HARRIS: Keeping Henry Rodriguez is, for now, the right call for the Nationals

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ANALYSIS/OPINION

The spring of almost no decisions is finally over for the Washington Nationals. They’ll open the much-anticipated 2013 season against the Miami Marlins and they’ll open it as a team favored to win the World Series.

You don’t get to be that team by having a roster full of holes and the Nats don’t. Manager Davey Johnson answered the only real questions Friday after his team lost to the New York Yankees 4-2 in the final game that doesn’t count.

Wilson Ramos, who suffered a severe knee injury last May 12, will catch Stephen Strasburg in the season opener.

Henry Rodriguez will be back in the bullpen.

The first bit of news shouldn’t disappoint anyone who cares about the Nationals. Ramos and Kurt Suzuki will split catching duties and the opener is a “carrot” for the work Ramos put in to get back, Johnson said.

The second bit of news might not be met with universal joy. Rodriguez‘ career has been full of as many “arrrrrrrgggghs” as “aaaahhhhs” to this point. He has a mind-boggling assortment, from a fastball that hits 100 mph to breaking balls that freeze batters.

The night Ramos got hurt? Rodriguez earned a save with a 10-pitch, three-strikeout performance. The next night? Four runs allowed in two-thirds of an inning, after two walks and two hits.

All pitchers have their rough spells. With Rodriguez, they just seem more pronounced. With no options remaining, he presented the Nats with a bit of a conundrum. If they tried to send him down, another team surely would have snapped him up.

Why is that a bad thing? Why not let Rodriguez go and be somebody else’s problem?

“He’s got Nintendo stuff,” fellow reliever Drew Storen said. “It’s like you create a player on a video game, that’s what Henry has.”

That’s why you don’t let him go, at least not yet. Surely there’s a line somewhere, a point in which the Nats will say no more. Rodriguez hasn’t reached it yet, really shouldn’t be all that close. He’s only 26. The Nats with their deep bullpen have the luxury of picking the right spots for him and hoping at some point (soon) the good consistently shows up way more often than the bad.

“When he’s on, it’s special stuff,” Nats reliever Tyler Clippard said. “It’s fun to watch sometimes. He has the potential to be one of the best pitchers in the game. The stuff he has is electric and I think he realizes that.”

Rodriguez pitched hurt much of last season, and finally saw his season end because of elbow surgery. He didn’t pitch after July 31. It affected his offseason program, kept him from playing winter ball. He got into 10 games this spring, including Friday’s game against the Yankees.

He pitched to a 3.72 earned run average in 9 2/3 innings. He struck out seven. He walked 11. Yes 11. In short, he was pretty much like he’s always been. He has 126 2/3 career innings in the major leagues. He has 138 strikeouts, 82 walks. And 34 wild pitches. He had none of those this spring, so there’s that.

His manager is one of his biggest defenders, which is never a bad thing.

“I’m certainly not anywhere close to giving up on Henry,” Johnson said. “Henry was good last spring and he was good in his first 7-8 saves (last season). I’m attributing the problems he had to his elbow, which he wouldn’t talk about, but if he’s healthy, he’s got three off-the-charts big league pitches. He’s pitched about nine innings this spring? Given up two hits? He’s tough.”

Three hits, actually. And let’s say it again – 11 walks, including one Friday. Opposing batters hit only .078 off him this spring, yet he had an incongruent ERA of 3.72. Nothing says Henry Rodriguez quite like those numbers. Only giving up three hits doesn’t mean a whole lot when you put 11 on with walks.

That said, the Nats absolutely did the right thing keeping Rodriguez around. It’s minimal risk with potentially high reward. His career sample size is getting to the point where wondering if it will happen is legitimate. But it is too early to say it won’t.

“There aren’t many guys who can throw 100 and command 100,” Storen said. “There’s a reason for that. It isn’t easy to do. Henry works at it. He battles. He wants to get better. You can’t leave a guy like that out of your pen.”

 

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