been offering Cabrera big-brother-style pointers on how to handle the expectations that come with meteoric fame.
"The only advice I can give him is to be yourself," Rodriguez says. "Step on the ground, because not everything is going to always go perfectly.
"I know that I'm not going to pitch 40 scoreless innings in a row or strike out every guy I face. I'm going to struggle. I could give up 10 runs in one inning. That's baseball, and you have to learn how to deal with struggles like that."
Stoneman says he's satisfied with Rodriguez's progression so far.
"Last year, he fell behind in the count a little bit more than he did in the postseason and came in the middle of the plate and got hurt more," Stoneman says.
"In the playoffs in '02, he threw one strike after another, and when he was off the plate he was still getting swings. He's going to continue to get better. That's an arm that anybody would like to have, and I'm sure if I called the other 29 clubs and mentioned his name, I'd get 29 calls back. They think he'll be fine, too."
And Rodriguez says he thinks the 2004 Angels, boosted by new owner Arte Moreno's winter acquisitions of Vladimir Guerrero, Bartolo Colon, Kelvim Escobar and Jose Guillen, will be fine, too.
"He said he was going to try to get the best players and he's gotten some great players," Rodriguez says.
"It's our responsibility now to step up and do it again."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.