Name: Julio Rodriguez
Notable 2011 Stats: 2.76 ERA, 3.46 FIP, 13 HRA, 56 BB, 168 K, and 30% GB% in 156 2/3 IP with Clearwater (High-A)
Why He’s This High: Rodriguez has made batters look silly for years. After striking out 14.4 batters per nine innings in Low-A in 2010 as a teenager, he continued to whiff over a batter per inning as a 20-year-old in the Florida State League.
A tall, projectable righthander, Rodriguez comes at hitters with a repeatable delivery that features a slingshot arm action. He currently sits around 90 mph with his fastball and should settle comfortably in the low 90′s when he fills out. He also has a big curveball that could become a plus pitch if he tightens it up, and his changeup should become at least average as well.
Formerly erratic with his command, Rodriguez has cut his walk rate as he’s moved up in the past two years, from 4 BB/9 in short-season ball to 3.5 in Low-A to 3.2 in High-A. His strikeout numbers aren’t a case of him just getting inexperienced hitters to chase a bunch of bad pitches.
With his sound mechanics and durable frame, Rodriguez should be able to eat a lot of innings. He didn’t wear down at all in 2011, as he pitched much better in the second half (104/24 K/BB in 84 1/3 IP) than the first (64/32 in 72 1/3), so that’s another positive to take from his first full season.
Why He’s This Low: Scouts have never been too thrilled with the righthander, as he has yet to consistently show good velocity. Reports on him seem to vary wildly–one person will swear he saw Rodriguez at just 86-88 mph, while another will see him at 90-93. He’s got to find a way to maintain his velocity over the course of the season.
While minor league groundball/flyball data isn’t always reliable, the 30% listed groundball rate for Rodriguez is quite troubling. Obviously, he didn’t get killed for that in the spacious FSL, but it’ll certainly be an issue if he serves up that many fly balls against advanced hitters, especially at Philadelphia’s cozy ballpark. On the plus side, he only allowed 102 hits on the season; fly balls have a much lower chance of going for hits, so we should expect below-average BABIPs from the righthander.
In general, Rodriguez’s stuff needs to take a step forward. His curveball often comes in too big and slow, and his other offspeed pitches–a slider and changeup–are rather generic. At his young age, he has time to develop his arsenal, but there’s always been a lot of doubt as to his ability to maintain his strikeouts against upper-level pitching. A short strider to the plate, he could stand to incorporate his lower half into his motion more to generate some more velocity.
Conclusions: It’s easy to look at Rodriguez’s numbers and project him as an ace, forgetting about some questions regarding his stuff. It’s just as easy to focus on his deficiencies and project him as a marginal pitcher, forgetting about his youth, projectability, and track record.
While it is indeed possible that Rodriguez’s strengths will swallow his deficiencies in the long run, or vice versa, I believe that the most likely outcome is that he’ll become a durable mid-rotation starter. Don’t get focused too much on the excellent performance or the middling stuff–the key here is that Rodriguez has good polish and passable skills at age 21 and projects to improve. A great comparison, in my opinion, is a righthanded Ted Lilly–an extreme flyballer with good deception, average velocity, and a big, slow curveball. Rodriguez could become a similarly dependable non-ace. He’ll open 2012 as a frontline Double-A starter, and given his polish for his age, he could make his MLB debut sometime around his 22nd birthday.
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