They had scheduled a meeting with left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez and his agent, Gene Mato, at a restaurant to discuss a potential contract. The Boston Red Sox offered him the $18.4 million qualifying offer, but Rodriguez had other ideas for free agency.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” Rodriguez said Monday at Comerica Park. “Do you prefer $18 (million) or $77 (million)?”
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By the time dinner ended, the Tigers had a five-year, $77 million deal in place. In signing Rodriguez, the organization found an established starting pitcher to anchor a young rotation, which features right-handers Casey Mize and Matt Manning and left-hander Tarik Skubal.
Rodriguez, who turns 29 in April, isn’t known as an ace, but he is capable of dominating on the mound.
“There’s nothing not to like about him,” Hinch said. “He comes in and immediately improves our rotation that we’re really excited about. You start to learn a little bit more about the person and what makes him tick. We weren’t getting out of that restaurant without landing him. It’s a good marriage because what he does well is exactly what we preach. We feel like we can unlock a few things (by altering his pitch usage) and make him even better.”
When Avila and Hinch met Rodriguez in Miami, the Tigers’ leaders already knew about his underlying numbers last season.
That’s why they didn’t care about his 4.74 ERA in 2021. His 3.32 FIP (fielding independent pitching) means he suffered from Boston’s poor defense; his .364 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) means he was one of the unluckiest pitchers in baseball history.
Avila and Hinch were also aware of how successful Rodriguez was in 2019, when he finished sixth in American League Cy Young voting with a 3.81 ERA, 75 walks and 213 strikeouts in 34 starts. They liked his 11 games of postseason experience, as well as his excitement to begin a new chapter after pitching six years for the Red Sox.
“We just want him to be himself,” Hinch said. “What he has done speaks for itself. For him to pitch the way he’s pitched in the postseason, we got to get to the postseason. He can help pave that way. … He doesn’t have to do anything more than what he’s done up to this point on how he prepares and shows up every five days ready to pitch. We look for a lot of innings and a lot of quality. That’s why we signed him.”
The Tigers beat out the Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Angels for Rodriguez’s services.
“I didn’t talk to them at all about how many years and all that,” Rodriguez said of contract discussions with the Red Sox. “I know they wanted me back, but it’s time for me to move on, start the new part of my life and win a championship here.”
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Now that Rodriguez is a Tiger, he gets to mentor Mize, Skubal and Manning, each coming off his rookie season.
Mize, 24, had a 3.71 ERA with 41 walks and 118 strikeouts in 150⅓ innings. Skubal, 25, logged a 4.34 ERA with 47 walks and 164 strikeouts in 149⅓ innings. Manning, 23, posted a 5.80 ERA with 33 walks and 57 strikeouts in 85⅓ innings.
The Tigers drafted Manning with the No. 9 overall pick in 2016, Mize with the No. 1 pick in 2018 and Skubal with the No. 255 pick (ninth round) in 2018. Two other former first-round draftees — left-hander Joey Wentz and right-hander Alex Faedo — should make their MLB debuts in 2022.
“It’s like I told him in the meeting, as a leader and as an experienced pitcher, we are going to look to him to show us the way in a lot of ways,” Hinch said. “If he wants to be vocal, be vocal. If he wants to be quiet, be quiet. But take that ball every five days and give us a chance to win.”
To teach Detroit’s young arms, Rodriguez will draw on the lessons he learned in Boston from David Price (2012 Cy Young), Chris Sale (seven-time All-Star), Rick Porcello (2016 Cy Young) and Nathan Eovaldi (fourth place in 2021 Cy Young voting).
Those four pitchers, along with Rodriguez, won the 2018 World Series together.
“With the young pitching staff, I will go there in spring training and start teaching them what I learned from the older guys, which is to play the game the right way and go out there every five days,” Rodriguez said. “A lot of things are going to come up as soon as we get to spring training, and I’m going to do the best I can to help them. I’m open to any questions you have for me about baseball or even outside of baseball.”
In six seasons for the Red Sox, Rodriguez went 64-39 with a 4.16 ERA and 1.31 WHIP. He had a 24.5% strikeout rate and 7.0% walk rate, averaging 9.4 strikeouts and 3.1 walks per nine innings. The lefty racked up a career-high 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings in 2021.
“For me, I feel like now is the time to move on and go to the next part of my life,” Rodriguez said, “which is going to the Tigers and starting to win championships over here.”
Clearly, Rodriguez is eager to guide the Tigers back to the postseason for the first time since 2014. And his benchmark for success is a World Series title.
The Tigers wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Eduardo is a huge addition to our rotation,” Hinch said. “We said early on we had to get the pitching right, and this is a step in that direction. It’s because he’s a winner. The bottom line is he’s a winner. When he goes out to pitch, he gives his team a chance to win.”