(Image: Associated Press)
At first, yesterday’s news that Francisco Rodriguez would be returning to the Brewers had a “sure, why not?” quality to it. Two out of K-Rod’s three (partial) seasons with Milwaukee were great, and you can never have enough pitching. But the more I think about it, I can’t help but feel heartened at how the Brewers and K-Rod have developed something resembling a beautiful relationship. Here’s a guy who played in Los Angeles and New York coming back to the smallest market in baseball. To be sure, a lack of better options always figures into any employment situation, but at this point, it’s starting to feel like K-Rod is one of us.
When the Brewers traded for K-Rod in 2011 right after the All-Star Game, it further demonstrated how serious the team was about making a run at a championship. As a fan, it felt like a big deal to bring in an All-Star record-setting reliever. Sure enough, with K-Rod and John Axford holding down the late innings, the Brewers were all but unstoppable in the second half of 2011 en route to their best season in club history.
There were some growing pains. Right after the trade, Ron Roenicke made it sound like K-Rod and Axford would share the closer job. It appeared to be a silly, unworkable idea at the time, and it’s no less nonsensical in retrospect. I suppose Roenicke thought Axford might blow up, and K-Rod could step into the ninth inning role he obviously preferred. It didn’t work out that way – Axford kept his momentum and the closer job, and K-Rod was forthright about his disappointment:
"Don't tell me something you're not going to do. That's what irritates me most. They told me they were going to do something, and they didn't. Simple as that," Rodriguez said.
I remember some fans saying K-Rod should have kept his feelings to himself, but it’s hard to blame a guy for being honest when he’s asked a question about his feelings. Considering how dull most professional athletes are in the media, K-Rod’s candor was refreshing. In any case, K-Rod had a great 2011 in Milwaukee, with only three blown saves but no losses, and even got his only major league hit as a Brewer (couldn’t locate the video, but as I recall it was a bunt he ran out – and was subsequently unavailable for a week with a hamstring strain).
In 2012, the Brewers’ ineffective bullpen was the primary reason they couldn’t make a repeat playoff appearance. Both K-Rod and Axford were shadows of their 2011 selves. The series that best summarized that disappointing season was Milwaukee being swept in Kansas City in mid-June, each time giving up the tying or go-ahead runs in the eighth or ninth innings. K-Rod would take over the closer role from Axford a month later, but he would not hold it for long. K-Rod finished that forgettable season with a 2-7 record and a 4.38 ERA.
Off the field, K-Rod was arrested on a domestic violence complaint by his partner, who is also the mother of his child. I wouldn’t want to speculate too much on a delicate situation I don’t know anything about – especially since charges were ultimately dismissed – but I would note that the Brewers could have easily cut ties with a player after an incident like that.
Instead, the then-free agent K-Rod signed a minor league contact with the Brewers in April 2013. It really became apparent K-Rod’s options were limited, and that Milwaukee was a destination of necessity more than choice. Even so, K-Rod was brilliant during his 2013 run with the Brewers, with a 1.09 ERA and 1.054 WHIP in 25 appearances. We also got to celebrate K-Rod’s milestone 300th save in Milwaukee. When he struck out Freddie Freeman to end that game, for a moment K-Rod became a hometown hero, like he’d been a Brewer his whole career (relive the magic with the video highlight here).
The Brewers traded K-Rod to the Orioles for a minor leaguer, and although his time in Baltimore was unremarkable, he did finished 2013 with a 2.70 ERA – right in line with his 12-year career average. For a guy who generates little interest on the open market, it seems like K-Rod can still get the job done. At 32 years old, one would think he has a few more good seasons left in him.
As he begins his fourth season with the Brewers, K-Rod can continue his transformation from the big city hotshot who speaks his mind to the down-to-earth Midwesterner who makes the most of his opportunities. He’s no longer just a symbol of the fact that the Brewers can make big moves and acquire top talent – K-Rod now has a modest but notable place in Milwaukee baseball history. It feels good to welcome him back.