Rodney vital to Tigers' hopes

Rodney ready to find role

DETROIT -- Fernando Rodney is not without cares. He only carries a carefree aura to the mound.

He knows the shortcomings that prevented him from holding the closer's job last year. He also knows that unless he somehow beats out Brandon Lyon for the job in Spring Training, he probably isn't going to get it back, returning to a setup role. He knows what he has to do, and more importantly, he says he has made it his focus to show the Tigers what they need to see out of him.

"When you come to pitch in the ninth inning, you have to be ready," Rodney said last Saturday at TigerFest. "I feel ready a couple times. I don't feel 100 percent a couple times. I tried to throw more strikes. Sometimes I don't find the strike zone. Sometimes I get a strikeout. I've started working on that, and I want to be better."

The keys for Rodney's success -- getting ahead in counts, commanding his fastball, mixing his pitches better -- are going to follow him no matter what role he fills. And even with Lyon in the fold and Joel Zumaya progressing nicely in his rehab, it's increasingly clear that the Tigers need a solid season from Rodney -- whether at setup or closer -- if they're going to have a turnaround season.

It isn't a pleasant situation if Rodney's struggles linger, but the Tigers know it. Even if Zumaya opens the season ready to pitch, the Tigers likely would not rely on him to handle the setup workload himself coming off injury.

"Rodney's a big league pitcher. He's going to be on our ballclub," manager Jim Leyland said last week on the Tigers' winter caravan, before the Lyon signing was officially announced. "He's going to be a big asset to our ballclub, in my opinion. Exactly what the role will be defined as, I don't know yet. I think he'll be a very valuable piece of our team, and I'll leave it at that, because I don't know how things are going to play."

Or as Leyland later said Saturday, with the Lyon signing final, "Nobody's discarding Rodney."

It was Leyland who said earlier this month that he believed Rodney can be a closer, but on a part-time basis. The consistency, he said at the time, wasn't enough to count on him to hold the primary closing duties.

Beyond Rodney's 13 saves in 19 opportunities last season -- just over a two-thirds conversion rate -- his 4.91 ERA marked his highest since 2003. Though he again averaged better than a strikeout per inning, his 30 walks over 40 1/3 innings marked his highest such ratio in his big league career, dropping his strikeout-to-walk ratio from 2.57 in 2007 to 1.63 last year.

"If I've got my slider good, I have to throw it a lot. I think this year, I'll throw every pitch I have."
-- Fernando Rodney

In Rodney's saves, the hard-throwing right-hander with a nasty offspeed pitch worked that combination to a 1.98 ERA and 19 strikeouts over 13 2/3 innings. Yet his numbers in save situations -- both converted and blown, as well as chances for holds as a setup man -- were frighteningly different, from the 6.26 ERA to 20 walks over 23 innings to 28 hits and .955 OPS allowed.

The first batters to face Rodney in an outing went just 6-for-29 against him, but his nine walks resulted in a .395 on-base percentage.

Though Lyon wasn't named the closer upon his signing, he heads into Spring Training as the clear favorite. And Rodney heads to camp thinking about a potential competition.

"I don't know what [role] I'll do," he said, "but I want to get ready for Spring Training. If I have to compete, if I have to fight for the job, I'll do it."

This offseason was spent preparing for such a fight, even if it's simply with his own issues. Though Rodney reprised his usual winter ball role for a brief stint in the Dominican League, the bulk of his work came outside of games. He threw extra side work to try to keep his tricky shoulder strong and avoid the health issues that cost him two months last season and nearly led to surgery, an absence that he thinks set up his further troubles the rest of the year. Rodney threw off the mound this winter with a focus on spotting his pitches more precisely.

"Last year, I didn't pitch too many innings," he said. "Maybe that's why my control [was inconsistent]. This year, I'm working on [hitting] both sides [of the plate], outside, inside, and I've worked on that very hard. Because I think if I have control on the inside and outside, I'll be better."

He also believes he'll improve if he can regularly throw his slider, a pitch Tigers officials have tried to get him to throw more often for at least two years. With many hitters focused on his fastball-changeup combination, he needed a third pitch, and his slider was an effective pitch in his younger years before Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in 2004.

Many pitchers struggle to regain confidence in the slider after that procedure, because of the pressure it puts on the elbow. Rodney never seemed to get it back.

"I think it'll be very important," he said, "because the hitter knows I've got a good changeup I can throw in any count. If I've got my slider good, I have to throw it a lot. I think this year, I'll throw every pitch I have."

Those are good signs. One other sign Leyland has pointed out is the fact that Rodney is eligible for free agency next offseason and the potential deals for relievers that go with it. That's one factor that Rodney tried to downplay.

"I don't think about free agency," he said. "I think about going out there and trying to do my job. Forget about free agency. Free agency is for when the season's over."

Rodney's season hasn't started yet. But his mindset suggests he's ready.

Jason Beck is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.