Indians Strike Gold With Rodriguez
The Indians had four second round picks in the 2006 Draft, and with one of them took a gamble on shortstop Josh Rodriguez from Rice.
The gamble was not on Rodriguez's talent as going into the season he was one of the top rated shortstops in college. The gamble was on his health, and so far, the gamble seems to have paid off.
Rodriguez just finished his first full-season of professional ball at advanced Single-A Kinston, and after a slow start finished strong to end the year hitting .262 with 20 HR, 82 RBI, 21 stolen bases and an .811 OPS. He racked up two Carolina League Player of the Week honors (8/13 and 9/4) and also was named a Carolina League Post-Season All-Star. With his first full season in the books, Rodriguez is satisfied with what he was able to accomplish this year, but knows there is still a need for much improvement.
"Yeah, the first full year I knew I would have some ups and downs as everyone goes through it," said Rodriguez. "But, I just kept working and working. For awhile there it looked like it was not going to be a good one, but I was able to turn it around and made it a decent season. It is definitely the beauty of a long season especially getting to play everyday and working on things and getting to use them in the game."
The reason why Rodriguez became such a gamble as a second round draft pick is because he was a first round talent who slipped in the draft because of a serious elbow injury. Rodriguez sustained the injury after his sophomore season at Rice University while playing fall ball.
"It was my elbow," said Rodriguez. "I strained a tendon in there pretty bad. I didn't tear anything, I just strained it to where I had to let it rest for a long time. It happened during fall ball, so I sat out for two months. I came back, and started playing at the start of the season and the second week into it playing on a cold day I guess my arm just wasn't warmed up enough and I made a relay throw to home and I felt the same thing that happened the first time, so I had to sit out for seven weeks again to give it some rest and the whole time I just DHed."
Any injury to a high profile draft pick can result in a significant drop in your standing going into the draft. After coming back from the first injury in the fall, and then re-injuring the elbow again early in the spring, Rodriguez slipped as legitimate first round pick to where he was projected as a second to fifth round draft pick. Rodriguez knew this when the injury re-occurred, and tried to find a way to get in there and play to at least hit and keep his draft stock up.
"It was a little disappointing at first, because I had to sit out for two months the first time," said Rodriguez. "This time I didn't know how long I would have to sit out. The first time I couldn't even swing a bat, that's how bad it hurt. The second time around I was still able to swing the bat, which allowed me to DH and help contribute to the team. I came back after seven weeks, and when I came back I played my first two games at first [base] just so I did not have to make too many throws. It allowed another week for my arm to rest, and then they decided to put me at third [base] so I did not have to make anymore long relay throws and possibly re-injure it because it was my draft year."
After playing a season in Single-A Mahoning Valley last year, and now a full season in advanced Single-A Kinston in the books this year, it looks like Rodriguez's health issues are behind him. Since being drafted, he has not been sidelined with any elbow issues, and now 100% healthy he is living up to the first round draft hype he had before the injury.
"Ever since then I have not had any problems with my elbow," said Rodriguez. "The whole time I have been strengthening it and working it out. I have yet to have problems with it, and if anything my shoulder will start to get tired and that is about it. So it's 100%."
Almost like his elbow, Rodriguez seemed to get stronger at the plate as the season wore on this year. He hit only .233 with 6 HR, 35 RBI and a .728 OPS the first half of the season, but bounced back the second half hitting .287 with 14 HR, 47 RBI and an .886 OPS. Rodriguez credits the strong finish to a lot of minor adjustments he worked on with Kinston Hitting Coach John Nunnally finally paying off.
"There were no big adjustments, they were pretty minor," said Rodriguez. "It was just me getting loaded earlier so I could see the ball a little bit better out of the pitcher's hands because that was my problem I was not getting loaded early enough. Loosening my hands as they were getting real tight, and it did not allow me to react fast enough. One of my main problems was staying closed and staying on the ball and staying squared to the plate. Me and Nunnally have been working on that for pretty much the whole season, and the whole month of June when I was struggling. I started to come around in early July and towards the end of July and early August that's when it finally clicked and I caught a second wind there. A nice surge."
A nice surge indeed. Rodriguez is known as a streaky hitter, and he showed how he can carry an offense on his back during a five-game stretch of games in early August when he hit five home runs and had 17 RBI. What he did in those five games is what a lot of players are happy to do for an entire month. Overall in August, he ended up hitting .299 with 10 HR, 29 RBI, and a 1.040 OPS.
