Rodriguez rebounds, snags MiLBY
Angels' relief prospect dominates at Double-A after demotion
Not long ago, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim had a guy in the back end of their bullpen who was pretty lights-out. His nickname could have been F-Rod, but instead most knew him as K-Rod.
Francisco Rodriguez, of course, has since gone on to the New York Mets. But could there be another F-Rod turned K-Rod on the way for the Angels? Fernando Rodriguez -- who goes by Fernie -- doesn't know if he can follow in the All-Star closer's footsteps one day. What he does know is that he's a MiLBY winner for Double-A Reliever of the Year.
"As a teammate here in Venezuela, he's somebody I really respect and try to learn from," Fernie said about K-Rod, both of whom are pitching for the Tiburones de La Guaira this winter. "All I can do is work to improve every year and be prepared for whatever the team has in mind."
What the team has in mind might depend on which Rodriguez shows up in 2010. The 2009 version rode a little bit of a roller coaster. The 18th rounder out of the 2003 Draft began the year in Triple-A Salt Lake City. After a strong April, he got a brief taste of the big leagues when there was a need in the bullpen.
When he returned to Triple-A, the wheels kind of fell off as he gave up 28 earned runs in 15 2/3 innings, forcing the organization to move him back down to Double-A Arkansas. Some may have sulked or complained. Rodriguez got to work and put up some eye-popping numbers.
"I knew I was there for a reason," Rodriguez said. "I never thought of it as a demotion but as an opportunity to learn. The coaches were a big part of not letting myself get down as they worked and encouraged me as well as my teammates."
Rodriguez went 3-1 with four saves in 26 appearances for Arkansas, posting a 1.28 ERA and minuscule .137 batting average against in 42 1/3 innings pitched. He struck out 52 for a nifty 11.06 K/9 ratio.
"That represents what he is since he's been in the organization, a consummate professional," Angels farm director Abe Flores said of Rodriguez's commitment even after getting sent down a level. "He does what's asked of him. He has leadership abilities. When presented with a challenge, he's going to meet it head on."
Like becoming a reliever for instance. Rodriguez had primarily been a starter throughout his career, then moved into the bullpen at the end of the 2008 season. When he had some immediate success (2.12 ERA over 11 games), that became his permanent role. Sometimes, a pitcher has trouble adjusting to that kind of transition, but Rodriguez has embraced it wholeheartedly.
"It's been awesome. Not only do I get a chance to wear my uniform every day, but I also have a chance to pitch more often," Rodriguez said. "I love it because of the adrenaline rush, the excitement and anticipation of coming in during a close game."
The one thing that has kept Rodriguez from consistent success over the years has been his command. When he struggled in Triple-A this past year, he walked 17 over those 25 2/3 innings. His walk rate wasn't great in Arkansas (22 BB in 42 1/3 innings), but he showed improvement, going from 11 walks in 17 2/3 innings in July to eight free passes in 20 2/3 frames in August.
"It was kind of a tale of two cities," Flores said, adding that Rodriguez also saw a considerable uptick in his velocity in the switch to the bullpen. "His command got more crisp at the end of the year compared with the beginning of the year."
"My velocity and approach changed the most, but honestly everything felt better when I moved to the bullpen," Rodriguez said. "Yes, command was the main thing I was working on, but with a few tips and ideas from my coaching staff, it was something we really tried to overcome and I feel we did."
Whether or not he can continue to do that could determine his future. The Angels were pleased with his results in Double-A, and the 25-year-old right-hander was throwing well in Venezuela this winter. Could that mean a spot in the big-league bullpen is in the offing, more than just the one appearance he made in 2009?
It's more like a wait-and-see," Flores said. "He has to first master the Triple-A level. He's a tremendous makeup guy, always dependable and responsible. Those aren't sexy adjectives, but they're important. He always shows up, a quiet, no-nonsense guy you can count on. He's the kind of guy you want to root for."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.