Few players entered the Midwest League in 2011 with more hype than Reds outfield prospect Yorman Rodriguez. In 2010, he had hit .339 in the Pioneer League…at the tender age of 17. He boasted (and still boasts) excellent athleticism, and has a lot of projection left.
Rodriguez did not fully deliver on expectations, hitting .254/.318/.393. Of course, he was just 18 years old, and while that line isn’t good by any stretch, it’s hardly awful. In fact, Rodriguez increased both his walk rate (from 4.3% to 8.1%) and Isolated Power (.117 to .139) from 2010, showing some growth; he also stole 20 bases in 79 games. The main problem was that his strikeout rate ballooned from 16.3% to 27.1%. He did show some improvement during the year, though; in 32 games from June on, he hit .283/.333/.469 with an improved 21.4% strikeout rate. His season ended early with a shoulder contusion, so he didn’t get much of a chance to sustain that momentum.
What we have here, then, is a classic mixed bag. Rodriguez clearly has some big flaws and a long way to go, but he’s also incredibly young and shows signs of life in just about every area of the game already. It’s easy to run with either of those facets—on one hand, you can say “He’s not even producing in Low-A, so how can we see him as a MLB’er?” and on the other, you can say “He didn’t fall on his face against much older players and has great raw talent, so he’s a potential superstar.”
I thought it would be an interesting exercise to take a look at similar cases in the recent past, so I came up with a list of 25 players that were in Low-A at age 18 and had the same sort of passable but not outstanding results. Not all of them are great comparables for Rodriguez, as I’ll explain, but hopefully, going through this list in my typical exhaustive fashion will shed some light on the possibilities for a player of this (very) general profile.
1. Richard Hidalgo, 1993, .270/.324/.417
Hidalgo is actually a pretty decent comp for Rodriguez—he was a passable center fielder/athletic right fielder with plus power, solid speed, and just enough feel for the strike zone. It’s worth noting that Hidalgo struck out just 76 times in 111 games, so he didn’t have Rodriguez’s contact issues, but he also had little discipline—in fact, despite being ranked as a top 50 prospect by Baseball America four different years, he only had a .330 OBP in his minor league career. Hidalgo would go on to hit .269/.345/.490 in the big leagues over a nine-year career; if Rodriguez can do that, he’ll be a huge success.
2. Jimmy Rollins, 1997, .270/.330/.370
Not the best comp, for two reasons—first, obviously, Rollins is a speedy shortstop, and second, he had already showed a leadoff man’s skillset, with a solid 80/52 K/BB in 139 games. Rollins also went 46-for-52 on the bases this year. Still, it is interesting how humble his statistical beginnings were; like Hidalgo, Rollins was never a big producer in the minors, with just a career .261/.328/.383 line.
3. Miguel Cabrera, 2001, .268/.328/.382
It’s hard to imagine, but just 11 years ago, Miguel Cabrera was a raw shortstop who was underwhelming in the Midwest league. Two years later, he’d hit .365/.429/.609 in Double-A and hold his own in the majors. Certainly, this is a classic example of power projection not fully manifesting itself as actual power at age 18, which shouldn’t really be a surprise. Cabrera, like the two players above, had significantly less of a strikeout problem—76 in 110 games—but his secondary skills weren’t even quite where Rodriguez’s are, and he didn’t have the basestealing acumen.
4. Grady Sizemore, 2001, .268/.381/.355
Obviously, Sizemore’s issues at the time revolved around his .087 Isolated Power, as the question was whether he’d develop enough power to keep pitchers honest as he advanced. Clearly, his plate approach (92/81 K/BB) was excellent, and he also projected to stay in center, while Rodriguez will probably end up in right in the majors. Again, though, a testament to how much power can develop from age 18 to age 20.
5. Adam Jones, 2004, .267/.314/.404
Now here is an interesting comparison. Jones had a 124/33 K/BB in 130 games in Low-A, so he struck out slightly less but also walked less. Later a center fielder, he was an erratic shortstop at this point. Jones has had an up-and-down MLB career, but just about any Low-A player, including Rodriguez, would have to be considered a success if he posts over 9 WAR through his age-26 season.
6. Justin Upton, 2006, .263/.343/.413
The #1 overall pick in 2005, Upton didn’t get off to much of a start in his first pro season, with an up-and-down campaign in Low-A. His approach was also better than Rodriguez’s, but he had the same center-bound-for-right defensive profile and similarly middling power production. The next season, he hit .319/.410/.551 and made it to the majors as a teenager. Certainly something of a best-case scenario for Rodriguez, if not out of reach entirely, but Upton certainly shows that even the greatest of players weren’t necessarily putting the numbers up at age 18.
7. Anthony Gose, 2009, .259/.323/.353
Gose obviously hasn’t done anything in the majors, but he’s notable for producing much better as he advanced, with a .262/.332/.393 line in High-A in 2010 and .253/.349/.415 in Double-A this past year, again following the trend of developing discipline and power. Gose, of course, become famous in this 2009 season by stealing 76 bases, and that’s been his biggest ticket to prospect rankings. Like Rodriguez, he’s had trouble making contact, and in fact, he’s gotten worse in that regard each year.
