Detroit Tigers bank on Rodriguez

Tuesday, February 3rd 2004, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

DETROIT (AP) _ The Tigers were tired of losing. So they went out and got a World Series winner _ who actually wanted to play in Detroit.

Ivan Rodriguez, the MVP of the NL championship series who helped the Florida Marlins win the World Series, finalized a $40 million, four-year deal with the Tigers on Monday.

``We needed to do something,'' Tigers owner Mike Ilitch said during a Monday news conference. ``We think Rodriguez can help us because we think he has a lot of baseball left in him. We really wanted him, and ultimately, he wanted to be here.''

Even though the Tigers have been talking with the 10-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove winner for weeks and were willing to pay him more than any team, some thought they wouldn't be able to lure him to Detroit.

The Tigers haven't had a winning record since 1993, and lost an American League-record 119 games last season. They were one loss short of baseball's post-1900 record for futility, set by the 1962 New York Mets.

But Rodriguez sounded like the most optimistic fan in Detroit on Monday.

``We're going to see this organization, this Detroit Tigers team, in the playoffs very soon,'' Rodriguez said.

While some players, such as former Tiger Juan Gonzalez, dislike hitting in spacious Comerica Park, Rodriguez looks forward to it.

``I'm not a power hitter,'' said Rodriguez, a .304 career hitter with 231 homers and 914 RBIs. ``I'm a gap hitter. This field is going to be very nice for me.''

There are millions of reasons for Rodriguez to say good things about the lowly Tigers and their ballpark.

He will be paid $7 million this year, $8 million in 2005 and $11 million each in 2006 and 2007, according to contract information obtained by The Associated Press. The Tigers have a $13 million option for 2008 with a $3 million buyout.

Rodriguez would get $50 million over five years if the option is exercised or $40 million over four if it's declined.

Detroit has protection against lower back injuries. If Rodriguez goes on the disabled list for five or more weeks, the Tigers would be able to end the contract after two or three seasons.

``It was a mutual risk,'' Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said of the deal.

Rodriguez was on the disabled list from June 6-27, 1992, because of a stress fracture in his back and a fractured thumb. He was on the DL from April 25-June 2, 2002, because of a herniated disk in his lower back, an injury that didn't require surgery.

``My back is in very good shape,'' Rodriguez said. ``Last year, I proved to everybody that I'm healthy.''

In 144 games last season, Rodriguez hit .297 with 16 home runs and 84 RBIs.

He played 108, 111 and 91 games from 2000-02 with the Rangers, after playing an average of 144 games the previous five season.

``I think I'm going to be fine,'' Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez had a $10 million, one-year deal with the Marlins last season. He asked for a $40 million, four-year contract from Florida, which broke off talks Dec. 7.

Rodriguez said the reported offer of $24 million over three years from the Marlins was inaccurate. Some of the money in that proposal wasn't guaranteed and much would have been deferred.

``If that offer was true, I would've probably taken that offer, but it was not that offer,'' he said.

As giddy as the Tigers were about their latest move, no one was ready to project Detroit's record this season.

``I'm just a little gun shy, to be honest, in terms of making predictions,'' manager Alan Trammell said. ``But I'm excited, I think you can tell that. When you look at our projected lineup from today and from a year ago, it's night and day. We should be significantly better, but to put a number on it, I can't do that.''

The Tigers have been active this offseason, but they hadn't signed an undisputed star such as Rodriguez.

Second baseman Fernando Vina and outfielder Rondell White agreed to $6 million, two-year deals in December, and starting pitcher Jason Johnson agreed to a $7 million, two-year contract later that month. Detroit also traded for Seattle shortstop Carlos Guillen.

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