OXON HILL, Md. – Fans outside of Pittsburgh probably remember Sean Rodriguez for his epic tantrum in last year’s wild-card game between the Pirates and Cubs, when he got tossed after a benches-clearing incident, then continued to rage, rage against the dying postseason light by landing three devastating punches on a dugout Gatorade cooler.
It was not the first ejection for Rodriguez, who does not – repeat, does not – back down from on-field confrontation.
But that was only part of the reason that teammates as well as Pirates fans loved the guy. The bigger reason was how hard he played, laying out for catches in the outfield and hustling for extra bases. The Braves are likely to give him a lot of starts at second base and third base, but Rodriguez can legitimately play seven different positions.
And with the Braves considering carrying eight relievers, as they did much of last season, instead of the seven that they and most other teams carried in the past, versatility in a player has never been more valued.
“In our situation he was exactly what we were looking for,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said Wednesday. “We had our (October organizational) meetings in Orlando and you’re targeting guys and talking about things with your scouts and things like that, and he was kind of the guy that stood out. The fact that he can play shortstop and center field was two of the biggest reasons. He had a heck of a year.”
Rodriguez, 31, had a career-best season in 2016 that included 18 home runs and an .859 slugging percentage. The improvement came after he altered his batting stance, the most obvious change being a pronounced leg lift that helped him generate more power.
The right-handed hitter has a .234 career average with 112 doubles, 67 home runs, a .303 OBP and .390 slugging percentage in 903 games over nine seasons, including seven in the American League with the Angels and Rays before the past two with the Pirates.
“We think the changes and adjustments that he made are real,” Braves general manager John Coppolella said. “And this guy is still young. He always gets between 300 and 400 at-bats. There’s a chance he’s going to get more than that this year with us, as he continues to make strides we’ll have opportunity for him.”
The Miami native signed a two-year, $11.5 million free-agent contract with the Braves on Thanksgiving, and Braves officials have been talking him up ever since then, excited about the energy and leadership that Rodriguez will bring to the team along with his extreme versatility. Braves president of baseball operations John Hart talked about being overwhelmed by what a great family Rodriguez has.
“We were pleased to sign him because what he can do on the field, but also what he’s going to do to help us off the field,” Coppolella said. “This is a great guy, off-the-charts makeup…. We were actually talking to one of his former teammates (at the Winter Meetings), and he said he was the best teammate he ever had. He said there’s some very good guys out there, and then there’s Sean Rodriguez. We’re very fortunate that we got him. We tried to strike early.”
Snitker said Wednesday that he’d heard from friends with other teams at the Winter Meetings about what a good signing Rodriguez was for the Braves.
“Talking to guys that know him, they say he’s just one of those guys that keeps getting better,” Snitker said. “When we met with him, I talked to him and he’s a baseball player. He’s one of those guys. I think he will fit in really good with us. He likes to play the game. Obviously we love the versatility, the hybrid guys. I think that especially in our situation and how we’re looking to go in our bullpen, the hybrid guys are going to be very important, as they were last year. Whether Jace (Peterson) or Chase (d’Arnaud) or whoever was on the bench, it was a big deal.”
Snitker said Rodriguez’s ability to play many positions including shortstop and center field reminded him of another popular former Braves utility man. “He’s like Omar Infante with more power,” Snitker said.
Infante hit .309 with a .763 OPS during a three-year stretch with the Braves in 2008-2010, culminating with a .321 average and eight homers in 134 games at five positions in 2010, his only All-Star season. But Infante’s 13 home runs in 300 games and 991 at-bats for the Braves were five fewer homers than Rodriguez hit in 300 at-bats last season.