Sunday, April 10, 2016

Random Prospect Sunday - Steve Rodriguez

(A little note on this series. On Sundays throughout the season, a player will be chosen at random using the helpful website, random.org. The goal of this series is to talk about both big prospects and organizational filler rather than focus completely on the Top 20 prospects in the system. I alternate pitchers and hitters and this week, we get both a hitter and the bread-and-butter of this series, a catcher. Here's the rest of this series.)

Does it pay to be able to play catcher with good defense? Just ask Steve Rodriguez.

Born in Ford Hood, Texas on January 8, 1990, Rodriguez's family would later relocate to California. It was there that Rodriguez attended St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower. The Catholic school, located just outside of Los Angeles, has a number of notable alumnae, including Nomar Garciaparra, Evan Longoria, and Bud Smith - whose name might have been brought up lately as he's one of only 18 pitchers to throw a no-hitter in his rookie season.

After being undrafted out of high school, Rodriguez accepted a scholarship to attend UCLA and ended up winning the job as primary catcher. Lauded for his defense, Rodriguez hit just .179/.271/.263 over 95 plate appearances in his freshman year. He became the everyday starter the following year and improved his numbers noticeably as UCLA finished two games short of their first national title in baseball. At the plate in 2010, Rodriguez would hit .249/.345/.436 with 8 homeruns - half of which came in a pair of two-homerun games. Behind the plate, Rodriguez was considered a real star, helping to lead a pitching staff that finished second nationally with a 3.00 ERA and set a Pac-10 single-season mark with 700 strikeouts. That staff was led by Matt Grace, Gerrit Cole, and Trevor Bauer.

Rodriguez would return to UCLA for his junior year, though Tyler Heineman would cut into his playing time (the latter would be picked in the 8th round a year after Rodriguez). It didn't help that Rodriguez's offensive numbers completely disappeared (.196/.294/.230) or that UCLA struggled through a disappointing season despite the returns of Cole and Bauer. That June, Rodriguez would be picked in the 15th round by Arizona.

After spending two seasons in short-season A-ball with Yakima, Rodriguez moved up to South Bend to begin 2013, but his stay there was short as he would be needed in Visalia, which is where he spent most of the season. He hit three of his career four homeruns with the Rawhide, but also ISO'd just .114 to go with a .318 OBP. Considering the California League gives hitters a false sense of accomplishment via ridiculous offensive numbers, Rodriguez's season was still a letdown.

The following season, 2014, would be limited to just 48 games at the plate, but to his credit, Rodriguez showed improvement at the plate for really the first time. He played a few weeks in Visalia to begin the year, but spent the remaining 39 games in Double-A Mobile. With the BayBears, Rodriguez slashed .267/.358/.352. With his defense, a slash like that could be quite useful. Unfortunately his season ended because of injury and Rodriguez's top season finished with a .748 OPS. You could argue that with his numbers in 2014 plus the Diamondbacks' trade of Miguel Montero, Rodriguez had a fighting chance to head into camp and compete for playing time with the major league club with Tuffy Gosewisch (ha) and Jordan Pacheco. However, just a few days after Montero was traded, Rodriguez was selected by the Braves in the Triple-A portion of the Rule 5 draft.

Rodriguez remained in the Southern League and played in 60 games with Mississippi last year, slashing just .210/.303/.247 along the way. If you aren't anxious to do the math, that's an ISO of .036. Last year, Shelby Miller (who hit .054 mind you) had an ISO of .036. All jokes aside, Rodriguez fit in well with the duo of Matt Kennelly and Braeden Schlehuber, who served as the other primary catchers last year with Mississippi. The trio's OPS looks like this: .556 (Kennelly), .550 (Rodriguez), .468 (Schlehuber).

For 2016, Rodriguez received a return assignment to Mississippi, though his playing time has been severely cut into by this winter's signing of Willians Astudillo - and that's for the best. Like his cohorts, Kennelly and Schlehuber, Rodriguez's best chance of sticking around is to do all the little things that make light-hitting catchers long-term fixtures of an organization (play defense, be a leader, help develop pitchers).

Twenty-six years-old now, Rodriguez has only played one other position in his career (he took a loss while throwing an inning for Mobile in 2014). He still hasn't logged an at-bat at AAA and carries a .224/.320/.301 slash over 219 professional games. He hasn't homered since 2013, has never eclipsed 100 total bases in a season, and has only been successful once in four stolen base attempts (and it was his first). But especially in the minor leagues, baseball is about much more than all that. Players like Rodriguez become coaches in the end, not major league performers.

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