Rodríguez to make MLB debut for Blue Jays Saturday

April 13th, 2024

TORONTO -- A mystery no more, Yariel Rodríguez will make his big league debut Saturday as a starter.

The Cuban right-hander will bump Bowden Francis from the rotation for the time being and take the mound against the Rockies, leaving Francis to be available behind him in a potential piggyback situation. It’s all happened so quickly for the 26-year-old who signed a five-year, $32 million deal after not pitching professionally in 2023, but Rodríguez has earned this.

The Blue Jays officially recalled Rodríguez on Saturday morning and optioned right-hander Paolo Espino to Triple-A Buffalo to make room on the roster.

Over two scoreless outings in Triple-A, Rodríguez struck out 10 batters over 6 1/3 innings. Everything about Rodríguez’s pitching style is aggressive, from his mannerisms on the mound right down to the icy blue eyes that glare in at the batter. Energy vibrates out of Rodríguez.

“I am very emotional on the mound. Very emotional and intense,” Rodríguez said soon after his arrival in Dunedin before Spring Training. “I like to play with the hitter’s head and their mentality. Yes, I’m very intense.”

Consider this Step 1 of a plan that could take a dozen different shapes over the coming months.

Rodríguez will start for now, but he could also shift into a hybrid role along the way.

“Number one, you want to get him acclimated comfortable for what will be his Major League debut,” said Blue Jays manager John Schneider. “It could change. We really have to remember the big picture with him and the number of innings. His role could be a bit fluid. Piggybacking could be an opportunity, too.”

The original plan was to build Rodríguez up as a starter, but this is as unique a workload situation as you’ll find in the organization. Rodríguez grew up as a starter, eventually pitched as a back-end reliever in Japan and then took the 2023 season off as he established himself as an MLB free agent. This isn’t an easy situation to put a number on.

The Blue Jays will monitor Rodríguez throughout the season, using dozens of metrics that go miles beyond simply tracking his inning totals. You can look at that as being restricting, but the Blue Jays see his versatility as a strength in all of this. By 2025, this organization wants Rodríguez starting, but for ‘24, he could fill a number of roles.

One path forward from here is to use Rodríguez as a starter in the short term, then shift him to a different role as other starters become available. That would shift the spotlight to Alek Manoah, who makes a rehab start Saturday in Triple-A Buffalo, or No. 1 prospect Ricky Tiedemann, who has been inconsistent so far in Triple-A, but has the talent to kick the door down at any moment.

In 2022, Rodríguez’s last pro season in Japan with the Chunichi Dragons, he posted a 1.15 ERA with 60 strikeouts over 54 2/3 innings out of the bullpen, most of it in high-leverage spots.

“We’re comfortable if it does end up in that spot, pitching leverage,” Schneider said. “A lot of it will just depend on where he’s at. Initially, you want to keep him pretty on schedule with when he’s throwing and how much he’s throwing. If we have to curtail it later in the year, we will. We feel comfortable with his stuff in that capacity.”

It’s so unusual to be talking about these outcomes for a pitcher about to make his MLB debut as a starter, but that’s what makes Rodríguez so fascinating. It’s why there was some risk involved when the Blue Jays signed him, but also more upside than any other move they made over the winter.

Regardless of which path this takes, Rodríguez has the upside to make the Blue Jays a better team. It’s about having the best 13 pitchers on the active roster, and while the coming weeks still hold some level of mystery, Rodríguez has put himself in that group of 13.