Oh, Henry! What to do with Rodriguez?


Was MASN color commentator F.P. Santagelo serious when he speculated on Friday night that the Nationals are “showcasing” reliever Henry Rodriguez as baseball’s trade deadline nears?

What could the Nats possibly get at this point for a guy who couldn’t find the strike zone with a GPS system? When the 25-year-old Venezuelan appears on the mound, it’s a good bet the first batter he faces will wind up on first base, and then something really bad will happen with two outs. That’s been his pattern this season.

Rodriguez no doubt has one of baseball’s strongest right arms, and coming into this season was one of the team’s best relief pitchers.  His 100-plus mph fastball is good enough to blow most hitters away, and he used it to set up a slider that while not always a strike, was close enough to draw a swing on a two-strike count.

But after closer Drew Storen went down with an injury in spring training and veteran Brad Lidge was injured as well, manager Davey Johnson couldn’t resist the temptation to use his talented right-hander to close out games. It went OK at first:  He converted his first five save opportunities in April, but on the sixth, he allowed the Dodgers to score the tying run on a wild pitch in the bottom of the ninth, setting up Matt Kemp‘s walkoff homer in the tenth.

That set off a chain of events over the next two weeks, during which Rodriguez would not only lose his spot as the closer but tumble to the bottom of the bullpen, possibly opening the door for his eventual exit from the team.

On May 8 in Pittsburgh, the Nats appeared to have a come-from-behind win at hand after Adam LaRoche‘s two-run homer in the top of the ninth. But Rodriguez had control issues from the outset, and after a one-out single, Alex Presley took third on a wild pitch. With two-out and his breaking ball missing badly, Rodriguez fired one down the middle to Rod Barajas, who sent it back over the fence for a game-winning homer.

Five nights later in Cincinnati came the performance that will define this season for Rodriguez. With a 6-5 lead in the ninth, he allowed a leadoff single and a sacrifice bunt and got a popup for out No. 2. Then, his control completeley deserted him. His slider was nowhere close and even his fastball was wild. After two straight walks to load the bases,  former MVP Joey Votto was at the plate. He couldn’t even try his slider in this situation and fed Votto a steady stream of fastballs until Votto blasted one for a game-winning homer.

During the Nats’ ill-fated visit to Miami in late May, Rodriguez reportedly slammed his finger in a hotel bathroom door, conveniently putting him on the disabled list. He was OK in rehab assignments, and since returning, Johnson has tried to use Rodriguez in “low-pressure” situations. He’s been called on to mop up in blowout wins or losses or face batters his manager thinks he might match up well against. The results have not been good.

In ten appearances this month, Rodrigues has pitched to a 6.43 ERA, striking out seven and walking six. On Thursday, with the Nats up 8-0, he plunked Rickie Weeks and then surrendered a two-run homer to Carlos Gomez.

Friday night’s scoreless inning aside, it is apparent that Rodriguez has lost confidence. In another year, with the Nats playing out the string and trying to spoil other teams’ playoff hopes, there might be a chance to help him rebuild it. But this is a team with a division title in sight and legitimate pennant hopes. There’s no room here for a head case pitcher.

Johnson is known for his loyalty, and that’s admirable. But with key players like Jayson Werth and Chad Tracy due back this month, some players are going to have to go, and with 13 pitchers currently on the roster, Rodriguez will likely be one of them. Perhaps he has some minimal trade value, but it’s hard to see a contender taking such a risk, and it’s even less likely that the Nats would part with any of their other prized prospects to make him more attractive.

With Rodriguez out of minor league options, the most probable scenario is that he will be designated for assignment, just as Rick Ankiel was earlier this month. With such a strong arm and previously demonstrated talent, it’s possible that Rodriguez will be a successful pitcher ion the major leagues. It just won’t be in Washington.