BORN Nov. 30, 1971 (Vega Baja, P.R.)

SIZE 5'9", 220 pounds

KEY STAT Closing in on 1,500 games behind the plate

A future Hall of Famer. A great defensive catcher-maybe the best ever-with 10 Gold Gloves. A .305 lifetime hitter. A former MVP. This guy, at the prime age of 30, reaches free agency, and what does he hear? Crickets. That's right: Pudge Rodriguez offered himself on the free agent market last fall and got no takers. Maybe it's the injuries. He's averaged just 103 games the last three seasons. Maybe it's the timing. This year's big spenders-the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Phillies-are happy with their catchers. Maybe it's the whispers. That he nods off during pitcher-catcher meetings, puts down four fingers for guys with three pitches, calls only for fastballs when speedsters are on base, cares more about hitting and throwing out runners than helping his pitcher get guys out. Whatever, Pudge is playing for the Marlins, on a one-year deal, in front of thousands of empty seats, looking to next fall and free agency-again.

1 THE BUZZ "Wrong place, wrong time," Pudge says when asked why there was no market for him this past winter. Jim Thome aside, he's got a point. The Rangers made it known early that they were cost-cutting and that Pudge, who once took a cut-rate deal to stay in Arlington, was a goner. Baltimore was supposed to be his no-brainer destination, but then the O's came up with one of those five-year plans currently sweeping the AL. How bad did it get? Rodriguez and his agent, Jeff Moorad, actually floated the idea of Pudge's going to Japan for a year. That's one way to avoid talking to your pitching staff.

2 THE GUN Rodriguez says his "fastball" has been clocked at 80-plus mph. That's from home to second, people. Marlins infielders took a few of Pudge's bullets off the heel of the glove this spring because, as Andy Fox says, "You just expect a low throw to the first base side of the bag to sink or tail because that's what human beings throw. His ball stays straight and ankle-high." Marlins starter Josh Beckett says Pudge threw out three guys and picked off two more duringhis spring training starts. "Runners on base barely faze me now," Beckett says. "I know Pudge can handle a team's running game all on his own."

3 THE NUMBERS Rodriguez has hit over .300 every year since 1994. He's had 19 or more bombs every year since 1995, including 27 in just 363 at-bats in 2000. He has more hits, runs and doubles than any other active catcher, and is second only to Mike Piazza in home runs. Oh, yeah, and he has those 10 Gold Gloves. Funny how things work on losing teams, though. This spring, some Rangers pitchers griped-off the record-that as Pudge became more offensive, he stopped caring about them. "That's sad," says Pudge. "My teams have needed me to be a run producer, and I'm not a defense-only catcher." Fact is, over the past two seasons, Rangers pitchers were lousy-5.46 ERA with Pudge, 5.39 without him-no matter who was behind the plate. Factor in the runners he took off the basepaths (50 CS in 99 attempts), and he looks like a pitcher's best friend. "Bottom line," says Pudge, "I'm a winning ballplayer, not a loser."

4 THE KNOCKS The injuries are something new. A herniated disc limited him to 108 games last year. In 2001, surgery on his left knee ended his season on Aug. 31. In 2000, a fractured right thumb shelved him in July. Prior to that, Pudge was DL-free for seven seasons. Rodriguez insists he's 100%, but manager Jeff Torborg says he's going to rest him regularly, just to be sure. And pitcher relations? Judging from all the shake-offs and step-offs the first few weeks, the Marlins battery isn't fully charged. "We know the fingers he puts down are only suggestions," says Beckett. "We have the right to disagree." Adds No. 2 starter Brad Penny, "He hits a bomb and throws a guy or two out for me, that's all I'll ask."

5 THE FUTURE When the Marlins lost out in the Bartolo Colon trade sweepstakes, Torborg figured his one chance to land a big player was gone. Then owner Jeffrey Loria told him they were making headway with Rodriguez. The manager's response: "You're joking, right?" But the Marlins suits knew that two years earlier, Rodriguez had built his dream palace, complete with a life-size bronze statue of himself, in Miami beach. They also knew that one year at $10M (all but $3M deferred) would allow Pudge to test the market again next winter. The no-trade clause gives him leverage if a contender comes calling, plus the peace of mind to concentrate on a monster walk year. "My best years are still to come," he says. "Someone's going to see that."