CLEARWATER, Fla. — There is a man in the Phillies’ clubhouse with a World Series ring and $80 million in career earnings and a Hall of Fame case that is at least worth talking about. He has a locker in the corner, near the emergency exit, where he sits among a flock of relievers 10-plus years his junior. What he does not have is a contractual guarantee that he will be on the roster this season, nor even a shot at significant riches should he succeed.
“I take a lot of pride in what I do,” Francisco Rodriguez said on Wednesday morning. “I am going to quit when I want to, not when other people want me to.”
They call him Frankie, not K-Rod. He is No. 75 again, not 57, same as he was when this city knew him best. Back then, he was the high-kicking, fist-pumping closer of those brash, despicable, dysfunctional Mets, the man who took to the podium two months after the Phillies won the World Series and labeled his own team as the one to beat. Now, he is a 36-year-old on a minor league contract that promises only a chance to compete.
The Phillies’ signing of Rodriguez a few weeks ago was a minor blip even on the radar of even this dormant offseason. He’d entered last season riding a heck of a wave, with 38-plus saves in each of his previous three seasons, including 44 in 2016 for the Tigers. In hindsight, though, 2017 seemed doomed from the start. After a subpar performance in the World Baseball Classic that included a brief injury scare, Rodriguez opened the season with two blown saves in his first nine outings, a stretch that saw him allow eight extra-base hits and seven runs while striking out just nine of the 42 batters he faced. By mid-May, he’d lost his job as the Tigers’ closer, and, by the end of June, his roster spot.
What followed was the kind of juncture that often precipitates the end of a career. Released by Detroit after a loss in Seattle in which he allowed four of the seven batters he faced to score — ballooning his ERA to an ugly 7.82 — Rodriguez signed a minor league contract with the Nationals and found the going nearly as rough. In five appearances at various levels of the minor league system, he walked more batters than he struck out and allowed five runs. Washington released him, and Rodriguez decided that enough was enough, retreating to his South Florida home for three months to rest his body and prepare for his next shot.
“I’m 100 percent, way better than last year, for sure,” he said. “I think it is going to be way different this spring than it was.”
He will have to earn it. But, then, he has been there before. When the Mets traded Rodriguez to the Brewers midway through the 2011 season, the longtime closer found himself relegated to eighth-inning duties due to the presence of then-All-Star closer John Axford.
“He was perfectly fine with that,” said Phillies pitching coach Rick Kranitz, who was Rodriguez’s pitching coach for all five years he spent with the Brewers. “He gets it. He understands this game. He’s not looking for any handouts here.”
Perhaps you look at him and wonder why. The back of his baseball card says as much as it ever will: 948 appearances, 437 saves, a 2.86 ERA. He won a World Series as a rookie, and has been back to the league championship series two other times.
Is he a Hall of Famer? Probably not. But the strength of his case might surprise you.
His 437 saves rank fourth all-time, behind only Mariano Rivera (652), Trevor Hoffman (601) and Lee Smith (478). The first two are in the Hall of Fame, while Smith has fluctuated between 29 and 50 percent of the vote in his 15 years on the ballot. Rodriguez’s career 2.86 ERA trails only Rivera among the group. Same goes for his 148 ERA+, a metric that adjusts for a player’s league and home ballpark. At this point, it would appear to be an uphill battle, given the voting habits of the electorate. If Billy Wagner can’t get more than more than 11.1 percent of the vote in any of his first three years on the ballot, and John Franco managed less than 5 percent in his one year of eligibility, it is difficult to envision Rodriguez mustering much in the way of support.
The fact that we are even having this conversation is more the point. The contract he signed with the Phillies will pay him a reported $2.5 million if he makes the team. He will have to show a lot more than he did last season to convince the Phillies to take a roster spot from somebody else. The back of the bullpen seems set with Hector Neris and free-agent signees Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek. In front of them would appear to be Luis Garcia, Adam Morgan, and Edubray Ramos, each of whom had a strong finish last season. That would leave Rodriguez fighting for one or two spots with young players like Victor Arano, Mark Leiter, and Hoby Milner.
“With all due respect, I could care less about other people’s opinion,” Rodriguez said. “At the end of the day, it matters what I feel, what I want. I feel like I can still pitch, I can still get people out, and I am going to continue to do it until I don’t have it anymore.”