Mike Rojas never touched major league turf as a player, but his legacy is steeped in professional baseball. Rojas' father, Octavio "Cookie" Rojas, split a 16-year career among the Reds, Phillies, Cardinals, and Royals, and currently holds a chair as a television analyst for the Marlins. Mike's brother, Victor Rojas, spent just 23 games with the rookie level Arizona League Angels in 1990, and runs play-by-play commentary for the major league Angels today. Even Mike's son, Mike Jr., is working his way to pro ball as a catcher for Chipola College.
Like his brother, Mike's start in professional baseball was equally humble. He debuted with the rookie level Idaho Falls A's in 1983, distributing his starts at first base, second base, and backstop for 28 games. He finished the season with a .163 average, two home runs, and four RBI. Only two of his teammates -- first baseman Rob Nelson and outfielder Steve Howard -- went on to major league careers, albeit very brief ones.
The following year, Rojas switched to backstop full-time with his new squad, the rookie level Gulf Coast League Blue Jays. In 56 games, he halved his home run record from 1983, but added 20 RBI and a .220 average to his repertoire. When the Blue Jays' season ended in fourth place with a 29-34 record, so did Rojas' pro ball career. He surfaced again three years later as an assistant coach for the athletic department of St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Florida, a position he held for five seasons until another pro ball slot opened up in the Chicago White Sox' system.
In 1992, the White Sox hired Rojas to manage their rookie-level Gulf Coast League roster, which he steered to a 30-29 record and fourth place in the West Division. Rojas stayed on with the White Sox through 1995, graduating from rookie-level ball to manage the Single-A Hickory Crawdads in his last year with the club. He crafted back-to-back losing seasons from 1994-95, first with the GCL White Sox, then with the Crawdads.
Fortunately for Rojas, his string of bad luck was about to run out. After a one-year hiatus from pro ball, he returned to manage the Astros' short-season Single-A Auburn Doubledays, then landed a gig with the Single-A Quad Cities River Bandits. The River Bandits, featuring future big-leaguers Aaron Miles and Johan Santana, marched to a 77-62 finish and their third playoff berth in four seasons. Rojas rounded out the decade with two seasons in the Cincinnati Reds' system, managing both their Single-A Rockford Reds and their Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts, the same club that was previously hitched to the Mariners' wagon in the mid-80s.
After another three seasons out of the game, Rojas began his longest and most fruitful relationship with a major league team. He joined the Detroit Tigers' short-season Single-A Oneonta Tigers in 2004, then transitioned to a two-year stint with the High-A Lakeland Tigers, during which the Tigers made one ultimately unsuccessful run at the playoffs in 2005. Baseball America named the 42-year-old both the Florida State Manager of the Year and the Best Managerial Candidate following the postseason. Rojas' final managerial stint came in 2007 when he received the opportunity to head the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens, who placed first in the West Division with a 82-61 record and lost to the Rays' Durham Bulls in the semifinals.
In 2008, Rojas' career turned away from managing when he was promoted to Minor League Field Coordinator and Catching Instructor within the Tigers' farm system. After three years overseeing player development at the minor league level, Rojas was called up to the majors in July 2011 when Jeff Jones vacated his position as Tigers' bullpen coach. It was here that Rojas met Lloyd McClendon, then-hitting coach of the Tigers. Rojas inherited a bullpen that performed just slightly better than average, valued fifth-best in the American League with 3.0 fWAR and seventh-best with a 3.98 FIP.
Two more years of bullpen management did little to improve the Tigers' standing. In 2012, they carried 4.2 fWAR, nearly three full wins below the league-leading Kansas City Royals, at 6.9 fWAR. The following season, the Tigers improved only marginally. Their 'pen was the sixth-most valuable in the AL, worth 4.0 fWAR and toting a 4.01 team ERA and 3.61 FIP.
Despite the mediocre production level from Detroit's arsenal of relievers, Rojas' name was tossed around when longtime manager Jim Leyland relinquished his position. While a step up to major league manager would've fit nicely for the minor league veteran, Rojas' future held changes of a different nature. In the interim between the 2013 and 2014 season, Rojas' contract expired and was not renewed by the club. Instead, he followed Lloyd McClendon from Detroit to Seattle, succeeding Mariners' bullpen coach Jaime Navarro and taking a new flock of relievers under his wing.
The Detroit 'pen may not have responded as well as expected to Rojas' tutelage, but the 2014 Mariners flourished under new management. In 2014, they were valued at 4.5 fWAR and led all MLB bullpens with a 2.60 ERA and 3.32 xFIP. The statistical output of the bullpen only cemented the bond they developed during games -- as the Seattle Times' Ryan Divish observed during last year's wild card chase, the eight relievers often engaged each other in lighthearted banter and special chants to motivate their teammates at the plate.
"I love it all," Rojas told the Times. "It's unity. They're a tight-knit group of guys that aren't afraid of failure but are succeeding. They pick each other up."
Right-hander Danny Farquhar, the designated "chatterbox" of the group and, according to Tom Wilhelmsen, the 'pen's personal Wikipedia, was less than convinced.
"He probably thinks we're idiots," he said of Rojas.
Idiots or not, however, the results on the field are undeniable. With Rojas in the 'pen and McClendon in the dugout, more good times are sure to follow.
A few more things about Mike Rojas...
- Among the best and brightest of Rojas' charges in the Tigers' system: Justin Verlander, Omar Infante, former Mariners Jose Mesa and Casper Wells, and current Mariners closer Fernando Rodney.
- Like Rojas, Lloyd McClendon also started off his coaching career in the Tigers' organization as a bullpen coach.
- Rojas shares his jersey number 48 with 14 former Mariners, including right-handers Paul Abbott, Roy Corcoran, and Ian Snell and left-hander Travis Blackley. J.A. Happ also wore #48 during his three-year stint with the Blue Jays.