By Chico Harlan
Saturday, December 12, 2009
After being awarded a two-year, $6-million contract, after being introduced by one team official as a "dignitary," after being described by his new general manager as "certainly the greatest catcher in our generation," Iván Rodríguez finally started talking Friday at his introductory news conference, unveiling the exact message one might expect from a peerless multimillionaire.
In his first public appearance as a member of the Washington Nationals, Rodríguez said he expects to win and to play every day. No matter that he's joining a last-place team that had designs on splitting his playing time with Jesús Flores. Never before has Rodríguez been a backup, and the 38-year-old catcher clearly doesn't plan on changing that in 2010.
"Well, I'm ready to play every day," he said. "We discussed that. I'm a player that can still play every day, and I will play every day and basically do my best for the club. I know it's hard for me to play 162 games; that's impossible for a catcher. But as long as I'm healthy, feeling great physically, I'll be in the field playing."
Rodríguez's intro at Nationals Park, in many ways, delivered the precise effect for which team officials had been hoping. He's a former league MVP with a history of transforming lesser teams into winners; he's a charismatic personality who says he can show younger guys how to win; he's a fitness freak with 5-percent body fat, and when he smiles -- as he did while buttoning the Nationals' white No. 7 home jersey -- his face becomes all angles, taking on a silhouette that resembles home plate itself.
The catcher's purpose in Washington, though, is only partly linked to buzz and mentoring. And yes, Flores, the Nationals' promising 25-year-old catcher, is recovering from right labrum surgery, and yes, shoulder procedures have a knack for messing with promising careers. But Rodríguez isn't here "as an insurance plan" either, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said.
"This is a very capable, productive major league player who still throws out a lot of runners, who still can handle the bat great and brings us so many intangibles," Rizzo said.
Still, the Nationals signed Rodríguez with the intention of having him play between 70 and 80 games in 2010; Flores, if fully recovered, would handle the rest. Before signing Rodríguez, all parties seemed to be on board with this plan. Even Flores, briefed about the signing, was supportive.
Asked Wednesday if Rodríguez was content with his role of splitting playing time, agent Scott Boras said: "Oh yes, definitely. They defined the role and Rizzo was very candid about it, and we told Pudge."
Friday, Rodríguez made several references to his hoped-for role, and never did he sound like a backup. When questioned specifically about the team's plan to play him 70 or 80 games, Rodríguez said: "Again, I said that I'm ready to play. Look forward to spring training and do my job and play the game. I'm a guy that I take care of myself very well; I'm keeping myself in good shape. And I'm gonna be in spring training in February ready. Those decisions are not in my control. My control is just to go to spring training in good shape and be ready mentally and physically to play on an everyday basis."
Numerous factors, of course -- Flores's health; Rodríguez's performance -- will dictate playing time come spring. But Rodríguez feels confident he'll put himself in a strong position. He hasn't been on the disabled list since 2002. He wants to reach the 3,000-hit mark -- he's 289 hits away -- and he talked Friday about playing two or three more years before retirement.
Rodríguez split 2009 with the Astros and Rangers, posting some of the poorest offensive numbers of his career (.249, 10 homers, 47 RBI, 425 at-bats). On the other hand, he had the fourth-best success rate in baseball for throwing out basestealers, and Washington's scouts -- depending more on in-person evaluation than statistical projection -- saw tell-tales (bat speed, for instance) that Rodríguez had more to offer.
After the news conference, Rizzo said he had no problems with his new catcher's hopes to play frequently.
"Would you expect anything different?" Rizzo said. "He's a 14-time all-star. He's a very prideful guy. And he thinks his skills are at their finest, and he might be right, you never know. Like I said at the beginning, he's going to be a significant contributor to the ballclub. Now if that means 70 or 80 games or 70, 80, 90, 100 games, those are questions that will be answered throughout the course of the season. The best problem I could have all season is, 'Who of these two hot catchers are we going to play on an everyday basis?' "