Some of Fernando Rodney's new Rays teammates call him Kimbo Slice, a nod to the reliever's resemblance to the famous mixed martial arts star.
But though Rodney, 34, likes MMA, and is a picture of intensity on the mound, his disposition has been a lot lighter than a fighter's in his first spring training with Tampa Bay. He has danced a little in the clubhouse and chuckled with teammates, his cap slanted to the side, before taking the mound for a pickoff drill.
"It's like Little League in here," Rodney says, smiling.
The Rays are hoping a change of scenery will help Rodney return to form as one of the league's best late-inning relievers.
Rodney, who saved 37 games for Detroit in 2009 and is scheduled to appear against the Tigers today in Port Charlotte, is coming off a disappointing stint with the Angels after signing a two-year, $11 million deal. He lost the closer's role early last season, hurt his back and was barely used down the stretch. He was so angry, he reportedly asked for a trade.
But Rodney has been happy so far with the Rays, with a locker next to good friend Joel Peralta and a more defined role as one of the setup men to closer Kyle Farnsworth. It's why he signed a one-year, $2 million deal in the offseason.
"I feel good physically, mentally," he said. " … They told me my role is going to be at the end of the game. My role last year, I didn't have a role, didn't know when I was going into the game. When you're in that situation … it's hard."
Rodney, a right-hander, still throws in the upper 90s and boasts "premium stuff," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. His changeup is still as good as it was in his Tigers years, catcher Chris Giminez said.
"His changeup is something silly — I mean, it's the epitome of pulling the string," Gimenez said. "He's pretty consistent around the zone, getting a lot of swing and misses. That's what he needs to do."
Rodney posted a 4.50 ERA in 32 innings last season, his fewest since 2003. He missed six weeks due to a back injury, appearing in 14 games after May.
Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said part of the issue was that Rodney wasn't in the strike zone enough with his fastball, but that's one of the more readily correctable things. Hickey also believes the culture of the clubhouse and team-first attitude can work in their favor.
"I've been extremely impressed with his physical conditioning, his willingness to do whatever it is that we're doing," Hickey said. "A lot of times, when guys are more veteran and have had some success, they tend to have their own program, and he's basically on the same program that everybody is on, and that's because he wants to. He fits in real well."
Said manager Joe Maddon: "He's going to be huge in our bullpen."
Left-hander J.P. Howell has been impressed with how Rodney has carried himself during camp.
"He's absolutely nasty," Howell said. "He's the most raw (34)-year-old ever. He still has that young spring in his ball, that you usually see from a young guy who hasn't had a lot of innings. I hope I have that someday. It's amazing."
Said Friedman: "He only knows one gear. In live BP he's throwing 98 (mph)."
Peralta has known Rodney since winter ball in 2004 and is often at his side during camp. He said his friend is comfortable in his new surroundings, ready to rebound. Rodney knows Farnsworth will be the closer, but he can fill in, too, when needed, and he likes the bullpen group around him.
"We have a good mix," Rodney said. "I think we can do some damage."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.