Eduardo Rodriguez’s return was bittersweet.
I’ve always enjoyed covering the Detroit Tigers left-hander. He’s not only a very good pitcher, but he’s also a good talker who answers questions thoughtfully and intelligently without getting too wrapped up in the kind of technical minutia of pitching mechanics that makes my eyes roll back into my skull.
That’s why I was conflicted about Rodriguez’s return to the mound Wednesday against the Oakland Athletics at Comerica Park.
On the one hand, it was encouraging to see the likable staff ace pitch four innings in his first game since May 28, after a left index finger pulley rupture sidelined him for 37 days.
WEDNESDAY’S GAME: Detroit Tigers avoid shutout, but get smashed by Athletics, 12-3
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On the other hand, as I listened to manager AJ Hinch talk before the Tigers’ 12-3 loss about how good Rodriguez has been — “He likely would have been at the All-Star Game had he not gotten hurt,” Hinch said — I realized that getting invested in Rodriguez’s return was like buying a ticket on a train to nowhere. Because it’s clear Rodriguez won’t be part of the long-term plans for the struggling Tigers.
Sure, the Tigers might have a chance to stay within striking distance in the American League Central, only because the division is so bad. But after getting hammered Wednesday, they were assured of a series loss to baseball’s worst team — a barometer that tells us a lot about the Tigers’ prospects midway through the season.
And if anyone thinks for one second that Tigers president Scott Harris is going to be anything but a big seller as we approach the Aug. 1 trade deadline, and that one of his top priorities won’t be to ship out Rodriguez, then you’re living in a fantasy land.
That’s because of Rodriguez’s opt-out clause after this season in the five-year, $77 million contract he signed in November 2021.
It would be the smart play for Harris to get something in return — a boon, even — for a player who might be gone anyway. And I hate that it’s the smart play because Rodriguez is 30 and could be a key part of the Tigers’ rotation for the next two or three years, if he chooses to stick around.
But that’s not the way it goes in baseball, especially during rebuilds.
If I’m Harris, I’ve got the Dodgers on speed dial. The only team more interested in Rodriguez’s next few outings besides the Tigers has to be the Blue Crew, who have the money and prospects to swing a deal at any time and should be zeroed in on the four starts Rodriguez should make before Aug. 1.
I’d like to believe Rodriguez might want to stick around after this season, but I’d also like to believe in the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. He’s almost certain to get a better contract on the open market and the idea of joining a contender instead of being annual trade bait in Detroit has to be a no-brainer for him.
That’s why most players with opt-out clause exercise them. Seven of 11 players with opt-outs last year did so. The only player who re-signed with his original team was Carlos Correa, the Minnesota Twins shortstop and one of Hinch’s preferred lunch buddies, after ankle injuries wiped out two other deals and created a roller-coaster negotiating session that led him back to Minneapolis.
In a vacuum, contractual prudence makes sense. But the games, especially disheartening blowouts like Wednesday’s, aren’t played in a vacuum. They’re played in front of paying fans who are tired of years and years of rebuilding.
Rodriguez didn’t have a great outing, but it wasn’t bad for his first time out in more than a month. He struggled to locate his fastball and allowed five earned runs on six hits, including two homers. But he also had seven strikeouts, including getting his final three batters with some nasty sliders.
The Tigers were down, 5-0, with only one hit when he left the game. The A’s blew it open with four runs in the sixth. After the Tigers went down meekly with only Miguel Cabrera’s walk in the bottom half of the sixth, fans booed and made a mass exodus.
Of course the Tigers want to win. On the heels of an encouraging May, when they went 16-11, a division title seemed possible. Now, there’s talk of that possibility again as Rodriguez and Tarik Skubal return, with Akil Baddoo and Riley Greene rehabbing and not far behind.
“We’re getting back to what we feel like is normal,” Hinch said. “And I know that not all of our guys are going to be healthy at the same time with some of the diagnoses and some of the realities.”
But Rodriguez, Hinch knows, is the key among this group.
“But man,” Hinch said, “it’s nice to get back the guy that started on Opening Day and provided a ton of innings and stability and leadership for us.”
I have little doubt Rodriguez will locate his fastball better and hit his stride over his next few starts. But faceplants such as Wednesday’s against baseball’s worst team — by far — don’t instill much faith in the process.
I’m glad Rodriguez didn’t have any adverse effects from Wednesday’s start. Maybe that will increase his trade value. Maybe Harris can squeeze a better prospect out of another team.
But when you see these kinds of losses, and the impending end of a staff ace’s tenure, future picks and prospects provide little comfort. It’s even worse than taking a train to nowhere. It feels like we’re going to be stuck on the road to a rebuild that never ends.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Tigers get Eduardo Rodriguez back, but season seems long gone