Though 2012 did not culminate with a desired playoff berth for the Tampa Bay Rays, the season did contain many compelling stories. In addition to winning 90 games for the 4th time in 5 years, the club remained in contention to the season's final days and enjoyed multiple hot streaks along the way. Yet, with key injuries and far too many letdowns, the Rays depended on a handful of emerging players to post over-achieving numbers to enable general success.
Such a description fits no member of the 2012 squad better than Fernando Rodney. The 35 year-old was inked to a $1.75 million free-agent contract by the Rays over the winter when few clubs expressed interest in the reliever. Expected to provide a hard-throwing, right-handed option for the 7th and 8th innings, Rodney was instead thrust into the closer role when returning pitcher Kyle Farnsworth began the season injured with lingering arm soreness.
Nobody expected the 10 year veteran would earn his 1st All-Star appearance and arguably enjoy the greatest season by a closer in baseball history. Breaking a 22 year-old mark, Rodney's achievement largely went under the radar until the season's final weeks. As the dust settles, however, the best news for Tampa Bay is that the easily overlooked contract contained a $2.5 million team option for 2013, which assures that the services of this Cy Young contender will be retained next year.
Good Stuff, Bad Results
Prior to coming to the Rays, Fernando Rodney toiled for 7 underwhelming seasons with the Detroit Tigers and a pair of disappointing campaigns with the Los Angeles Angels. Overcoming Tommy John surgery in 2003, the pitcher's 95+ MPH fastball and effective change-up aided his reputation as a top bullpen prospect. After working behind an aging Todd Jones, the Dominican Republic native finally won the closer position in 2009. Despite finishing an MLB best 65 games and accruing 37 saves, Rodney disappointed with a 4.40 ERA and nearly 1.50 WHIP in 75.2 innings. The Tigers allowed Rodney to depart via free agency, where he received a 2 year, $11 million deal from the Angels, who hoped he would assume their own uncertain closer position. In 2 seasons, Rodney again failed to impress with a combined 4.32 ERA and mere 17 saves for Los Angeles.
Another Surprise Closer
Identifying superior closers amidst the baseball rough is nothing new for the Tampa Bay Rays. Ironically, the franchise was once haunted by signing established closer Roberto Hernandez to a big money contract in 1998 for a putrid team. More recently, current GM Andrew Friedman has instead focused on signing experienced free agents, possessing stellar stuff, but seeking a fresh start after a rough stretch elsewhere. For 3 consecutive seasons, this formula has thrived behind Rafael Soriano, Kyle Farnsworth, and Fernando Rodney. The trio has combined to provide the Rays with 118 saves and its success has been instrumental to the club's overall results. Additionally, the ability to close games at an affordable price has been critical for a budget-conscious team.
Changes Lead to Greatness
No change was more instrumental in Rodney's 2012 turnaround than his mastery of the strike zone. While always capable of bailing himself out with strikeouts, the 35 year-old previously found consistent trouble by permitting too many base-runners in pressure situations. For example, Rodney allowed in excess of 1 hit per inning in 2010 and followed that effort by surrendering nearly 1 walk per inning pitched in 2011. Both numbers fell drastically in his debut campaign for Tampa Bay, which produced an impressive 0.77 WHIP. That miniscule figure is almost half of his career average and indicates how few runners were permitted in closing wins. Antacid tablets were not necessary for fans of the runner-up for the 2012 Rolaids Relief Man Award. Many interpreted the difference as arising from Rodney's ability to better conceal his change-up by tossing the disguising pitch a few MPH slower. With 48 saves in 49 opportunities, the results kept hitters guessing incorrectly throughout 2012. Only allowing 5 earned runs, Rodney posted a 0.60 ERA in 74.2 innings of work. The astounding figure broke Dennis Eckersley's 1990 mark for the lowest ever ERA by a pitcher with 50+ innings of work.
Outlook for 2013
While the Rays will surely exercise Rodney's 2013 option, can fans count on the likeable star shining as brightly next year? In fairness, this is one of those magical seasons that no player can be expected to duplicate. Yet, the term fluke does not apply, since Rodney did not emerge from obscurity. Long considered having the capability of excelling, the pitcher simply put everything together this year. While the difference in his change-up may be its primary cause, multiple factors led to the breakout season. Being part of the best pitching staff in baseball, comfort with the Rays' relaxed clubhouse, competing for his 3rd team in 4 years, and the desire to earn a long-term deal surely combined to contribute to the success. With the majority of these factors still present next year, I expect Fernando Rodney to continue "shooting the moon" in triumph in 2013.
Yahoo! Sports, Espn.com, Baseball-reference.com, TampaBay.com.
More by Jeff Briscoe from Yahoo! Contributor Network:
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- Fernando Rodney
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- Kyle Farnsworth