CLEARWATER, Fla. - The best lefthanded reliever the Phillies used last season was demoted to high-A Clearwater at the end of April. He had been jettisoned from the 40-man roster, did not attend major-league spring training, and arrived with the Phillies last September throwing 95-mph fastballs.
"I know, I know," Joely Rodriguez said Sunday morning. "It's impressive."
The rebuilding Phillies have higher priorities than procuring effective lefty relievers. It is one of the final spots filled by a contending team, so the Phillies are more willing to experiment with options like Rodriguez, the 25-year-old Dominican acquired in a 2014 trade with Pittsburgh.
There is not much to lose.
Last season, Phillies lefthanded relievers posted a 6.42 ERA in 1021/3 innings. That was the highest ERA for a group of lefties since 2007, when Tampa Bay's lefthanded relievers had an 8.80 mark in 44 innings.
The Phillies used seven lefties in 2016. Just two remain in the organization. The five departed: Brett Oberholtzer, Elvis Araujo, James Russell, Daniel Stumpf, and Patrick Shuster. Both Rodriguez and Adam Morgan, who is being stretched to start but could land in the bullpen, are on the current 40-man roster.
Veterans Cesar Ramos and Sean Burnett are in camp as non-roster invitees on minor-league deals. Phillies manager Pete Mackanin has said his preference is to carry two lefties in his bullpen because the Phillies have none in the rotation. Lefthanded hitters feasted on the Phillies in 2016; the .463 slugging percentage against was the second-highest in the majors.
That is what makes Rodriguez, a veteran of just 12 big-league games, intriguing. His 95.3-mph average fastball velocity ranked seventh among all relievers last season. He had a 2.79 ERA in 92/3 innings with the Phillies, although lefties hit him better than righties did.
Rodriguez inherited runners on the corners with two outs in the seventh inning of an 8-5 Phillies win over Detroit on Sunday. He struck out a lefthanded hitter to escape.
Rodriguez said he always threw hard. The difference in 2016 was a higher strike rate.
"I was in the windup, and in the windup, sometimes I would try to throw it too hard," Rodriguez said. "But from the stretch, I have more command. The velocity is the same. My confidence to throw strikes is better."
When Rodriguez was demoted, coaches suggested he lower his arm slot. He was more over-the-top before. Rodriguez adapted well. A lower arm slot helped with not just deception but command.
"The thing I did last year was find my delivery and my confidence," Rodriguez said. "That's why the results came last year. That was great. So this year I'm going to keep doing what I was doing last year. Same thing with my confidence. Every time I get into the game, I want to get out of the inning quick."
If there is one area to have an organizational dearth, it is lefthanded relief. The only other lefty bullpen arm above low-A ball is Jeff Singer, a Philadelphia native who signed last summer out of independent ball, and Mario Hollands, who was not the same after Tommy John surgery. Hoby Milner, a lefty who found success with a sidearm delivery, was plucked in the Rule 5 draft by Cleveland. He has pitched well in Cactus League games, but he could return to the Phillies because the Indians have a stacked bullpen.
Rodriguez came to the Phillies in a trade engineered by former general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. that sent another lefty, Antonio Bastardo, to the Pirates. Until last year, Rodriguez was a starter in the majors. Lefties who throw hard can stick around baseball.
"Last year, I was mad because they took me off the 40-man roster," Rodriguez said. "But that didn't make me feel down. I just kept my head up and kept working. You never know what's going to happen later."