FORT MYERS, Fla. — For Eduardo Rodriguez, this spring represents a second chance to make a first impression.
The 21-year-old lefthander, acquired from the Orioles in the trade that shipped Andrew Miller to Baltimore last July 31, possesses an electrifying arm. More than anyone in camp, the 6-foot-2-inch Rodriguez flashes the stuff of a potential top-of-the-rotation prototype. Rodriguez has a chance to mix an explosive fastball (which sits at 92-94 m.p.h. and tops out at 96-97) with a swing-and-miss changeup and the potential for an average to above-average slider.
Few can match those raw materials. It comes as little surprise that those who get their initial glimpses of Rodriguez emerge beaming.
“Two thumbs up,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said after watching Rodriguez throw a bullpen session over the weekend.
That sort of initial reaction underscores the opportunity that now sits in front of Rodriguez, who faces a blank slate after questions emerged about his desire and work ethic early last year. He recognizes a chance to assert himself for a significant opportunity, a carrot made more visible by a season-ending promotion to start a playoff game with Triple A Pawtucket.
“I never thought I would be with another team, get traded, playing in Double A with that team, getting called up to Triple A, having that team go to the championship game,” said Rodriguez. “When I was with the Orioles, I didn’t think they were going to call me to Triple A. I thought they would keep me in Double A with Bowie. So I got traded and pitched very well. I’ve got to thank God for that.
“I feel different. This offseason, I just worked out, getting my mind where I have to. I want to play in the big leagues. I don’t know when. But I have to be ready for that.”
That sense of open road represents something of a contrast to some of the frustrations Rodriguez experienced with the Orioles prior to the deal. It was around a year ago in Orioles camp that grumbling started about whether the lefthander was diligent enough in his offseason.
Some mentioned him in the same breath as another Venezuelan lefthander, Felix Doubront, to raise questions about whether Rodriguez possessed the necessary commitment to translate stuff into performance. They loved his stuff, upside, and intelligence, and recognized that they were dealing with a very young pitcher who’d advanced very quickly in his professional career. Still, the team’s concerns were amplified early in the year when Rodriguez landed on Double A Bowie’s disabled list in April with a sprained knee.
Rodriguez struggled for the Orioles affiliate. There were times when he flashed an electric pitch mix, but he didn’t do so consistently (in part because of the knee injury), struggling to a 3-7 record with a 4.79 ERA in 16 starts. Though the Orioles didn’t necessarily want to part with him, they also viewed him as an acceptable cost of acquisition for a pennant-race difference-maker like Miller.
The trade to the Sox represented a chance to start over, and Rodriguez rewrote the narrative of his 2014 season in spectacular fashion. He went 3-1 with a 0.96 ERA, 39 strikeouts, and just 8 walks in 37⅓ innings with Double A Portland.
Rodriguez grins when discussing what it’s been like to start over in a new organization, particularly given the sense of freedom he experienced while working with pitching coach Bob Kipper, who will move from Portland to Pawtucket this year.
Whereas the Orioles encouraged Rodriguez to focus on working down and away, Kipper encouraged him to open up his repertoire, to pound batters inside to open up the outer half, to use his changeup to both righties and lefties.
“Kip was the one who noticed, ‘He has a different idea about pitching but no freedom,’ ” said Red Sox minor league pitching coordinator Ralph Treuel, recalling a conversation he had with Kipper about Rodriguez when he pitched against Portland with the Orioles’ Double A affiliate.
“So basically, [after the trade] we just said, let him do what he wants. Let him throw changeups to lefthanded hitters. Let him throw his fastball to both sides of the plate. Let him throw the changeup to both sides of the plate.
“He needs to work on his breaking ball. That needs to get a little bit tighter. But I just think he’s much more relaxed. We talked about it. He said, ‘Here, I really found out what kind of a pitcher I really am.’ ”
Red Sox officials were aware of some of the questions that surrounded Rodriguez’s dedication, but they haven’t seen evidence of an issue. Rodriguez spent the winter working with the Venezuelan team Magallanes, sometimes throwing with his boyhood hero, Johan Santana, whom Rodriguez knew from their time together in the Orioles’ extended spring training facility in Sarasota.
Santana offered the young pitcher a simple message.
“Work hard. Practice hard,” Rodriguez recalled of the advice offered by the two-time Cy Young winner.
Rodriguez tried to take the lesson to heart. He suggested that he feels “way better” than he did last spring, with an emphasis on strengthening his shoulder and legs to avoid a repeat of his early-season derailment in 2014. The results have been promising to team officials who are getting to know the pitcher.
“We haven’t seen those concerns,” Sox farm director Ben Crockett recently said of the questions that hovered in Baltimore. “It’s tough to have perspective on what happened in the past. He’s certainly someone who seems to be motivated and seems to be very invested in his career and how he can help it.”
Rodriguez is expected to open the year in the Pawtucket rotation. But as a player on the 40-man roster, he has a chance to position himself as a potential first-resort option should the Sox need starting pitching depth early in the year.
“Through the rookie program and other non-baseball opportunities, he’s been impressive: His command of the English language, his self-awareness, those are the things that stand out,” said Farrell. “You can watch him throw a baseball and it’s a lefthander with a power arm and two very good secondary pitches.
“He’s an exciting pitching prospect. I don’t want to go too far, but he’s an extremely talented kid.”