David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
The Mets pulled a fast one on Francisco Rodriguez with the 2011 deal that shipped him -- along with roughly $5 million -- to the Brewers minutes after the final out of the All-Star Game. Sandy Alderson took advantage of a loophole in K-Rod's no-trade clause and deftly escaped a vesting option that could have put the Mets on the hook for $17.5 million the following season.
With Rodriguez's bumpy ride in Queens, one that included an arrest at Citi Field for punching his girlfriend's dad, few would have predicted what is currently happening for K-Rod in Milwaukee, where he is looking like the best closer in baseball -- again. By sending Rodriguez to the Brewers, Alderson unwittingly planted the seed for his eventual resurgence, even if it took another three years to happen.
"Maybe it's just the Midwest," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said Friday during a phone interview. "We don't have 12 people around him every day. He's got a private life beyond baseball -- and he keeps it private. He's a quiet guy who just goes about his business."
There could be something to that. We'll rule out a bratwurst obsession. Plus, Rodriguez is 32 now -- undoubtedly more mature, yet presumably with plenty of career still left after pitching a dozen years in the majors. Though his average fastball velocity has steadily dropped from 94.4 mph in 2007 to 89.5 this season, according to Pitch f/x, Rodriguez is as effective as he's ever been.
Through Friday, K-Rod was 14-for-14 in save situations, and already had tied the record for most saves (13) before May 1, a mark set by former Mariners closer Kazuhiro Sasaki in 2001. Rodriguez had allowed only seven hits in 17 scoreless innings, with 24 strikeouts and four walks. Opponents were batting .125 against him.
In this era of the rotating closer, with relievers having a difficult time holding on to the job, Rodriguez seems to have turned the clock back to 2008, when he had 62 saves for the Angels, and parlayed that season into a three-year, $37-million contract with the Mets.
For Melvin, having this version of K-Rod at the back of his bullpen has been almost a career goal. When Melvin was the Rangers' GM, he scouted Rodriguez as a 16-year-old during an audition in Venezuela, only to have him later sign with the Angels. At his core, Rodriguez hasn't changed all that much, at least in Melvin's view.
"Back then, he'd just get on the mound and try to throw the ball as hard as he could," Melvin said. "He's a very confident guy and sort of a throwback, with an old-school approach for a closer."
The name Melvin kept mentioning as a comp for Rodriguez was Goose Gossage, and K-Rod passed the Hall of Famer last month as he climbed into a tie with Rick Aguilera for 17th on the all-time saves list with No. 318 Friday night. Another comp was Trevor Hoffman, who collected 47 saves in two seasons with the Brewers before finishing with 601 for second on the all-time list.
Narrow the focus further, down to saves before a closer's 33rd birthday, and Rodriguez already is atop that leader board, with 318 in 747 games. Hoffman is sixth, with 271 in 508 games. Mariano Rivera is 14th on that list with 243 in 438 games.
Like Hoffman, Rodriguez still is getting the necessary 7 mph differential between his fastball and signature changeup, and mixing in his lethal curve. His success this season doesn't come as a surprise to Melvin, who watched him do the same thing for the Brewers last year.
Melvin chose to take another chance on Rodriguez in '13 despite a domestic-abuse arrest during the final month of the previous season -- no charges were filed -- and signed him late to an incentive-laden minor-league deal April 17. Rodriguez had a 1.09 ERA in 25 appearances, and went 10-for-10 in saves, with 26 strikeouts in 242/3 innings before Melvin traded him to the Orioles.
K-Rod had a tougher stay in Baltimore, where his ERA jumped to 4.50 in a setup role for Jim Johnson. But Melvin was fine with Rodriguez staying under the radar this offseason, and again signed him late, completing a one-year, $3.25-million deal a week before the Brewers were to report for spring training.
There would be a few more hurdles to clear. With the political unrest in Venezuela, Rodriguez had a difficult time leaving his Caracas home because of violent protests and closed roads. After securing a visa, Rodriguez showed up two weeks late to Phoenix, then stepped on a cactus, further delaying his spring-training debut.
"He was out there pitching with thorns in his foot," Melvin said. "We were worried about whether he would be ready for the season. But he's making an argument that you only need about 10 days for spring training."
Even then, Rodriguez wasn't officially named the closer until he saved the 2-0 victory over the Braves on Opening Day at Miller Park. The original plan had been to use Jim Henderson, who went 28-for-32 in save chances during the second half of last season. But Milwaukee's decision-makers weren't convinced by Henderson's Cactus League performance, and he joined the April casualty list.
The Mets already are on their third closer, Kyle Farnsworth, after the loss of incumbent Bobby Parnell to Tommy John surgery and the failures of retread Jose Valverde. The A's were forced to remove Johnson, whom they traded for this past winter. Former Met Joe Smith has supplanted Ernesto Frieri on the Angels.
There will be others, and Melvin's desire to protect the Brewers from this market inefficiency is how Rodriguez wound up in Milwaukee in the first place.
"I'm a believer that you need two or three guys that can save games for you," Melvin said. "He's one of the better competitors I've seen and we're glad he came back here."