Yariel Rodriguez settling into big-league life after emotional debut with Blue Jays

Blair and Barker discussion on what the Blue Jays should do with Alek Manoah, especially if Yariel Rodriguez keeps trending upwards like he has, even discuss the option of trading him for another impact bat.

SAN DIEGO — Yariel Rodriguez’s mind went to so many different places as he walked off the mound following his big-league debut last weekend. He’d been through so much over the past year to realize his dream of pitching in the majors and he’d just done it, 3.2 innings of one-run ball in the books, crowd of 31,472 on its feet cheering and he tried to process it all as he headed toward the Toronto Blue Jays dugout.

“There was a lot of satisfaction,” Rodriguez, speaking through interpreter Hector Lebron, says of those emotional steps. “I mean, after all that work, that long journey from Cuba and Japan, all that I went through, it felt great. Rewarding after all that. And I was very grateful for the fans, too, for their support.”

Now, meaningful moment behind him, it’s on to the next, which is making his second start Friday in the Blue Jays’ series opener at the San Diego Padres. In a sense, the outing marks something of a transition, moving from the whirlwind of a promotion to the majors and first touch of baseball at its highest level to the daily grind of big-league life.

To that end, pitching in the majors “feels normal right now,” says the 27-year-old. “This is what I wanted all my life, it feels great, this is the sport I want to play and it feels normal.”

The Blue Jays are counting on Rodriguez to make a quick acclimation.

Against the Colorado Rockies last Saturday, he flashed an overpowering fastball that topped out at 97.6 m.p.h., a slider that had seven whiffs and three fouls on 16 swings, a sinker, a curveball and a splitter, the latter a pitch the Blue Jays want him to refine and feature prominently.

During his three seasons with the Chunichi Dragons in Japan, Rodriguez mostly worked as a reliever which meant he scaled back his repertoire, largely relying on his heater and slider. While he continued to work on his other pitches in the bullpen, shelving them kept him from getting important reps executing the offerings in-game. 

The splitter, in particular, is a weapon that the Blue Jays believe can be a difference-maker, giving him a tool with which to control bat speed against both right-handed and left-handed hitters as well as another put-away option.

“They told me it’s very effective here in the big leagues,” says Rodriguez, who is looking to manipulate the pitch so he can throw one version for called strikes in the zone, and another that’s strike-to-ball for chase.

At the same time, Rodriguez adds that, “I want to throw everything,” and he further complicates at-bats for opposing hitters by throwing everything in multiple different ways.

With his hometown Ganaderos de Camaguey in the Cuban National Series, Rodriguez learned to vary the arm angles he fired from, a tool he uses to keep hitters from keying in and hunting pitches from the same spot.

Then, when he joined Chunichi in 2020, he added a hitch to his delivery after seeing how many batters used big leg kicks in Japan. Picking that up was more difficult as he had to find ways to maintain the right balance while pausing and then restarting his leg kick, but he found it an especially effective way to neutralize opponents.

Essentially, “you want to do the same thing (as the hitter) to keep them off-time,” Rodriguez explains. “I saw a lot of pitchers doing it, so I started doing it, too.”

“I love to get the hitters off-balance,” he continues, saying his use of the hitch “is not planned. I can do it at any time, any pitch. I don’t want hitters to get used to the same angles, the same pitches. I’m just trying to give them different looks.”

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Given the combination of options at his disposal and how new he still relatively is to the Blue Jays, Rodriguez is calling his own games. Manager John Schneider hinted that Danny Jansen, who’s played once since being activated from the injured list earlier this week, would catch him Friday and the pair worked together just once, a live batting practice, in spring training.

Underlining some of the learning that needs to happen is one moment from that session, when Jansen called for a four-seamer, Rodriguez delivered and Kevin Kiermaier, marvelling at the pitch’s cut, asked, “what was that?”

Both he and Jansen shook their heads when they confirmed that the pitch was, in fact, his four-seamer.

Dealing with that will be the Padres’ problem Friday.

Rodriguez threw 68 pitches against the Rockies and he could push up around 80 Friday, but the Blue Jays are also trying to carefully spread his workload out over the entire season. Right now, “we’re talking about 100 innings,” he says, which is why the current plan is to piggy-back long reliever Bowden Francis with him when possible.

The approach can be easily disrupted, as it nearly was by Wednesday’s 6-4 loss to the New York Yankees, when the Blue Jays were short in the bullpen, got into trouble trying to close out the game in the ninth and had Francis warming for a potential 10th inning.

It didn’t get there that time, but such planning will for now be tied into Rodriguez’s outing as the Blue Jays walk the line between building him up for a regular starter’s turn in 2025 and competing for the here and now this year.

“I feel very strong, very comfortable, I think I can go 80, 85 pitches easy,” Rodriguez says. “But at the same time, I understand we have a plan for controlling my innings, trying to use my innings in the best possible way… trying to save some for the end. I’m OK with it and I understand. But I feel very strong right now. Very strong.”

Physically and mentally, too.

Sharing in the joy from his debut were his wife Gabriela and son Harold Yariel, who watched on TV from Florida, for now unable to get to Toronto while their visa situation settles. Gabriela also sent clips from the game to Rodriguez’s parents, who were unable to tune in live from Cuba.

“So they kind of watched the game, too,” he says.

They were his first calls after the outing, amid a torrent of congratulations.

“I received a lot of calls, a lot of texts from friends, family, the people that have supported me over my career,” he says. “It was very, very awesome.”

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