8. Cheslor Cuthbert, 2011, .267/.345/.397
An interesting contrast with Rodriguez. Both played in just a bit over half of his team’s games—Rodriguez missing August with an injury and Cuthbert not starting until nearly midseason. While Rodriguez picked up the pace toward the end of his partial season, Cuthbert completely fell apart at the end; he was hitting .328/.381/.500 at the end of July. Cuthbert does have better strike zone control than Rodriguez, but he’s a more limited athlete and defender, which makes it somewhat surprising to me that Cuthbert gets consistent accolades while Rodriguez seems quite forgotten. Just 11 spots separated the two on my top 100 prospects this year.
1. Steve Gibralter, 1991, .267/.309/.392
On one hand, Steve Gibralter’s MLB career consisted of five plate appearances. On the other, he did hit .316/.381/.616 as a 22-year-old in Triple-A, so it’s not like he never learned how to adjust to pro pitching. It’s tough to say much conclusive about his career, as he seemed to alternate good seasons with bad ones. He did end up on Baseball America’s top 100 prospects on two occasions (1993 and 1996).
2. Raul Gonzalez, 1992, .256/.339/.392
Gonzalez also failed to gain MLB traction, as he was 26 at the time of his debut and hit .233/.301/.330 in 385 plate appearances across five years; still, the guy was still in organized ball a full 16 years after this season happened, so it’s not like he completely faded away. Gonzalez was a squat 5’8” corner outfielder who played in Triple-A in parts of 11 different seasons, hitting .307 at the level overall, but he never quite had the secondary skills to make himself an attractive option in the corners. He did have much better plate discipline than Rodriguez does, with an almost-even K/BB ratio in his age-18 season, but his squat body offered none of Rodriguez’s physical projection.
3. Tom Evans, 1993, .257/.347/.380
Evans is a much better comparison for Cuthbert than he is for Rodriguez, as a third baseman who showed a polished approach from day one but lacked premium athleticism. He ended up similar to Gonzalez, with several solid Triple-A years and some occasional MLB playing time. He hit .285/.452/.485 in Double-A at 21 and .300/.388/.498 in Triple-A at 23. With that sort of profile, it’s a wonder he didn’t end up on the 2002 Oakland A’s.
4. Danny Klassen, 1994, .260/.356/.356
Klassen was an offense-oriented infielder, so he’s not a great comp for Rodriguez; however, he’s one of the few guys here who had a fairly elevated strikeout rate. He played in Triple-A in ten different seasons and amassed 287 major league plate appearances.
5. Ruben Mateo, 1996, .260/.309/.401
An interesting jumping-off point for Rodriguez. Mateo was a three-time top 20 prospect, as he would go on to dominate High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A in the next three seasons. Tools-wise, he was fairly similar to Rodriguez, although he wasn’t quite as tall (6’0” to 6’2”) and had fewer strikeouts and walks. While he showed flashes of his talent in the majors, he could never quite put things together; in a lot of ways, he’s basically what would have happened if Adam Jones had slightly more problems adjusting to the majors. Yes, he’s a prospect bust, but if Rodriguez can find a way to have the three-year run in the minors that Mateo did from 1997-99, he’ll attain very lofty prospect status.
6. Josh Kroeger, 2001, .274/.324/.363
A lot like Gibralter, Kroeger’s career has had some interesting peaks (.314/.372/.468 between High-A and Double-A at 20, .331/.385/.537 between Double-A and Triple-A at 21, .330/.401/.530 between Double-A and Triple-A at 24, .303/.373/.514 in Triple-A at 25). Every year other than those, though, was basically a disaster, at least until he perked up again in Triple-A this past year at 28. A case study in how maddening toolsy outfielders can be, and a decent (statistical) comp for Rodriguez.
7. Felix Pie, 2003, .285/.346/.388
Speaking of a case study of how maddening toolsy outfielders can be, here’s Pie, who was named to Baseball America’s top 100 prospects in five different years. The guy has over 1000 MLB plate appearances, and he just turned 27, but he has a career .298 OBP, his speed never manifested itself in the big leagues, and he doesn’t have huge power. As far as MLB performance goes, Pie’s a fair median projection for Rodriguez, I’d think.
1. Jimmy White, 1991, .256/.329/.371
While their seasons were a full 20 years apart, White’s a pretty good idea of Rodriguez’s downside. His triple-slash is similar, as is his 133/43 K/BB in 128 games. He would have a nice year between High-A and Double-A three years later, but never got his strikeouts down significantly below one per game even then; he was out of baseball at 24.
2. Duane Singleton, 1991, .289/.358/.381
Singleton ended up with 93 major league plate appearances, but he hit all of .126/.183/.138. At the time of his Low-A season, he looked like a potentially excellent leadoff man thanks to his on-base skills and 42 steals, but he never really got any better and was in independent ball at age 25.
