Brewers By the (Jersey) Numbers: #57 Francisco Rodriguez

When you have an opportunity to acquire a player who should greatly improve the weakest spot on your team and all that you appeared to have risked was a significantly-valued vesting option of which you already had a built-in deterrent, you pull that trigger.

It looks even better when you work out a situation with the player’s agent to completely remove the vesting option.

It looks better still when the two players-to-be-named-later in the deal going to the trading partner are a guy you picked up off waivers and who performed terribly for you and another low-level pitching prospect that wasn’t exactly on anybody’s radar.

Then when your team goes on to dominate over a lengthy stretch of the season, win its division and advance deep into the playoffs, in no small part because of the dominance of the back end of the bullpen to which the acquisition was added…

That’s the stuff that contract extensions for General Managers are made of.

While it didn’t directly lead to additional years added onto Brewers GM Doug Melvin’s contract, any fan of the Milwaukee Brewers will recognize that all of this rhetoric describes the deal struck late in the evening on July 12, 2011. The deal that resulted in the Brewers acquiring a premium bullpen arm which they utilized as a setup man for incumbent closer John Axford, of course, means we’re profiling #57 on our countdown to Opening Day:

Francisco Rodriguez.

Last July I wrote the following in this space:

“General Manager Doug Melvin has fired the first salvo in the coming race for superiority in the National League Central Division.

Francisco Rodriguez is now a member of the Milwaukee Brewers.

Following the completion of the All-Star Game, a contest that saw the National League emerge victorious for the second straight year, K-Rod was acquired late Tuesday evening from the New York Mets for two players to be named. This immediately upgrades the Brewers’ bullpen, to say the least.

Given that Milwaukee was owner of 20 losses by members of its bullpen (worst in MLB to this point), it was about as obvious as Prince Fielder’s winning of the All-Star Game MVP tonight that the Brewers needed help. Boy did Melvin ever deliver.

Rodriguez comes to Milwaukee with a 3.16 ERA and 23 saves (of 26 chances) in 42 games.

K-Rod also brings with him to Milwaukee a thirst for winning and an ability to set up should the Brewers choose to have him fill that role.”

I certainly seemed to know what I was talking about. K-Rod was used as the primary setup man to John Axford for the balance of the season following his acquisition. This resulted in many victories being nailed down that, as I referenced in the quote from last year, otherwise may very well have been lost because of the shaky setup options early in the year.

Following the trade, Rodriguez pitched 29.0 innings in 31 games during the regular season. Those innings saw him allow six runs on 23 hits and 10 walks (1.44 WHIP). K-Rod also struck out more than a batter an inning (33 K) while with Milwaukee and tallied 17 holds.

In the postseason, K-Rod gave up on one run in 5.0 innings pitched (1.80 ERA), striking out eight, walking four and allowing five hits.

So with as good as Rodriguez was for the Brewers in 2011, and with a mutual contract option being in play, a casual fan might think that retaining K-Rod would be the no-brainer of the offseason. However, the salary that the mutual option called for was incredibly cost-prohibitive for the Brewers. Therefore, the right-hander was allowed to become a free agent.

Perhaps as a gamble counting on K-Rod’s desire to close games and his agent Scott Boras’ ego to find his players lucrative deals, the Brewers offered salary arbitration to Rodriguez. This offer, when declined, would garner extra draft picks in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft for Milwaukee when K-Rod signed with another team.

This didn’t happen exactly the way that some had predicted.

Rodriguez did apparently have a multi-year offer from San Diego to close games at some point during the offseason, but shortly before the deadline to accept salary arbitration, the deal fell apart. This lead to Boras accepting salary arbitration, a move that while the Brewers claimed they were prepared for, they couldn’t have truly expected it.

Many fans and media members alike immediately worried about the salary that K-Rod might get in an arbitration situation. After all, he had made over $13 million in base salary in 2011. Could Rodriguez get $14 million? $15 million? After all, he had performed very well and performance is usually rewarded with a raise in the arbitration process.

I was never concerned. As archived somewhere in the timeline of my Twitter timeline and on more than one Facebook post, I surmised that his salary would go down for three reasons: First, K-Rod’s last contract was drafted in an off-season of lucrative deals. Second, he wasn’t filling the same role on this arbitrated contract year as he was when he received his last contract. Third, even if you argued that he’d be a closer if not for Axford’s presence (which is true), this was an off-season flooded with closers which resulted in lower than you might otherwise expect deals being signed.

Jonathan Papelbon will average over $10 million on his new deal with Philadelphia, Heath Bell will average $9 million, and even fellow Boras client Ryan Madson only got $8.5 million on a one-year deal with Cincinnati. In other words, the market did not dictate a salary north of $13 million for a setup man…even a great one like Rodriguez.

So, the Brewers and Boras settled on a one-year deal which will pay K-Rod $8 million with up to $625 thousand in incentives.

With all of this positive, though, there is also some negative to remember.

Late last year, Rodriguez said to the media that he was unhappy with the Brewers front office because he was lead to believe that he’d have opportunities to close from time to time. With Axford’s dominance (as summarized a couple of days ago in Axford’s entry) it just never became a defensible option. Rodriguez was probably playing a bit of self-glossing because at the time he was planning on going into free agency as a closer in a couple of months. He was reminding GMs out there that he viewed himself as a closer and that closing is what he wanted to do.

Of course, with any confident and self-assured player (as all elite athletes are to some degree), there is always going to be a certain amount of looking out for number one.  Was it perhaps a bit of poor timing in the middle of a pennant race? Yes, but I also believe that K-Rod wasn’t saying what he said in an attempt to disrupt the Milwaukee clubhouse. He was simply hoping to position himself favorably in the coming hot stove season.

Media and fans didn’t take it that way, as a rule, and simply saw a complainer that wasn’t being a team player. Questions came up continually about why K-Rod would do such a thing when he did it. Sentiment was so strong about it, in fact, that when K-Rod accepted arbitration the prevailing commentary was that he gave up all rights to complaining about his setup role for the entire season.

With that, I wholeheartedly agree. He was traded into a setup role in 2011. I understood his frustration when he voiced it. In 2012, however, he chose money and setting up. It was his call, he made it, and now it’s on him as a professional to accept it and play hard in it.

But like I wrote seven months ago, if there’s one thing that I’m sure about Francisco Rodriguez, it’s that he has an unquenchable thirst to win. Money aside, role aside, politics and chemistry aside, K-Rod wants in 2012 what we all want in 2012: a World Series Championship.

Rest assured that he’ll give it everything he’s got to make that a reality.

3 Comments

Welcome Back, K-Rod.
I agree that he has no place complaining about his role this season. I would go even farther and say that he’s probably nibbling on crow a bit. In the end, we’re the only team that would have him (and gladly so). Nevertheless, I’m thrilled that I get to cheer him on from the stands this season.

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