"It was just making sure he keeps his head down and stays down on the ball," said Nunnally in regard to some of the adjustments he worked on with Rodriguez at the plate. "Making sure he stays closed, real loose and relaxed with his hands. There were a lot of things that were kind of going wrong with him. He'd pull off the ball, open up to soon, so we just had to get him back over the ball to where he was driving the ball back up the middle and the other way. All of a sudden it just took off. I got him working from the top of the ball down instead of from the bottom of the ball up. He started grasping it and he really got it going."
Rodriguez is not a big kid, as he is only 6'0" and 175 pounds, but he has above average bat speed and is an extra base hit machine. Not only did he hit 20 home runs, but he also piled up 20 doubles and nine triples. The nine triples tied a franchise record and were second in the league. If you add in the 21 stolen bases, you can see why he is much adored as an offensive player because he is a player who can stuff a stat sheet.
Still, the power he showed this year has been a pleasant surprise. He only hit 11 home runs in each of his last two seasons at Rice, and in 190 career college games only hit 24 home runs. Rodriguez maintains that he doesn't go up there swinging for the fences, but knows that he has the power to hit the ball out of any park if he squares up with a ball.
"I try not to be ... I mean, I have potential [to be a power hitter]," said Rodriguez. "I have the power where when I do connect with one to get it out of the ballpark, but I try to stay away from trying to hit home runs. I see myself more as a gap to gap hitter. But like I said, if I make a good swing on a mistake, I have the potential to hit it out of the ballpark."
A good starting point for a lot of players right out of college is short-season Single-A. This is where a lot of players get their feet wet for 50-60 games before jumping into their first full season the following season. After being drafted and signing quickly with the Indians last year, Rodriguez started his professional career in Mahoning Valley and hit .268 with 4 HR, 24 RBI and an .802 OPS in 45 games.
Like so many recent draft picks, Rodriguez is making the adjustment from the college game to the professional game, but he credits his former coach at Rice University - Head Coach Wayne Graham - with getting him prepared for professional baseball.
"Probably the biggest difference [in professional ball] is playing everyday," said Rodriguez. "But, the way Coach Graham runs the ship up in Rice, he pretty much prepares you and gets you ready for pro ball. He has been around the game for a long time, and I have learned a lot of things from him. He just helped me progress into pro ball."
Another thing that really helped Rodriguez's transition to the professional game was playing in summer leagues.
"Nowadays you have summer leagues, and that kind of helps get you ready," said Rodriguez. "I was supposed to play [in a Cape Cod League], but I had the chance to play with Team USA after my sophomore year. The level of play summer leagues have, it kind of gets you ready for pro ball. You are right out of college and facing mostly college guys. The only thing is you have to get used to the wood bat, as you are moving from aluminum to wood. Wood is not as forgiving as aluminum. It was getting used to playing everyday, and going from aluminum to wood."
One thing Rodriguez has going for him is his versatility. He plays shortstop, but also can play second base, third base, first base, and the outfield. At worst, down the road he could be a super utility player where he plays almost everyday, but plays everywhere in the infield and some outfield.
"He is a good middle infielder, and I like him at second base or shortstop," said a scout for a National League club. "If he keeps hitting he could either be a good utility infielder or a good power hitting second baseman. He is young, he is still learning, he is going to mature, has a good approach, plays well in the field, and has a strong arm."
While scouts generally feel he has the ability to stick at shortstop and be a major league caliber defensive player there, many acknowledge that he could be a good offensive-oriented second baseman.
"I think he can be an offensive second baseman, and I think he will get shifted to second base because he has good pop in his bat and has a strong arm," said the National League scout. "I mean, you want to keep him on shortstop as long as you can, but if you need a second baseman you can move him over. If he can't dislodge the second baseman or shortstop, he will be a good utility guy behind them because he can play both positions and has that pop in his bat."
Rodriguez doesn't care where he plays. All he cares about is doing what it takes to get to The Show.
"I've played everywhere. Second, third, and I have played first a few times," said Rodriguez. "My freshman year at Rice I played some outfield. So I have been all over the place. If I can find a way to get up to the big time, I'll play anywhere."
After the year Rodriguez put up in 2007 at Kinston, the "big time" may not be too far away.