Thursday, August 2, 2012

Wandy Rodriguez

LHP Wandy Rodríguez, 33, was the last of the red hot Astros left for Houston to deal, and the Bucs grabbed him last week to help kick off the deadline activities and finish a sell off that included Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Hunter Pence, Michael Bourn, Carlos Lee and finally Rodriguez.

The lefty is a native of Santiago Rodriguez, in the northern Cibao Region of the Dominican Republic. He was signed by the Houston Astros as an international free agent in 1999 for a whopping $5,000 bonus. He gave $500 to his academy coach, $500 to his uncle, kept $500 for himself to buy new clothes, and gave the rest to his family to buy cattle.

But Rodríguez used a little Latin leeway to earn that first contract. When he was scouted by the Astros in 1998, Rodríguez was 19 and threw a mid-eighties fastball after spending years in the outfield, where he didn't have the power or speed to be an everyday guy. To get noticed, he either had to pick up a couple of feet on that heater, or get a little...OK, a lot younger.

He was given identity papers to sign that changed his name and birthday, and Wandy became 17 year old Eny Cabreja, a bud of his, shedding not only his name but 18 months of age. Rodríguez played as Cabreja until 2002, when visa problems led him to admit to the Astros that he was indeedy Wandy Fulton Rodriguez and that he wasn't really 21, but 23. (In fact, his Bowman 2003 rookie card is under the name Eny Cabreja.)

He had been pitching in El Norte the year before and was still in the lower levels, and the age made him a gray beard in Class A. Rodriguez feared that his admission would be the swan song of his career. But the Astros forgave and forgot after he 'fessed up, and by 2005 he was in AAA Round Rock. But not for long - on May 23rd, he made his MLB debut, going 6 innings in a 4-1 loss to the Cubs.

Rodríguez finished his first season with a 10-10 record/5.53 ERA and not very strong peripheral numbers. But he did get into the World Series, where Houston was swept by the White Sox. Rodríguez did OK, with an 0-1 slate and 3.86 ERA, working 4-2/3 innings of the post-season. But don't buy that post-season stuff guys say he brings to the table; three outings in 2005 was the sum total of his playoff experience.

In 2006, Rodríguez was rocking a 5+ ERA and was shipped to the minors on July 21st. He spent a month on the farm when was recalled on August 19th after Brandon Backe had TJ surgery, and finished the season with a 9-10 record and a 5.64 ERA. Ouch.

It started to come together in 2007. On July 6th, he tossed his first complete-game shutout, a four hitter against the New York Mets. Rodríguez started 31 games, worked 182-2/3 innings, and finished the year 9-13/4.48 ERA. To boot, his Dominican League winter ball team, the Águilas Cibaeñas, won the Caribbean Series championship.

In 2008, Rodríguez missed some time with a groin injury, starting 25 games and tossing 137 innings. But otherwise, it's when the light went on. He ended the year 9-7 with a 3.54 ERA along with developing a swing-and-miss curve, finishing up with 131 K. The team and he settled on a $2.6M deal in his first arb year during the off season.

Rodríguez had his first true stand out campaign in 2009, slotting into the Astros' two hole behind Roy Oswalt in the rotation. He started 33 games, working 205 IP with a 3.02 ERA. He struck out 193 batters and was named the NL Pitcher of the Month in July. That netted him a $5M deal for 2010 after the year.

The lefty traveled a rough road in the first half of 2010, going 6-11 with a 4.97 ERA heading into the All-Star break. He rallied strong to put up an overall 11-12 slate with a 3.60 ERA and 178 strikeouts in 195 frames by the year's end.

In the off season, he and the Astros agreed to a new three-year contract for $34M. He finished the the year 11-11/3.49 ERA over 191 innings, losing a few starts to a trip on the 15 day DL because of fluid on the elbow. It's also the year they began to sell off the team; Wandy was dangled during the deadline and actually was claimed by Colorado (he was on revocable waivers) in late August, although pulled back by the Astros after they couldn't make a deal with the Rox.

Rodríguez was the last Astro left standing from the NL Championship squad of 2005 by the first bell of this season. And hey, that survivor status him earned the first opening day start of his career. He was 7-9 with a 3.79 ERA for the free falling Houston club in late July.

On July 24th, Rodriguez was traded to Pittsburgh for Rudy Owens, Robbie Grossman and Colton Cain. Houston also threw in a nice chunk of change. Rodriguez's Pirates debut came in Houston against his former team, where nerves got the better of him and he wasn't around for the decision. His next appearance is tomorrow night against the Reds, which will throw Mat Latos against him. Nothing like opening one of the biggest series of the franchise's past two decades to test a guy's mettle.

He brings a lot to the table. Rodriguez is an honest pitcher; his lifetime ERA and FIP are almost exactly the same. Wandy's started over 30 games five of the past six years, and never had fewer than 25 starts a season in his career. Rodriguez has a five year run of sub-4 ERAs with a WHIP that falls between 1.25-1.30. He's under team control through at least 2013, with a player option for the following season. He's more than a rental and can serve as a bridge for the young guns climbing in the system and on track for a 2014 arrival.

But he's not the whiff guy that he was in his heyday; his K rate is the lowest it's been since his rookie season. Then again, his walk rate is also at its lowest, although you couldn't tell from his first Bucco start when he issued five free passes. The Pirates seem to think a little mechanical tweaking will solve that K issue, though Rodriguez said it's due to him pitching more to contact to get deeper into games. We'll see how that plays out.

Wandy Rodriguez is a mid-rotation guy, and that suits the Pirates just fine. They want him to fit in between AJ Burnett/James McDonald on one end and Jeff Karstens/Erik Bedard at the other. And if he can fill the three spot with the same consistency in Pittsburgh as he did in Houston, the Bucco chances of reaching the promised land of the playoffs becomes much more realistic.

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