You know about Fernando Tatis Jr. of the San Diego Padres. You also know about Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays. And Wander Franco of the Tampa Bay Rays, who just turned 18 in March, is starting to garner the attention that he deserves.
Clearly, FanGraphs alumni have also been paying attention. Dave Cameron jumped on the Tatis gravy train in San Diego… while Carson Cistulli did the same in Toronto… and Jeff Sullivan skipped off to Tampa Bay. No doubt there is a FanGraphs writer about to head west to Seattle.
Why? Because of 18-year-old outfielder Julio Rodriguez, who happens to be the focus of this piece. And it’s not my first time talking about this budding star. In early March, during the Mariners 2018 season in review piece, I wrote:
The 2019 Lottery Ticket: Julio Rodriguez, OF: There are a few low-level minor league players that possess the ability to burst onto the scene like Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. have in recent years. Wander Franco in Tampa Bay is one and Rodriguez could be another, although he’s not quite as advanced with the bat at this point. He has immense power potential but he doesn’t sell out for home runs and focuses on hitting the ball hard and using the whole field. He has a patient approach but also has swing-and-miss to his game due to a lack of experience as opposed to any major mechanical flaws. Rodriguez reportedly has solid makeup and is a hard worker, all things that can help a prospect maximize their tools.
Well, the Mariners clearly agreed. They got a good, long look at Rodriguez in spring training and felt the outfielder — who turned 18 in December — was ready for full-season ball after just one pro season in the Dominican Summer League. Let that sink in for a minute. At this time last year, he was 17 and in another country playing baseball under a relentless sun. Despite his youth, the first-year pro posted a .929 OPS, hit five long-balls and even walked 30 times in 59 games. But there were also a lot of strikeouts – 40 to be exact.
So how is he doing this year? It’s early, but he’s showing real signs of continuing to adjust and grow as a player. In fairness, he also has the benefit of playing in a league that has really nice weather right now. While Rodriguez’s fellow phenom Wander Franco is slumming it in the Midwest League with snow and 35-50 F weather, the Mariners prospect has enjoyed temperatures in the 65-80 F range. For teenagers from the Dominican Republic, who have never had to play baseball in the cold, this is a big deal.
Rodriguez has gone hitless in his last two games as of the writing of this piece but he’s still hitting .355 with an OPS just shy of .900. He’s showing a little pop with three of his 11 hits going for extra bases. More importantly, he has a strong BB-K of 4-5, which is very promising as pitchers in the league currently have an advantage with the weather. The ability to handle the bat, manage the strike zone and make meaningful contact is what sets all these future stars apart from their peers.
I wanted to get my eyes on Rodriguez this season so I dropped in (by video) on the April 7 game between Seattle’s West Virginia affiliate and Boston’s Greenville club. The opposing starter, Chris Machamer, is not among Boston’s top prospects but he’s a 21-year-old hurler who played at the University of Kentucky and was selected in the 16th round of the 2018 amateur draft. The right-hander, who is transitioning from college closer to starter, has a low-to-mid-90s fastball, a decent changeup, and an above-average breaking ball.
Rodriguez came up with fellow prospect Jerred Kelenic (I won’t write about him today but I was impressed by what I saw) at first base. He took the first pitch away and then was late on a high fastball. Clearly seeing fastball, he swung through an off-speed offering that was up in the zone more than Machamer would have liked. Guerrero Jr. would have punished that pitch. Down 1-2 in the count, Rodriguez made an adjustment and this time took the high fastball for the 2-2 count. He then cut down his swing and took the next fastball – still up but this time at the top of the strike zone – for a well-struck, opposite-field single. Kelenic had a great read on the hit and went first-to-third with ease due to his speed. The approach at the plate by Rodriguez was exceptional.
In Rodriguez’s second at-bat, with none on and one out, Machamer again started him with a first-pitch breaking ball for a strike. The second offering was a fastball down and away, which Rodriguez flailed at and missed. His final swing of the at-bat came on a similar offering that he tried to pull. It resulted in a ground-out to shortstop. It was a good learning at-bat and showed his inexperience.
Facing a new pitcher in the sixth inning, Rodriguez again had a tough at-bat. The pitcher was 19-year-old lefty Oddanier Mosqueda, who has a funky, low-three-quarters delivery with a cross-body motion that makes it difficult for hitters to pick up the ball (but also difficult to consistently throw strikes). The first offering was a fastball off the plate and away but called a strike. The second pitch was a big, slow breaking ball down and in, which Rodriguez swung over. Mosqueda came back with the same pitch, although it was a little firmer and might have caught the bottom of the zone but it ended with the same result. Another learning experience.
The next at-bat came in the seventh inning, again with Mosqueda on the mound but clearly tiring. Rodriguez came up with runners on second and third with just one out. The first pitch was a high breaking ball that dropped in and caught the top of the strike zone but wasn’t an ideal pitch to offer at. The second offering was an outside fastball that the hitter was late on – it was deposited into the first-base seats for a foul ball. Rodriguez was down 0-2 and previous at-bats would suggest a breaking ball would be next. But the picture crossed me up but didn’t fool the Mariners’ prospect. A fastball on the inner half the plate was taken the other way and down the first base line past the diving first baseman for a double.
Rodriguez’s final at-bat came in the top of the ninth inning in this 10-inning game. Another southpaw, Logan Browning was on the mound. The 2018 24th rounder was in his third inning of work. For the first time, Rodriguez hacked at the first pitch and missed on a breaking ball down. The second pitch was inside and off the plate. The third pitch was yet another breaking ball but it caught too much of the plate and Rodriguez unloaded on the pitch and deposited it to the base of the center-field wall for a double.
In total, Rodriguez finished 3-for 5 with two doubles and a strikeout. It was a strong game for the teenager and highlights why fans should be excited. He showed an advanced, patient approach and only looked fooled on a couple of offerings. He showed the ability to recognize pitches, make adjustments and hit breaking balls with authority. He also showed that he can hit with two strikes and is willing to use the whole field. On the “temper your enthusiasm side,” he did not face top pitching in this game and I wasn’t able to see how he handled peak velocity.
If you’re currently playing in a dynasty league and not lucky enough to already own Tatis Jr., Guerrero Jr., or Franco, you may want to consider snagging Rodriguez before other fantasy managers start to take notice. He’s a long-term prospect stock investment but he may very well be worth the wait – and it probably won’t be all that long until you see him in The Show. Although he likely won’t have quite the helium that Guerrero Jr. and Tatis Jr. enjoyed.
Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.