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Newly signed Cuban right-hander Rodriguez hopes to start for Blue Jays this season

DUNEDIN, Fla. — Newly signed Blue Jays right-hander Yariel Rodriguez drew a crowd for his first throwing session at the team's player development complex.
Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Yariel Rodriguez throws in a drill during Spring Training action in Dunedin, Fla. on Monday February 19, 2024.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

DUNEDIN, Fla. — Newly signed Blue Jays right-hander Yariel Rodriguez drew a crowd for his first throwing session at the team's player development complex. 

With pitching coach Pete Walker and manager John Schneider among those watching behind him, the sound of Rodriguez's fastball repeatedly pounding the catcher's glove was distinct. The nods of approval from Blue Jays brass were just as assured.

"There's a lot to work with there, man. His stuff is pretty damn good," Schneider said Monday. "Breaking ball, fastball, splitter, it was just nice to see him in action."

The 26-year-old Cuban, who agreed to terms on a US$32-million, five-year contract earlier this month, has experience as a starter and reliever in top leagues in Cuba and Japan. 

Rodriguez hopes to earn a spot in the starting rotation but may be used out of the bullpen instead. 

As a reliever in 2022, Rodriguez was 6-2 with a 1.15 earned-run average with the Chunichi Dragons of the Nippon Professional Baseball League. He had 60 strikeouts and 18 walks over 54 2/3 innings. 

Rodriguez said he's presently at about 75 per cent as he builds up after limited competitive play last year.

"I've always loved to be a starter, that's who I am," Rodriguez said. "I don't think I will miss anything about relieving."

At last year's World Baseball Classic, Rodriguez did not record a decision over two starts for Cuba. He posted a 2.45 ERA over 7 1/3 innings with 10 strikeouts and six walks.

Rodriguez did not return to his Japanese team after the WBC and instead sat out the year in anticipation of making the move to MLB as a free agent.

"He's got a lot of weapons," Walker said. "He's got just about every pitch in the book from different angles. He's got the slight hesitation in the delivery. So there are certainly some things there that are interesting. 

"We'll just have to fine-tune a little bit and find out what will really work the best at the major-league level."

Toronto's starting rotation is anchored by Kevin Gausman, Jose Berrios, Chris Bassitt and Yusei Kikuchi. Alek Manoah is a good bet for the No. 5 spot but Rodriguez will be considered along with Bowden Francis, Mitch White and top prospect Ricky Tiedemann. 

"He's in the mix right now," Walker said. "Obviously we want to see him pitch. We want to get him into a live BP (batting practice). We're going to pitch him in (pre-season) games most likely in a starter routine."

Toronto will open its pre-season schedule against the Philadelphia Phillies on Saturday. The Blue Jays will kick off their regular season at Tampa Bay on March 28.

"Obviously I'd like to start games," Rodriguez said. "But I'm here to work very hard, give my 100 per cent and whatever the team decides they want me to do — starter or reliever — I'm good with that."

After a rainy weekend, players were back outside at the sprawling complex for workouts and drills on the fields and training areas. 

Many position players — including slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr. — arrived at camp Monday for physicals ahead of Tuesday's reporting deadline. 

Guerrero, who recently won a 2024 salary of $19.9 million in arbitration, seemed to be in great spirits as he caught up with teammates and coaches before taking batting practice. 

"He put a ton of work in. I love the way he looks and love the way he's prepared," Schneider said. "That's what really good players do. They take ownership of everything in the off-season and they're ready to go." 

Guerrero is expected to hold a media availability on Tuesday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 19, 2024. 

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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press