In reviewing the Pirates’ three-game sweep at Detroit to start the season, one would have a difficult time finding a less significant contributor than Sean Rodríguez.
Back with Pittsburgh for the third opening day of the past four, Rodríguez sat the bench for two games, then went 0 for 4 while hitting eighth and playing left field in the nightcap of Sunday’s doubleheader at Comerica Park. He struck out twice and also misread a first-inning fly for a double, so he was a net negative on an otherwise positive weekend.
Not what the notably team-oriented Rodríguez is looking for, yet a year after nearly getting his career cut short in a car accident, simply being back on the field and healthy is an accomplishment for the 32-year-old utility man.
“At this time last year, you’re talking about a whole different situation,” Clint Hurdle said late in spring training. “His perseverance put him in a really good place.”
After leaving the Pirates via free agency last winter, Rodríguez spent most of the first year of a two-year, $11.5 million contract with the Braves rehabbing that freak shoulder injury. Somehow, he was activated from the disabled list in late July, but hit just .167/.276/.295 in 54 games.
Sure, his walk-off homer upon his trade back to the Pirates in August was memorable, but Rodríguez basically had nothing in the tank in 2017.
As such, he took little time off in his native Miami before getting back to training. The result is a refreshed player looking forward to rejoining the team that facilitated a revival of his major-league career … and that free-agent payday.
“My body feels awesome,” Rodríguez said a couple of weeks ago. “No complaints from that, and that’s the biggest key.”
The question is this: How much can the Pirates expect of Rodríguez as he bounces around the diamond and gets mostly sporadic at-bats?
The best case would be Rodríguez’s 2016, in which he hit .270/.349/.510 with 18 homers in 342 plate trips. The worst? How about the year before, when he didn’t hit for power (.362 SLG) and didn’t get on base (2.1 percent walk rate, .281 OBP) while playing defensive caddy for Pedro Álvarez.
For a man with a career strikeout rate of roughly 26 percent, there’s always the potential his offense falls off a cliff. Yet, he whiffed a scary 30 percent of the time in 2016, when he had his best hitting season by far, so there’s apparent value in just letting the man take his hacks.
“We free him up and let him go compete,” Hurdle said. “There’s going to be some swing and miss. You don’t try to change him. You know, ‘Shorten up, get wide.’ No. Get in there, trust your eyes, get your swing off. That’s the mentality that he has and that’s what we try to express to him.”
Rodríguez’s Grapefruit League stat line provided a tidy microcosm of his career to date. He launched four home runs in 47 trips to the dish, slugging .535 in the small sample. He also struck out 20 times.
“The swing is where it needs to be,” Rodríguez insisted, saying he’s never felt stronger. “The thing I battle every now and then is to trust the timing, trust the feel and the rhythm and the timing of the pitcher.”
A healthy give-and-take relationship with hitting coach Jeff Branson has helped Rodríguez feel more comfortable with the Pirates than any other team he’s played for, he said. As a part-time player with the Angels and Rays earlier this decade, Rodríguez never posted an above-average triple-slash line until 2016.
“‘Branno’ definitely knows what he’s doing, so I gotta give him some credit there,” said Rodríguez, who also credited Hurdle and assistant hitting coach Jeff Livesey. “It helps that we found where I am now through this group of guys, so it’s easy to basically talk back and forth with what I’m feeling and what I might not be feeling.”
If Rodríguez is simply playing a hard-hitting, smooth-fielding role off the bench, the Pirates won’t mind picking up the back end of the contract he signed in Atlanta.
On the other hand, if Rodríguez is needed to spell, say, Jordy Mercer or Colin Moran on a regular basis, there could be some overexposure. While Rodríguez carries several gloves in his equipment bag, he’s been a negative-value fielder at shortstop and third base over his career.
Yet, on the right side of the infield or in the outfield grass, Rodríguez has fulfilled his jack-of-all-trades reputation.
“His versatility and his track record is proven,” Hurdle said. “He makes defense look effortless at times, wherever you put him. We’re gonna find spots for him. We’re gonna find at-bats for him.”
The endorsement of management and a rejuvenated body seem to have lightened Rodríguez considerably. He said he always wants to “surpass” and “outdo” his previous bests, a stance Hurdle said is realistic.
However, one imagines the Pirates will gladly take the Sean Rod of two years ago, ironically the same version that priced him out of town.
“We could almost see it early in camp, with the aggressiveness in the swings,” Hurdle said. “He’s diving for balls headfirst, making headfirst slides into bases. He told me he might be in the best shape he’s ever been in. He worked extremely hard at getting strong again and getting flexible.
“It’s playing out in the box. It’s playing out in the field.”