3. Rafael Alvarez, 1995, .283/.343/.396
Alvarez still plays, and he’s become an independent league star, with a career .315/.420/.515 line in 10 seasons in the indy leagues. In organized ball, though, his age-18 line represented all he was really ever able to do—put the ball in play and take some walks. Without much speed, power, or defense, he quickly became a forgotten man.
4. Juan Melo, 1995, .282/.333/.384
Melo made a couple of Top-100 lists, he very briefly made it to the majors, and he had a good year here and there, but his approach wasn’t a strong suit (88/33 K/BB), and it got worse in future years. A 6’3” shortstop, he never really grew into his frame enough to produce much power, either. As soon as he outgrew the shortstop position, he basically fell off the radar.
5. Jackie Rexrode, 1997, .282/.385/.361
The funny thing is, Rexrode’s line is almost exactly the same as Grady Sizemore’s. He ended up having a career .305/.415/.375 line between the minors and indy ball, but he was gone from organized ball at age 22 regardless. Again, this was the pre-Moneyball era, and Rexrode’s poor second base defense and complete lack of power made him rather uninteresting to organizations, it seems.
6. Papo Bolivar, 1997, .262/.290/.401
The opposite of Rexrode, Bolivar had an abysmal approach, with an 82/11 K/BB ratio. He ended up struggling with that problem until he was on his third year of Double-A, and by that time he was buried.
7. Jose Guillen, 1998, .299/.348/.361
No, not that Jose Guillen—he was in the majors by 1998. This one was a slap-hitting middle infielder with no power and abysmal fielding percentages. He repeated the level in 1999 and then drifted to indy ball.
8. Sheldon Fulse, 2000, .255/.374/.319
Fulse was an outfielder with some speed and plate discipline, but he never hit for much power and his strikeout rates limited him to a .241 average in his career despite his speed. It’s thus tempting to say that he’s a good comp for Rodriguez if the latter’s power doesn’t improve, but then you realize even Fulse grew into some pop, as he went from this paltry .064 ISO to back-to-back figures near .150 at age 21 and 22. Rodriguez will at least be better than this.
9. Engel Beltre, 2008, .283/.308/.403
Beltre has never shown any aptitude when it comes to plate discipline, which is a big waste of his considerable physical tools. After an abysmal age-19 season, he cut his strikeout rate and hit .300/.346/.410 between High-A and Double-A in 2010, but he completely fell apart this past year with a .231/.285/.300 line. It’s sort of crazy to label a guy a bust when he’s coming off an age-21 season in Double-A, but it’s hard to see Beltre doing much of anything given his track record. He’s a decent comparison for Rodriguez when it comes to tools, and approach is the biggest problem for both of them, but Rodriguez looks like Albert Pujols compared to Beltre’s sub-Yuniesky Betancourt hacking.
10. Jay Austin, 2009, .267/.320/.360
Austin ended up back in Low-A this past year at 20, and hit .203/.301/.260. Enough said. He has the same sort of approach issues that Rodriguez does, and he has more speed, but his lack of power projection makes him a worse bet. Like Beltre, he’s not a bust per se, but I certainly wouldn’t bet on him.
So where does this leave us with Rodriguez? First of all, if we exclude the four players who all had their age-18 seasons recently, just six of these 21 players became successful major leaguers. Pie and Mateo also did something with a fair amount of playing time. Given that a couple of the guys, like Guillen and Alvarez, never seem to have been taken seriously as prospects and are thus not good comparables for somebody like Rodriguez, we can conclude that he has probably roughly a 30-40% chance of making it to the big leagues for a sustainable period (probably closer to 65% for making it at all, like Klassen, Melo, Kroeger, or Singleton).
As I mentioned, a lot of these players aren’t very good comparables to Rodriguez, mainly because their problems tended to lie in different areas—most lacked power/power projection, speed, or plate discipline, but almost all of them had decent contact rates. I’m not sure what to make of Rodriguez in that context—on one hand, it’s problematic that he had strikeout issues that were worse than almost anyone in this group, on the other, he managed to fit right in in terms of the triple-slash despite that, so he had more power, walking ability, and BABIP ability than most.
One trend that was apparent in the vast majority of the players here is that they tended to see a jump in power and walks as they progressed through the minors. That’s a good omen for the eminently projectable Rodriguez, who will need ISO figures near .200 to stand out as a right fielder, and who badly needs a good walk rate to offset his contact problems and allow him to post a good OBP.
The moral of all this? Nothing in particular, unless you count “It is possible to write nearly 3,000 words about Yorman Rodriguez’s potential” as a lesson worth learning. In the face of so much uncertainty relating to super-young-for-the-level players with less-than-impressive-but-more-than-atrocious stats, though, this examination does provide a bit of quantification regarding the projection of players of this statistical composition. Several quickly rebound and turn into All-Star players in just a couple of years, several bust, and some show flashes of making it but can’t quite put things together consistently enough to succeed. Interestingly, there didn’t seem to be too much of a middle ground here, as it goes from superstars like Cabrera and Upton down to Hidalgo and Jones and then immediately drops off to Pie and Mateo, then quickly descending into the group of fringe/Triple-A players. That does seem to indicate that this group of players tends to boom or bust—time will tell which side Rodriguez falls on.
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