In the middle of a spring training game two months ago, Julio Rodriguez stood towering over the plate with his imposing 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame. The 20-year-old phenom was awaiting a 3-1 pitch from Carlos Hernandez, one of the top pitching prospects in the Kansas City Royals’ organization.
The hard-throwing Hernandez brought the heat, challenging Rodriguez with a 98 mph fastball over the heart of the plate.
And the highly touted Seattle Mariners prospect sure made him pay.
Rodriguez exploded through the zone with the barrel of his bat and made thunderous contact, using his immense strength and torque to launch the ball rocketing into the Arizona night sky with a blistering 115 mph exit velocity. The ball soared to the deepest part of the ballpark and easily cleared the right-center field fence, landing 437 feet from home plate for a monstrous opposite-field home run.
“Everybody in the dugout was just like, ‘Wow’ — veteran players, young players, coaches, all of us,” Mariners manager Scott Servais told The Seattle Times after the game. “… I can’t believe he hit that ball as hard as he did. I’ve been around this game a long time. To see a young guy like that turn around a 97-98 mph fastball and drive it out of the park like that, you don’t see that very often. He’s really a special talent.”
That opposite-field blast back in March provided a glimpse of why Rodriguez is considered one of the top prospects in all of baseball.
The Dominican Republic native, who is starting the season at the High-A level with the Everett AquaSox, is ranked as the No. 3 overall prospect by Baseball America and the No. 5 overall prospect by MLB.com. He bursts with seemingly limitless potential, highlighted by his exceptional power at the plate and considerable arm strength in right field.
“He’s emerging as a potential future superstar,” Jim Bowden, a former Major League Baseball general manager and current baseball analyst, wrote in The Athletic last month. “He has a loud bat with incredible raw power, but he’s also a hitter who uses the entire field, from foul pole to foul pole. He is an advanced hitter for his frame, age and size. He has plus-plus arm strength and is developing into an above-average defender in the outfield. Rodriguez has a high baseball IQ, which shows up in the batter’s box and on the base paths.”
Rodriguez has showcased his prodigious talent over his first 11 games of the season with the AquaSox. Through Saturday, he is batting .326 with four home runs, one triple and five doubles. He has a .415 on-base percentage and .739 slugging percentage.
One day, perhaps sooner rather than later, many believe Rodriguez is capable of inflicting that type of damage at the major league level.
“I project he’ll hit 40 home runs annually with several Silver Slugger awards and MVP honors in the future,” Bowden wrote. “His ceiling is unlimited, and so is his talent. He will give you goosebumps when he steps to the plate or makes a throw from right field.”
From the D.R. to an MLB top prospect
Rodriguez grew up in Loma de Cabrera, a small and mountainous town of about 20,000 people on the northwestern edge of the Dominican Republic, near the border with Haiti.
He started playing baseball at a young age, learning the game from his father, Julio Sr., who played at the amateur level in the Dominican Republic.
“He was the one who taught me how to play,” Rodriguez said. “… While I was growing up, he was always by my side, giving me practice and helping me to get better.”
At age 14, Rodriguez began training at a baseball academy in the city of Santiago, about a 2.5-hour drive from his hometown. It was in Santiago that Rodriguez caught the eye of a Mariners scout and ultimately became a top target for the franchise. When he became eligible to sign at age 16 in 2017, Rodriguez inked a $1.75 million deal with the Mariners as an international free agent.
After excelling in the rookie-level Dominican Summer League in 2018, Rodriguez spent most of the 2019 minor league season with Single-A West Virginia before being promoted to Advanced-A Modesto in mid-August. He ended the season on a tear with Modesto, batting .462 with 11 extra-base hits in 17 games for the Nuts. In 84 games across both levels that season, he batted .326 with 12 home runs, four triples and 26 doubles.
Not bad for an 18-year-old.
So far, just about the only things to slow Rodriguez’s ascent have been injuries and the coronavirus pandemic.
