Everything is coming together for Rodriguez this season
The Low-A Lake County Captains are on the verge of making the playoffs.
The Captains roster has been in flux all season and features a good mix of legit high upside prospects along with some solid veteran role player types, but one player who has been there all season and might be the team MVP is first baseman Nellie Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, 20, has rebounded from a tough first half when he hit just .221 with 8 HR, 25 RBI and .694 OPS in 65 games and led the Captains charge in the second half hitting .306 with 12 HR, 56 RBI and .934 OPS in 60 games. The hot second half has brought his season totals to a .263 average with 20 HR, 81 RBI and .812 OPS in 125 games.
Rodriguez is finally showing what all the hub bub was about him as a prospect when he impressed a year ago in spring training and the Indians were aggressive in placing him in Lake County to start last season. He struggled in that initial push hitting just .197 with one home run, 13 RBI and .561 OPS in 47 games with Lake County last year before he was shuttled off to Arizona at the end of May and never returned.
But it was in Arizona last year where Rodriguez had a chance to catch his breath, relax, and make a few adjustments which got him back to the approach and production he showed during spring training just a few months earlier. After a few weeks in Arizona he was assigned to short season Single-A Mahoning Valley and spent the entirety of the rest of the season there and impressed with his performance hitting .287 with 9 HR, 37 RBI and .818 OPS in 73 games.
“I felt pretty good and felt more like a leader than I was in Lake County,” Rodriguez said earlier this season about his time in Mahoning Valley last year. “I just tried to work every day on things I need to work on and get better at.”
It was that work in Arizona and then things coming together last year at Mahoning Valley which paved the way for his successful 2014 campaign.
“My mentality just changed after they sent me down,” Rodriguez noted. “You have to struggle to succeed in life or anything you do. That helped me out to send me down. I wasn’t happy, but I knew it was beneficial for me to go down as I would have been frustrated the whole year at Lake County. So I just tried to stay positive and focused and tried to start fresh at Mahoning Valley and just had a good year there.”
With all of the work he has put in with his strength and conditioning as well as improvements with his bat and defense, Rodriguez has had a much better showing at Lake County this season. He spent two months in the Indians strength and conditioning program out in Arizona over the December and January months and feels like it helped get him in much better shape after turning some of his body fat into muscle.
“I have improved a lot with my defense and improved on my hitting just trying to slow down the aspects of my hitting approach,” Rodriguez said. “Defensive-wise I am getting better and I am just trying to stay focused and have a good year.”
After enduring the early season struggles he did with the Captains last season, Rodriguez has been better prepared to handle the pitching at the Low-A level this season.
“[I learned to not] put too much pressure on myself if things don’t start off on quite on the right foot like I want them to,” Rodriguez said. “It is not the way you start, it is the way you finish. I just [tried to] improve every month of the season and try to stay focused and not put too much pressure on myself if I go into a slump. I know I can break out of it if I keep on working.”
Rodriguez was born in New York, grew up there, and attended George Washington High School in New York City. Some may recall that the Indians drafted a prolific hitter by the name of Manny Ramirez out of the same high school a little of 20 years ago. It is a good baseball program that has been run by head coach Steve Mandl - this season is his 30th as the skipper of the team. He has coached Ramirez, Rodriguez and many other players that have gone into professional baseball.
“It is a great program and every year it gets better,” Rodriguez said. “Just knowing that Manny came out of there a lot of players like to go there and it has the same coach as when Manny was there.”
It was right around the time of his freshman year that Rodriguez began to believe that he could play professionally one day. He had a significant growth spurt in the summer of his eighth grade year where he came into high school as big or bigger than most seniors.
“Going into my freshman year I knew I had a chance of being drafted if I worked my butt off,” Rodriguez said. “I just tried to improve every year in high school and everything worked out my senior year, thank God.”
Rodriguez only played catcher and did not pitch or play any other positions, and his sophomore year he started attending showcases throughout the country to get his name out there. He did just that in 2011 when he won the Perfect Game home run contest at Petco Park in San Diego.
“I started traveling in the summer of my sophomore year to go to showcases and make a name for myself,” Rodriguez said. “Every year I had a good summer so my name was out there.”
Rodriguez has certainly made a name for himself as one of the Indians’ better prospects. His power is his best tool, but he shows some ability with the bat and a developing approach (11.2% walk rate). He is also showing some steady improvement with his defense at first base, a position he is new to after being moved there during the fall of 2012.
“I am just trying to work on every little thing in my defense to get better,” Rodriguez said. “My first year in rookie ball the transition was tough because I could not get a read on pop ups well because it has a different spin on it than a fly ball to the catcher. I worked on it all offseason and in spring training last year and I got better. Now everything is coming together naturally.”
Indeed, everything has come together for him this season.
Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.
Rodriguez .263/.347/.466 /.812 (52 extra base hits)
Frazier .268/.354/.413/.767 (35 extra base hits)