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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.
The Detroit Tigers had studied Eduardo Rodriguez’s track record as a pitcher, but general manager Al Avila and manager A.J. Hinch didn’t get to know him on a personal level until they sat down for dinner one night in Miami.
It was not long after the end of the World Series and there had yet to be a major free-agent signing in all of baseball.
But the Tigers left convinced that they were ready to make Rodriguez the first.
“You start to learn a little bit more about the person and what makes him tick,” Hinch said of the meeting. “We weren’t (leaving) that restaurant without landing him.”
The Tigers signed Rodriguez to a five-year, $77 million contract that includes a player opt-out after the second year. The 28-year-old native of Venezuela was formally introduced to the media on Monday afternoon at Comerica Park.
With his wife, two children and niece in the audience, Rodriguez pronounced it one of the happiest days of his life.
“I’m excited to be part of this club, to be part of this organization. They’re hungry to win more championships. That’s what I want to be a part of,” Rodriguez said. “I feel like this is one of the best days of my life just to have this kind of contract and have this welcome.”
Tigers owner Christopher Ilitch said Rodriguez’s signing was a “tremendous step forward.”
“This is going to continue the momentum that Al and A.J., our coaching staff and all our players have going,” Ilitch said.
Rodriguez, who has spent the last seven seasons with the Boston Red Sox, is familiar with Comerica Park and knows at least some of his new teammates, including fellow Venezuelan Miguel Cabrera.
He said he’s already chatted with Cabrera about Detroit and the Tigers.
“It’s going to be fun (to play with him). I will say that,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez will join a rotation that includes youngsters Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and perhaps Matt Manning.
“Eduardo is a huge addition to our rotation,” Hinch said. “It’s because he’s a winner. When he goes out to pitch, he gives his team a chance to win and that’s what you ask every five days. You look at his track record, his pure stuff, his competitiveness, his durability, his ability to miss bats, his soft contact on the ground. There’s nothing not to like about him.”
Rodriguez set career highs in strikeout rate (10.6 per nine innings) while posting a career-low walk rate (2.7) in 157 2/3 innings for the Red Sox in 2021. With the exception of the 2020 COVID-affected season, he’s started at least 20 games every year for the Red Sox.
“If he wants to be vocal, be vocal. If he wants to be quiet, be quiet,” Hinch said. “But take that ball every five days and give us as much as you can as long as you can and give us a chance to win. So he doesn’t have to do anything more than what he’s done up to this point.”
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