Early in the 2019 season, Rodriguez missed nearly two months after being hit by a pitch that fractured his left hand. In 2020, the pandemic wiped out the entire minor league season, which inevitably has delayed the development process for Rodriguez and most other prospects. And less than one week after arriving at the Mariners’ summer camp at T-Mobile Park last July, he fractured his left wrist while diving for a ball during a drill.
The wrist injury kept Rodriguez from participating in intrasquad games at the Mariners’ alternate training site in Tacoma last summer. But it didn’t stop him from continuing to train. Despite having a cast on his wrist, he did one-handed swings with his other arm and kept throwing and working out.
“It was tough, but … I never lost my sight of where I wanted to be,” he said. “Even though I got hurt, I was still practicing, I was still training to get better, doing anything I could possibly do. I didn’t (let it) get me down.”
After finally getting some game action last year during the Arizona Fall League and a brief stint in the Dominican Winter League, Rodriguez spent the rest of the offseason rigorously training in the Tampa area. With a diet change and countless hours of workouts, he noticeably transformed his body into a leaner and stronger version.
“From a body standpoint, he has shown up,” said Andy McKay, the Mariners’ director of player development. “He’s looking better than he’s ever looked, (and) he’s moving better.”
Rodriguez’s hard work paid dividends in this year’s spring training. Facing major league and Triple-A competition, he batted .313 with two home runs and two doubles in 32 at-bats. He smacked at least a handful of hard-hit balls that registered an exit velocity of 100-plus mph, including his massive 437-foot blast.
“He was part of our big league camp and he fit right in,” McKay said. “He had very competitive at-bats (against) major league pitching and more than held his own.”
It was a definite contrast from his 2020 spring training, when Rodriguez went just 2-for-13 with six strikeouts. He credited much of the improvement to his offseason work.
“This was my first offseason that I actually went all out in my weights,” he said. “I went through a lot of training — gym-wise (and) hitting-wise — in Tampa with my people out there. And it paid off.
“It was a really big step forward for me,” he added, “and that’s what I’m planning (to) keep doing every single offseason — keep getting better.”
A five-tool mentality
Rodriguez has always been known as a hitter. His spectacular raw power and overall hitting ability is ultimately what enticed major league scouts and made him such a highly regarded prospect.
But ever since he was young, Rodriguez has wanted to be known for more than just his talent at the plate.
“Since I was practicing when I was young, my dream was to be an all-around player — not just a hitter,” he said. “… That’s everything I’ve been working on — to be an all-around player that can help the team impact the game in every single way possible.
“And I know right now a lot of people don’t think I can do it,” he added, “but I know I can do it. And I’m doing it right now.”
With his trimmed-down body, Rodriguez is moving quicker, both in the field and on the base paths. He showcased his improved speed last week, with three stolen bases in the AquaSox’s season-opening series against Hillsboro. He also scored a key run on a tag-up from third base on a shallow sacrifice fly.
“(His skill set) starts with the bat and his ability to impact the baseball,” McKay said. “And he has shown it. He certainly showed it in West Virginia. He showed it in Modesto. He showed it in major league camp this year. So the bat is (his main) tool.
“But he takes a lot of pride in his defense right now, and he’s committed to working on it every day. And he’s committed to being a base-stealer, which you saw (last) weekend in Hillsboro. So we think (he’s) gonna be a guy who eventually is going to be a plus outfielder who can run and really hit.”
Rodriguez appears on his way to becoming a legitimate five-tool player at the major league level.
And if there was such thing as a sixth tool for intangibles, he certainly would check that box too.
Players and coaches often rave about Rodriguez’s infectious personality and charisma. In some ways, his smiling demeanor and joyful persona are reminiscent of former Mariners superstar Ken Griffey Jr.
