Rule 5 pick Rodriguez could be bullpen breakout

Cardinals intrigued by right-hander's 100 mph fastball, swing-and-miss curve combo

February 17th, 2023

JUPITER, Fla. -- To understand how intrigued the Cardinals are by the massive potential of reliever Wilking Rodriguez -- someone who hasn’t pitched in a Major League game since 2014 -- their pitching coaches spent nearly a half-hour on Friday talking specifically about ways to maximize the fire-balling right-hander’s performance in 2023.

In years past, issues with pitching mechanics and shoulder troubles have derailed Rodriguez’s chances of thriving at the MLB level. Correct those issues and combine them with Rodriguez’s 100 mph fastball and his wipeout curveball, and the Cardinals think they might have a standout pitcher with dominant swing-and-miss stuff to supplement their bullpen.

“Repeatable mechanics are always going to [allow for success], but there is also some stuff that we want him to do with each pitch,” manager Oliver Marmol said of Rodriguez. “We sure hope he [has a breakthrough]. He’s a power arm and he’s a guy we feel like if some of the stuff we’re talking about internally with our staff sticks, we could see a totally different pitcher.”

The Cardinals are pouring plenty of resources into Rodriguez -- and not just because MLB rules require them to keep the veteran who turns 33 years old on March 2 on the active Major League roster all season or risk losing him. The club pursued Rodriguez throughout last season while he was starring for Dos Laradeos of the Mexican League. St. Louis wanted to sign him as a free agent, but no buyout agreement could be reached. Rodriguez ultimately signed with the Yankees, but that franchise left him unprotected and the Cardinals poached him in the Rule 5 Draft in December.

It was all a bit dizzying for Rodriguez, who was 6-2 with a 2.01 ERA, 17 saves and 73 strikeouts in 44 2/3 innings in Mexico. The Cardinals quickly fell for his combination of a fastball that is back at 100 mph for the first time in nine years and a biting curve. The Venezuela native said on Friday he was delighted to be a Cardinal since they were the team that scouted him most throughout 2022.

“I was aware of it -- the interest the Cardinals had in me, but with the Mexican team, they needed to sign a buyout to let me go,” Rodriguez said through interpreter and bullpen catcher Kleininger Teran. “But after [the buyout] didn’t happen, I wasn’t paying too much attention to it.

“I was really surprised, but everything happened for a good reason. I signed as a free agent, but then I got picked up by the St. Louis Cardinals and I was surprised. I’m happy to be here now.”

Maybe it’s only fitting that Rodriguez is a member of the Cardinals since that is the team that he faced in 2014 as a member of the Royals. In his debut on June 3, 2014, Rodriguez didn’t allow a run and his appearance was highlighted by retiring catcher Yadier Molina at Busch Stadium.

“What was special was that I got to face Yadi Molina and Jhonny Peralta in the seventh inning, and we ended up winning the game,” Rodriguez said. “They gave me the baseball from the first out, a jersey and the lineup card, too.”

As it turned out, the 6-foot 1, 180-pound Rodriguez pitched just one more game at the MLB level before being sent back to the Minor Leagues. He made it to the Majors at a time when he was throwing 100 mph -- a level he couldn’t get back to until this past season while starring in Mexico.

“In 2013, I threw 100 for the first time,” Rodriguez said. “I was doing a rehab when I was with the Rays. Then, after that, last year is when I touched 100 again. I used to get hurt a lot with my shoulder and that’s probably why I couldn’t touch [100 mph]. Last year, working in Mexico with the trainers, that really helped me out and allowed me to reach 100.”

The Cardinals want Rodriguez to adopt mechanical changes and pitching strategies that will help him stay healthy and use his strikeout stuff out of their bullpen. They are hoping to pair him with the 104 mph stuff of closer Ryan Helsley and the 103 mph sinker of Jordan Hicks to better their swing-and-miss results. The Cards ranked 25th in MLB last season in strikeouts, 23rd in strikeouts in games defined as “late and close” and 29th in strikeouts with runners in scoring position.

“He’s got some of that [swing-and-miss stuff] in his game and he can get more of it depending on how he uses that combination of the breaking ball and his fastball,” Marmol added. “He brings that fastball up there pretty good and there’s swing-and-miss on the curveball. The combination of those two things could be pretty good.”