The sides on Friday finalized a one-year Major League contract that returns the veteran reliever known as K-Rod to Milwaukee, where he has pitched parts of the past three seasons as an effective setup man to closers John Axford and Jim Henderson. The Brewers did not announce terms of the deal, per club policy, but a baseball source said Rodriguez would earn a $3.25 million base salary, with $550,000 more available in incentives.
To make room on their full 40-man roster, the Brewers designated right-hander Donovan Hand for assignment.
Rodriguez, who turned 32 last month, originally came to the Brewers from the Mets via trade on the night of the 2011 All-Star Game and pitched in a setup role to Axford for the rest of that year, helping the Brewers surge to their most successful season in a generation. Rodriguez accepted an arbitration offer and returned for 2012, then re-signed with Milwaukee on a Minor League contract in April 2013 when he was still looking for work.
The Brewers promoted Rodriguez back to the big leagues in May, and he found success before being traded again, this time to the Orioles in July for third-base prospect Nicky Delmonico.
In 134 appearances with the Brewers, Rodriguez has amassed a 3.15 ERA and 131 strikeouts in 125 2/3 innings. He has logged only 13 saves with the Brewers, but one of them was the 300th of his career, a milestone he had long waited to reach.
"Henderson is still our closer, but it gives us depth to have another guy," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said. "Today's game, we don't get complete games from starting pitchers. You always need bullpen. We always try to put our sights at [winning] 90 games, and you can't just have one guy [closing] if you want to do that.
"He's done it for us before. He's a competitor. He has a bad game, he forgets about it and goes back out the next day. He's been good with our younger guys. And the other part is he likes Milwaukee. He wants to play here."
Rodriguez becomes the most senior member of what had looked like an inexperienced bullpen. Among the relievers currently on the 40-man roster, the only player with extensive Major League experience is left-hander Tom Gorzelanny, a veteran of 236 games over parts of nine big league seasons who is already at Maryvale Baseball Park in Phoenix and is rehabbing from a minor offseason shoulder injury. He is expected to be healthy by Opening Day or soon thereafter.
The Brewers' closer, Henderson, is also 31, but he has just over one year of Major League service. Setup man Brandon Kintzler is 29, but he is shy of three years of service and is entering his final pre-arbitration season. Left-hander Will Smith, acquired from the Royals this winter, has 155 days of service, or just short of one year.
"We don't have the experience we've had in the past," Melvin said before the Rodriguez news. "But you look at experience, and you also have to look at performance. Experience doesn't guarantee performance."
Assuming Henderson, Kintzler, Rodriguez, Smith and Gorzelanny are mainstays of the bullpen, two openings would remain for a group of even greener pitchers. Right-handers Michael Blazek, Hiram Burgos and Rob Wooten all have less than one year of big league service time. Rule 5 Draft pick Wei-Chung Wang, a left-hander plucked from the Pirates, has never appeared in the Majors and worked in the rookie Gulf Coast League last season as part of a comeback from Tommy John surgery. Alfredo Figaro, who appeared in 33 games for the Brewers last year, has a little over a year of service time. Mike Fiers has one year and 16 days of service but is coming off a season lost to injury and personal heartbreak.
Melvin would not commit this week to whether 25-year-old Tyler Thornburg, he of 146 days of big league service time, would be a bullpen option if the Brewers' five projected starting pitchers get through Spring Training in good health. Thornburg will report to camp and prepare to start, Melvin said.
There is one more veteran reliever available to the Brewers. Left-hander Zach Duke, a former All-Star starter for the Pirates, will be in Brewers camp on a Minor League deal and is competing for a bullpen job.
"I have some confidence in what we have out there," Melvin said. "I know we have a lot more arms than we have had in the past, and a lot more flexibility to do things with those guys."
By flexibility, he means Minor League options.
Many of the Brewers' relievers are coming off successful seasons. Henderson was 28-for-32 in save chances, the same bottom-line result as lights-out Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen. Kintzler tied for fourth in the National League with 26 holds, even though he didn't assume a setup role until the second half of the season. Smith held opponents to a .170 average in 18 relief stints for the Royals.
"The one concern I have is that starting pitchers don't throw complete games anymore, and your concern is the depth of your bullpen over the course of a year," Melvin said.