This past fall, the Mariners’ marketing department even started a YouTube show that’s hosted by Rodriguez. The show, called “Vibin’ with JROD,” features Rodriguez conducting fun and light-hearted interviews with some of the Mariners’ other top prospects. So far, there have been six episodes.
“He’s just got a very joyful personality,” McKay said. “He loves everything about playing and preparing. He plays the game like he’s playing a pickup basketball game with friends.
“He wants to win. He’s driven to be successful. But he has a lot of fun doing it. And that’s who he is as a person, and that’s who he is as a competitor. And it really works well for him.”
And despite all the praise and hype that comes with being one of the game’s top prospects, McKay said Rodriguez is always eager to learn.
“He’s a student of the game and he knows what he doesn’t know,” McKay said. “He knows he has a lot to learn about it. And we’ve got a lot of people in place. … When he’s with somebody who he thinks he can learn from, he’s not afraid to ask questions and pick their brain.”
One person Rodriguez spent a lot of time working with at this year’s spring training was the legendary Ichiro Suzuki. Rodriguez said he relished the opportunity to learn from the all-time great Mariners right fielder, who was one of the players he looked up to as a kid.
“It was mind-blowing to me that I was literally playing catch every single day with him,” he said. “It was great. I acquired so much knowledge — just the way you’ve gotta commit yourself, the way that you’ve gotta put yourself through things (and) just how dedicated you’ve gotta be to this game if you want to excel at the highest level (and) chase greatness.”
‘Something really special’
It was somewhat of a symbolic moment, given how central Rodriguez and Kelenic are to the long-term dreams and aspirations of the Mariners’ franchise.
Both of them are considered to be among the top five prospects in all of baseball. And for the Mariners, the hope is Rodriguez, Kelenic and reigning American League rookie of the year Kyle Lewis combine to form an All-Star-caliber trio of outfielders that serves as the cornerstone to future success.
Kelenic, who is about 1.5 years older than Rodriguez, made his much-hyped major league debut Thursday night at T-Mobile Park and hit his first career home run the following evening.
Meanwhile, about 25 miles north, Rodriguez spent the week obliterating baseballs with the AquaSox at Funko Field.
Over the first five games of this week’s series against Tri-City, Rodriguez has gone 8-for-21 with four home runs and three doubles. That included a mammoth homer on Friday night that he clobbered over both the high wall in center field and the netting behind that.
“It’s a different sound when he hits it,” McKay said. “… He’s a very strong person.”
The question now is how much longer Rodriguez will remain in Everett. At this rate, a promotion to Double-A Arkansas could be coming soon.
And ultimately, when does the franchise anticipate Rodriguez will join Lewis and Kelenic in the big leagues?
“He is a dynamic talent,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said during a press conference Thursday. “And there have been superstar players like Mike Trout, some of the great players of all time, who have made their way to the big leagues at such a young age. And I won’t count that as impossible for Julio. He is that kind of talent.
“And again, I don’t want to suppose that that’s likely to happen in 2021. But Julio is the kind of player that can easily move multiple levels in one season, and it wouldn’t be entirely shocking based on his personality and his tool-set to see him jump two (or) three levels at this tender age.
“But I also want to remember that he has very limited experience above short-season baseball. And while we are wildly intrigued by the upside that he has, we also want to be somewhat tempered. … It takes players a little bit of time. And let’s give him some time before we push too hard.”
Rodriguez said he has two ultimate goals in baseball: Win and make it to the Hall of Fame.
“Win as much as I can in the major leagues — that’s my ultimate goal,” he said. “And you know, everybody says it, but make it to the Hall of Fame. … That’s the two things that drive me.”
The Mariners are currently in the midst of a 20-year playoff drought, which is the longest active streak of any team in the four major North American sports leagues.
“Man, it would mean the world to me, to be honest,” he said. “It would mean the world to me. … I feel like by doing that, you would do something nobody else has done before — something new. So that’s what drives me.
“It (would be) something really special.”