By Larry Stone | Seattle Times staff reporter
The agent for Cuban defector Maels Rodriguez, a 24-year-old right-hander whose pitches have been clocked at more than 100 mph, says the Mariners “are definitely in the top three or four organizations he wants to be a part of.”
Rodriguez, who was declared a free agent last week by Major League Baseball, will hold a workout next Thursday at Bengoa Stadium in San Salvador, El Salvador.
His agent, Henry Vilar, said yesterday that about 18 teams have confirmed their attendance at the workout, including the Mariners, who will send senior advisor Bob Engle.
“The Mariners have shown great interest in wanting to be involved, and Maels has interest in Seattle,” Vilar said from San Salvador. “They’ve done their homework and followed Maels quite some time in international play.
“It’s a beautiful team, great organization. I’m telling you, he’s been very
impressed with the Seattle organization and everything that’s been presented to him so far.”
The Mariners made a run last winter at Cuban defector Jose Contreras, but bowed out when the bidding accelerated. Contreras eventually signed a four-year, $32 million contract with the New York Yankees.
Vilar, who is from Coral Gables, Fla., was quoted in the New York Times in December as saying that Contreras’ contract was “a good starting point” for negotiations and that “we’re going to expect that amount of dollars or more.”
Now he’s backing off those comments.
“We’ll just have to wait and see,” Vilar said. “Sometimes, these teams get crazy. Hopefully, his performance will make them crazy. Right now, it’s tough to know where this will go.”
Engle made what Vilar termed “a courtesy call” on Rodriguez in San Salvador about three weeks ago to meet him in person. Engle has seen Rodriguez pitch several times for Cuba in international tournaments, including the 2000 Olympics, but no scout has seen Rodriguez since August 2002 in Monterrey, Mexico.
Rodriguez contemplated defecting at that time, but according to Vilar, his family in Cuba talked him out of it via phone calls. Vilar said those calls were taped, leading Cuban officials to “sanction him any way they could.”
That alleged smear campaign included suspending Rodriguez from the Cuban national team and starting rumors that he was hurt. One key aspect of this workout will be to disprove whispers that Rodriguez has lost as much as 15 mph from his fastball and has a herniated disk.
“He’s 100 percent healthy,” Vilar said. “He’s been working very hard and tells me he’s in the best shape of his entire career.”
Rodriguez defected in October, along with Yobal Duenas, a 31-year-old second baseman who will also be part of Thursday’s workout. Also defecting with Rodriguez on a fishing boat that landed in Mexico were his fiancee, best friend and brother.
Though Rodriguez left behind his father and grandfather, Vilar said he believes that having such a close-knit group with him will make for a much easier transition than the one by Contreras, who left his entire family behind in Cuba and struggled at times last season.
Rodriguez will be on an accelerated timetable, with negotiations beginning promptly after the workout.
“We think we’ll have interest from a lot of teams, including the Mariners, to get this done right away,” Vilar said.