Sitting in front of a bank of cameras and microphones and donning his new Washington Nationals cap and No. 7 jersey, Ivan Rodriguez made it clear Friday that he didn’t come to the District to take up space on the bench and serve as some kind of figurehead clubhouse presence.
“I’m ready to play every day,” the 38-year-old catcher said. “We discussed that. I’m a player that I still can play every day, and I will play every day. I know that it’s hard for me to play 162 games. That’s impossible for a catcher. But as long as I’m healthy and I’m feeling great physically, I’ll be in the field playing.”
Whether the Nationals actually provide Rodriguez with that kind of playing time the next two seasons — especially with 25-year-old Jesus Flores semi-entrenched as the starting backstop — remains to be seen. Either way, general manager Mike Rizzo had no trouble with Pudge’s recurring message during his introductory news conference at Nationals Park.
“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. He might be right. You never know. … The best problem that I’ll have all season is: Who of these two hot catchers are we going to play on a daily basis?”
Until Flores establishes that his surgically repaired right shoulder is 100 percent, there won’t be much debate. Rodriguez will be the guy squatting behind the plate for a Washington club that desperately needed to upgrade its catching depth in the wake of Flores’ injury-plagued season.
Rizzo said he has been told by medical personnel that Flores will be ready to go when pitchers and catchers report to spring training Feb. 19. But the GM qualified that by saying, “We all know that specifically shoulders are very difficult to predict.”
So enter Rodriguez, a future Hall of Famer and the all-time leader in games caught as well as in runs, hits and extra-base hits among major league catchers. Despite the worst statistical season of his career – he hit a combined .249 with 10 homers and 47 RBI for Houston and Texas — Pudge drew a two-year, $6 million contract from the Nationals.
Rodriguez could only laugh at the prevailing sentiment that he was overpaid, because he has been through this before. After leading Florida to a World Series title in 2003, he signed with the 119-loss Detroit Tigers for four years and $40 million.
In 2006, Rodriguez was back in the World Series, the anchor of a Tigers squad that made the huge leap from worst to first. He sees similarities to his new situation with the Nationals — with a twist.
“I think this club is much better than [Detroit in] ’04,” he said. “I see this ballclub different. It’s a completely different team. They hit very well, and they’re going to pitch very well.”
If anything, the Nationals hope Rodriguez’s biggest impact will be on a young pitching staff that ranked last in the National League last year with a 5.02 ERA. Pudge, long considered one of the best-throwing catchers ever, believes he can coax the best out of his battery-mates using a simple, time-honored approach: Throw strike one and go from there.
Whether he’ll be the one catching those pitches remains to be seen.
“Spring training is in two months, and then we’ll see what happens,” Rodriguez said. “But I’m ready to play.”
Note: Saturday night is the deadline to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players, and Rizzo faces a couple of tough decisions. Flores, outfielder Josh Willingham and relievers Sean Burnett and Jason Bergmann are expected to be tendered. Less certain to be retained are left-hander Scott Olsen, right-hander Mike MacDougal and catcher Wil Nieves.
If the Nationals retain Olsen, who is coming off major shoulder surgery but has been cleared to prepare for spring training, they are required to pay him at least $2.24 million in 2010.