CLEARWATER, Fla. - When the Phillies dealt lefthanded reliever Antonio Bastardo to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Joely Rodriguez in December, the assumption was that the new young arm would begin this season in the triple-A rotation.
But amid the latest developments in Phillies spring training, the notion of Rodriguez's winning a spot as the team's No. 5 starter is no longer far-fetched. His was among the names general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. mentioned late Monday after the team placed Cliff Lee on the 60-day disabled list because of his torn elbow tendon.
Rodriguez, 23, has yet to pitch above double A despite having six professional seasons under his belt. Although he probably could use more seasoning in the minors, he has performed well this spring. He's also the only lefthanded starter not named Cole Hamels remaining in big-league camp.
Cuban righthander Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez and nonroster invitees Kevin Slowey and Paul Clemens are also candidates for the fifth spot in the Phillies rotation.
"He's thrown well," Amaro said Tuesday of Rodriguez. "He seems like he's pretty confident. Really, honestly, it's an open competition. We'll see who kind of steps up and takes the ball."
Rodriguez won't overpower hitters, instead relying on good command of his fastball, slider, and change-up. In seven spring innings he has allowed just one unearned run and two hits while walking two and striking out one. He's slated to follow starter Aaron Harang Thursday night against the New York Yankees in Tampa.
Playing last year for the Pirates' double-A Altoona affiliate, Rodriguez recorded a 4.84 ERA over 134 innings. His season statistics didn't indicate a major-league-ready pitcher - his hits allowed (151) more than doubled his strikeouts (73). But an impressive stint in the Arizona Fall League increased expectations.
Rodriguez compiled a 2.38 ERA in seven fall starts for the Scottsdale Scorpions. Phillies triple-A pitching coach Ray Burris, the former longtime major-league pitcher, was the Scorpions' pitching coach.
"He's a young kid who has that ingredient we talk about in professional baseball," Burris said. "He has that inner 'it', as we call it, that zeal to compete, that zeal to have a hunger.
"This is what I saw in the fall league out of this young man. He's a great kid to work with, good makeup, good teammate, comes out and competes, and those are ingredients that add up to a good formula as far as being able to perform well at any level."
Rodriguez was in a bullpen in his native Dominican Republic, playing winter ball, when he learned he was traded. He didn't believe the news until he fielded a second phone call while on his drive home.
"I know there's an opportunity here," he said recently through a translator. "I'm very glad to be able to be in a position to compete for a spot in the rotation. But all I'm concentrating on right now is to be a better pitcher every time I go out on the field."
In all likelihood, he will still start the season as one of the top starters for Lehigh Valley with a chance to be one of the first call-ups. Given the rotation's uncertainty, it's a safe bet Rodriguez will pitch in the majors at some point this season.
The Phillies, though, aren't ruling out the possibility that it comes in April.