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In January 1999 the Astros handed the boy now known as Eny Cabreja a $5,000 signing bonus. He gave $500 to Coronado, $500 to his uncle, took $500 for himself to buy new clothes, and gave the rest to his family to buy cattle. "Eny" moved slowly through Houston's system: He spent two years with the Astros' Dominican Summer League team, then moved to the rookie-level Appalachian League in 2001. He showed promise, going 4--3 with a 1.58 ERA and more than three times as many strikeouts as walks that first year in the States, but was still just a middling prospect.
Then, in the winter before the 2002 season, Rodriguez had to face the truth. Before the start of spring training the real Eny Cabreja told Rodriguez that he had obtained a cédula, an official identification card of the Dominican Republic. Rodriguez would therefore be unable to pass himself off as Cabreja when he applied for a U.S. work visa before spring training. After four years of lying, the ruse was up.
Rodriguez was so ashamed, so frightened of the consequences, that he sent his uncle and aunt to tell Aponte who he really was. "Wandy was hiding in a car in the parking lot," says Aponte. "I walked over there and said, 'It's going to be O.K. Just work hard and win back the confidence of the organization. We're not going to send you home.' He was a different person after that. His confidence grew. He was happy. Finally Wandy Rodriguez could exist."
As a prospect Wandy Rodriguez was a no-name. Going into the 2005 season he was a 26-year-old who had never pitched above Double A, so far under the radar that he wasn't among the 900 prospects listed in Baseball America's annual prospectus of minor leaguers. Minor league expert John Sickels didn't include Rodriguez in his guide of more than 900 prospects that year, either—and Sickels had even seen him pitch in person a year earlier. "His fastball was mediocre," says Sickels, who runs the website minorleagueball.com. "His command just wasn't there. His strikeout rate was going down. His performance at Double A wasn't great. He was giving up more than a hit per inning."
But there was something there: Rodriguez could throw a nasty curveball. "The first time I saw him [in 2001], he wasn't throwing it for strikes," says former Astros general manager Tim Purpura. "But even then you saw he got a tremendous downward plane on it. You thought, with that pitch, this kid's got a chance."
The Astros gave him a shot in May 2005, calling him to the majors after just eight starts at Triple A Round Rock. Rodriguez won 10 games as a rookie, and by 2007 that curve had helped him earn a full-time spot in Houston's rotation. For two years his performance was nondescript, but last year Rodriguez was able to dominate because "he was hitting with his strike-one fastball, down and away," says Dewey Robinson, the Astros' pitching coach in 2008 and '09. "Hitters have so much trouble squaring up on the curve, he could do anything after [that first strike]—throw the curve for a strike, bounce one in."
According to the website Fangraphs, Rodriguez's wasn't simply the most effective curveball in baseball last year—it was one of the top 10 pitches, in the same class as Justin Verlander's four-seam fastball, Chris Carpenter's two-seamer and Tim Lincecum's changeup. Last year Rodriguez threw curves a major-league-high 36.8% of the time and generated outs on 23.9% of them. Only six other pitchers had a pitch that delivered a higher percentage of outs. Rodriguez even saw his velocity increase, sometimes touching the mid 90s. "Wandy gets a lot of his power from his legs," says Robinson. "A big thing for him is that over the last few years, he's really built up his strength in his lower half."
"He throws harder at 31 than he did at 21," says Sickels. "He's a model example of how someone with a very unimpressive minor league track record can still develop into a very interesting pitcher. His development curve has been unlikely, to say the least."
Rodriguez is also one of the few pitchers to handle Albert Pujols, who has just five hits (and no RBIs) in 31 at bats against him. "People are finally noticing what I've been saying," says Astros righthander Roy Oswalt. "Wandy has the best curveball in baseball."
The Astros are counting on another big season from Rodriguez, especially with Oswalt, Houston's 32-year-old longtime ace, fighting a nagging hamstring injury in spring training and coming off the worst season of his career. Rodriguez is only 17 months younger than Oswalt, and yet their careers seem headed in different directions. "What we saw from Wandy last year wasn't a blip but the beginning of something," says G.M. Ed Wade. "He's going to be a frontline pitcher here for years to come."