'I love being here': Loyalty, timing drove J-Rod's extension

August 28th, 2022

SEATTLE -- The megawatt smile has been there all along, spanning the five years since Julio Rodríguez signed with the Mariners as an amateur free agent when he was barely legal to drive. It was there through his time at the Mariners’ Dominican baseball academy, where he learned how to speak fluent English. It was there through the Minors, where he skyrocketed into one of MLB Pipeline’s top prospects, again when he made the Opening Day roster and when he wowed with 81 dingers in an epic Home Run Derby performance.

And that trademark, wide-eyed, boyish grin was certainly there on Saturday, when the lights were brighter, the suit crisper and the moment bigger after Seattle’s star rookie put pen to paper on a contract extension guaranteeing him at least $210 million and ensuring he’ll be in Seattle for at least the next seven seasons, if not the rest of his career.

"What can I say? I'm just happy to be a Mariner,” Rodríguez said. “I'm just happy to be a Mariner for as long as I can. ... I love being here. I love being with everybody. And I love to keep representing this city and bring a championship because that's what we want here."

Rodríguez has echoed some rendition of those words for years, when he blossomed into arguably the face of the franchise before he even reached the Majors. But this massive contract extension that can max out at $470 million, orchestrated via his agent, Ulises Cabrera of Octagon, and Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto, puts even more validation to those words.

“They’re always showing their loyalty to me,” Rodríguez said. “They’re always showing me the love. They’re always showing me that they care about me. And I really appreciate that. As somebody that my dad told me that at a young age, I should appreciate and be grateful to the people that helped you to get to where you are right now, I feel that's what the Mariners showed to me and that's why I want to be here.”

Perhaps nothing underscored how reciprocated that loyalty is -- and even more so, the respect -- than the roughly two dozen teammates, coaches and support staff nestled in the back two rows of the Mariners’ interview room at T-Mobile Park.

Among them were manager Scott Servais, the baseball lifer whose respect is always there, but only when earned; right fielder Mitch Haniger, 10 years Rodríguez's elder who has been through potentially career-derailing injuries, works as hard as anyone and is still seeking his pay day; and first baseman Ty France, the 34th-round Draft pick who cut his teeth, then blossomed into an All-Star and whom Rodríguez jokingly called his “babysitter.”

There were many others in a somewhat surreal moment encapsulating just how much of an impact Rodríguez has made already -- at just 21 years old.

“I think there are two things you can do to gain your teammates' respect,” Servais said. “First of all, you’ve got to be a good player, and then you have to show up ready to play every day. And his preparation for a guy as young as he is, he asks the right questions, he takes advice from a number of veteran players, coaches, people that have been around him, and he comes ready to play every day.”

Beyond loyalty, so much that goes into negotiations of this magnitude boils down to dollars, years, fit -- and timing. 

On the latter, Rodríguez is so far removed from free agency that now was the opportune time to engage. Juan Soto declining a $440 million contract last month, and thus prompting the Nationals to trade him, was a prime example, as Dipoto noted, saying, “The longer you wait, the less likely it is that you're going to get something done, and we had a willing partner.

“We felt like this was the right time because waiting a year, waiting two years, two things happen,” Dipoto said. “One, there is a reasonable show of disrespect, and two, once you get to the arbitration years, it's a lot more difficult to do deals of this length and significance because once the player is close to entering the system, they tend to drift toward [free agency]. And then the next thing you know, he's a 26-year-old free agent and we're all watching.”

Had Rodríguez, the AL Rookie of the Year favorite, blossomed into the superstar that most envision he will become, played out the arbitration process, then reached free agency, the Mariners would’ve been up against 29 other teams, many with deeper pockets.

“At 26 years old, as a free agent, the likelihood of us being able to bring Julio back on an eight- or 10-year deal at any price, it just gets far more complicated,” Dipoto said. "So, we took some risks on the front end to allow ourselves the ability to keep them here at what we thought was a fair price.”

In the coming weeks, Seattle’s postseason pursuit might come to fruition, and if so, Rodríguez will have been a big part of it. He’s long endeared himself to the organization, the city and its fans, whom he regularly recognized throughout his big day.

“Every time you step out there, the fans show you their love,” Rodríguez said. “I feel like everybody that I've been playing here with can tell you that. It's a pretty special place.”