Yariel Rodríguez spring training debut provides thrilling possibilities for Blue Jays

Feb 18, 2024; Dunedin, FL, USA;  Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Yariel Rodriguez (29) throws a pitch
Feb 18, 2024; Dunedin, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Yariel Rodriguez (29) throws a pitch / Dave Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

At last, Yariel Rodríguez has made his long-awaited spring training debut for the Toronto Blue Jays, and the results have sent levels of intrigue around the 27-year-old Cuban through the roof.

For the past few years, Rodríguez has been a sort of enigmatic figure in the baseball world, a name whispered by those in the know, never in the spotlight, but never out of sight. He began as a dominant starter in the Cuban National Series, before making his way to Japan and morphing into a lights-out reliever for the Chunichi Dragons, reaching the peak of his powers in 2022 when he pitched to a 1.15 ERA with 60 strikeouts across 54.2 innings. Unable to get out of his contract with the Dragons and take his talents to the big leagues, Rodríguez sat out the entirety of 2023, only briefly appearing to throw 7.1 innings of two-run ball with 10 strikeouts as Cuba’s ace at the World Baseball Classic.

When he finally became available this offseason, the righthander received heavy interest from numerous teams, before signing a four-year, $32M contract with the Blue Jays in February. Since that moment, anticipation has been slowly growing amongst Jays fans, but it reached a fever pitch after he took to the mound for the first time.

In the blazing Florida sunshine, Rodríguez displayed all the tools the Jays hoped they were getting – an electric fastball which sat consistently at 96, a heavy sinker which played in the low- to mid-90s, and a wipeout breaking ball which at times made hitters look silly.

But it was more than that. It was the presence Rodríguez brought to the mound, the way he strutted around, all intensity and swagger, the jewelry and tattoos, the aggressive way he attacked hitters, unafraid to let everyone know who was in charge.

It was also his craftiness. At times, he would double-pump his leg during his delivery, at others, he would slow his initial rocking motion, all while constantly changing the shape and speed of his pitches, challenging the timing of hitters married to mechanics.

All told, Rodríguez would go two innings in his debut, allowing one hit and one run – a solo homer to the second batter he faced – while striking out two on 36 pitches. Not a bad line for a guy who has worked seven innings in the past year. But it was the kind of debut where the box score was hardly relevant, when compared with the toolbox he showed he was working with.

The question now on everyone’s lips is what the Blue Jays might expect to get from Rodríguez in 2024, where he might fit in a potentially loaded pitching staff. Coming into Spring Training, the assumption was that he would probably fill a relief role, or perhaps be sent to Triple-A to be built up as a starter and wait for his opportunity with the big club. Yet, with Kevin Gausman and Alek Manoah nursing injuries, and super-prospect Ricky Tiedemann not exactly setting the world on fire, it suddenly seems possible that Rodríguez could break camp in a larger role than expected.

Interestingly, it was recently reported that the team plans to build him up to five innings by the end of spring training. Might this be because they envision him filling a starter’s role at the beginning of the season? And if so, can he build upon his debut and hit the ground running?

Of course, it has only been one appearance, and Rodríguez has a long way to go before taking the mound as a big league starter, let alone a successful one. But after his first appearance for the club, Jays fans have every reason to be extremely intrigued by the possibilities.

What are you expecting from Yariel Rodríguez this year? More importantly, how much more do you need to see before invoking the name of another electric righthander who dramatically appeared to push a contending Blue Jays team over the top (Juan Guzmán). Let me know on the platform formerly known as Twitter – @WriteFieldDeep.