DETROIT — The Miguel Cabrera home run counter at Comerica Park stood at 498, and the buzz over his chase for 500 was building, when fellow Venezuelan Eduardo Rodriguez took the mound there for the Red Sox on a Wednesday night in August.
“It was funny,” Rodriguez recalled Monday, “because it was me and Martín Pérez pitching back to back. We talked to him and [said], ‘We love you and everything, and it’s part of the game, but I don’t want to be the 500. We joked with him all those days.”
Rodriguez didn’t allow any runs that night, shutting down the Tigers for six innings with four walks and 10 strikeouts. His first five outs were swinging strikeouts, including Cabrera on a well-placed fastball at the upper-outside corner of the strike zone.
A few months later, as Tigers general manager Al Avila and manager A.J. Hinch embarked on a whirlwind trip to sell free agents on the idea of coming to Detroit, one of the recruiters Rodriguez heard from was Cabrera.
“We’re really good friends,” Rodriguez said, “and he started telling me everything about Detroit, how everything is here and all that. He gave me the love of the organization and with the team. And now, I’d like to be a part of it.”
And when Cabrera reaches his next milestone with his 3,000th career hit at some point next season, Rodriguez will be in the Tigers’ dugout, a teammate with a front-row seat to history. By signing a five-year contract, Rodriguez has a chance to part of a lot of history in Detroit as the Tigers try to contend again.
“We said early on we had to get the pitching right, and this is a step in that direction,” Hinch said. “The bottom line is he’s a winner. When he goes out to pitch, he gives his team a chance to win, which is what you ask every five days. If you look at what he’s done, his track record, how he goes about it, his pure stuff, his competitiveness, his durability, his ability to miss bats, he gets soft contact on the ground, there’s nothing not to like about him.
“He comes in and immediately improves our rotation. That we’re really excited about.”
Though the Tigers announced the free-agent contract last week, Monday was the first chance for Rodriguez to meet the media at Comerica Park. The delay was ironic, considering the quickness and aggressiveness with which the Tigers have worked the Hot Stove market this offseason.
“It was right after the World Series that I reached out to [Rodriguez’s agent] Gene [Mato] and we started talking about Eduardo being a Detroit Tiger,” Avila said. “He expressed interest right away that Detroit was a destination for him for sure. He was very bullish, very positive on Detroit and our organization as well as A.J.
“And shortly thereafter, we started talking on a regular basis, and A.J. and I met with Gene and Eduardo and we hashed this out.”
The Tigers know Mato well. He helped negotiate Aníbal Sánchez’s five-year contract extension with the Tigers after the 2012 season.
The recruiting visit for Rodriguez included a few hours of pitching talk with Hinch, some discussion about pitch usage, about the changeup that has become a big part of his arsenal, about his effectiveness when he gets ahead in counts. They also talked about personalities and what could make him a match.
“Once we met with him and you start to learn a little bit more about the person and a little bit more about what makes him tick, we weren’t getting out of that restaurant without adding him,” Hinch said. “It was a good marriage, because what he does well is exactly what we preach. And we feel like we can unlock a few things to make him even better.”
Rodriguez had the deal done before the deadline to decline the qualifying offer he had received from the Red Sox, his team for the past seven years and all 159 appearances of his Major League career. Though he had interest elsewhere, including from the Red Sox and Blue Jays, he had no free-agent tour, no public sweepstakes. The first news of his offseason was essentially the deal being done.
“I see everything they have here. I see the way they start to reconstruct the team, start getting ready to compete for championships,” Rodriguez said. “And part of it was the history, Miggy, and asking about everything, about the organization and all that.
“They want to be a championship team, and I want to be a part of that. I want to be part of that reconstruction and join them and help them the best I can. That’s why I decided to go to Detroit.”
Avila and Hinch have several steps left to get to that end goal, starting with a shortstop but also another starting pitcher. They’ve made several recruiting visits to try to fill those voids, made several more pitches to players. But they believe their aggressiveness this offseason, a demonstration that they’re serious about improving, only helps them.
“By trading for [catcher Tucker] Barnhart and signing Eduardo, that in itself is a recruiting tool,” Avila said. “Because it shows other players that we’re here for real, we’re here trying to win and trying to bring in the best players and build a winning franchise.”