ORACLE PARK — Giants closer Will Smith walked up to Dereck Rodriguez in the Oracle Park home locker room Saturday, and gave the second-year right-hander a bro hug.
“Keep doing your thing, buddy,” he said.
“I’ll be back soon,” Rodriguez replied. It was one of a multitude of warm farewells he received, the longest being a deep embrace from Pablo Sandoval, during which the latter offered words of encouragement.
Rodriguez, who had struggled with his command this season, was optioned to Triple-A Sacramento on Saturday in one of a flurry of moves by the Giants, which included claiming outfielder Aaron Altherr off waivers. With Buster Posey (concussion) and Drew Pomeranz (strained lat) set to return in the coming days, there will be more change on the horizon for a San Francisco team that’s been in flux during a season spent rebuilding on the fly.
That Rodriguez was sent down is not entirely unexpected. Though he was a mainstay of the rotation — and in consideration for Rookie of the Year honors — last season, his walk rate had skyrocketed this season, from 2.74 per nine innings to 3.73. He’d walked 12 men in his last three outings, spanning 13 innings.
Rodriguez had said that something was not quite right with his command following his road starts in Cincinnati and against the New York Yankees, but he felt like he was making progress as of Friday’s start against the Reds (none of the four runs he allowed was earned, and none of his walks scored).
“I still feel like my command’s a little bit off like I was saying the past two outings,” Rodriguez said on Friday. “We’ll get there.”
After a season where he allowed 0.68 home runs per nine innings with a 2.81 ERA, a 3.74 FIP, an 18.3% strikeout rate and a 39.4% hard-hit percentage, Rodriguez took steps back in all of those categories. He allowed 1.98 home runs per nine innings, posted a 5.05 ERA and a 5.93 FIP, saw his K rate drop to 15.4% and his hard-hit percentage jump to 46.3%.
“He’s going to go down to try and polish some things up, try to get that good command that he normally has, that he had last year,” said manager Bruce Bochy. “All his pitches, we think the breaking ball was a lot better yesterday … We all hit bumps in the road, and this is all this is for him. He’ll be back up here. He just needs to sharpen it up a little bit with the command, and he says that’s fair to say.”
Among the moves the Giants announced on Saturday was the acquisition of Aaron Altherr. The speedy outfielder, claimed off waivers from the Philadelphia Phillies, probably won’t get to San Francisco until Tuesday, and will take some time to get acclimated before the Giants throw him into the outfield mix.
Altherr has played in 22 games so far for the Phillies, but hasn’t played since May 3. Since April 23, he’s had just six plate appearances. He’s 1-for-29 this season, but Kevin Pillar was 1-for-16 before being acquired from Toronto, and has proven to be an important piece thus far, driving in 20 runs in 33 games. The acquisition of Altherr won’t displace Mac Williamson — Altherr will be a fourth outfielder — but it does make San Francisco incrementally better after waiving Yangervis Solarte and Gerardo Parra.
“Good athlete that became available,” Bochy said. “He’s a kid with some good skills, a high ceiling … He’s had some struggles, but you like what’s in there … He hasn’t played in a while, so we’ve got to give him a little bit of time and some batting practice.”
While Altherr has struggled this season, in 412 plate appearnces in 2017, he hit .272 with eight home 19 home runs and 65 RBIs, and is someong the Giants have had their eye on for quite some time. He can play all three outfield spots, but would likely stay more in the corners, Bochy said.
Altherr’s acquisition comes on the same day that San Francisco re-activated catcher Erik Kratz from the injured list. For now, the Giants have three active catchers. Buster Posey woke up Saturday morning feeling the best he has since sustaining a concussion on a foul ball on Sunday, and played catch on both Friday and Saturday.
“It looks like he’s getting over the hump, knock on wood that continues,” Bochy said.
When he returns, San Francisco will be faced with a glut of catchers, which means someone has to go, especially with the eventual return of Pomeranz (who threw on Saturday, and is on track to return soon) and the addition of Altherr.
While it’s possible that Kratz winds up being the odd man out — Stephen Vogt is more versatile, able to play first and left field — it’s also possible that the Giants would option catcher Aramis Garcia. To get Pomeranz, Posey and Altherr on the active roster, both could happen, with another move. Tyler Beede, Reyes Moronta and Joe Panik can also be optioned, but Beede is the mostly likely candidate since Rodriguez has already been sent down.
Beede may very well pitch in Rodriguez’s spot on Wednesday (Pomeranz won’t be available to come off the IL by that time), though Bochy won’t reveal the rotation for the short two-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays until after Saturday’s game.
Brandon Belt had an MRI on Saturday to take a look at his inflamed right knee, and it showed no structural damage, as Belt figured. He made his case to play Saturday, if the Giants needed him, but Bochy felt it was best to limit him to a pinch hitting role.
“He could play tomorrow, but we’ll see how he’s doing,” Bochy said. In his place, Sandoval — on his bobblehead day — gets the start at first.