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Ronny Rodriguez is ready for a utility role with the Tigers

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Statistically, Rodriguez doesn’t have very big shoes to fill.

MLB: Spring Training-Cleveland Indians at Los Angeles Dodgers
Ronny Rodriguez will (likely) follow in the footsteps of Andrew Romine and Don Kelly this season as the Tigers’ new utility man, though he is darkhorse candidate to start, as well.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Utility players are not the flashiest guys in baseball. From 2009 to 2017, the Tigers have mainly used two key utility men: Andrew Romine and Don Kelly. Tigers utility players are fan favorites, whether it be for their heart and hustle or for playing all nine positions in one game. After the team released Romine in November, many Tigers fans felt like the era of fun utility guys was over.

Enter Ronny Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, 26, is a favorite to become the Tigers newest utility man. He is coming off a .291/.321/.778 season with 17 homers in 119 games for the Cleveland Indians’ Triple-A Columbus Clippers in 2017. He signed with the Tigers to little fanfare back in November. Is he is ready to fill the shoes of two former fan favorites? While we can’t successfully project how many #DonnieDeeds he will perform, we can compare his prospect rankings and minor league statistics to Don Kelly and Andrew Romine. Let’s see how Rodriguez stacks up.

Prospect Rankings

In terms of scouting reports, Rodriguez outshines both Kelly and Romine. Kelly was never considered a prospect, and worked his way to the major leagues through hard work, kindness, and playing a plethora of positions. Romine, however, was at one point ranked as a top 20 organizational prospect for the Los Angeles Angels by Baseball America, primarily due to his skills as a defensive infielder. Averaging out his prospect rankings throughout the years, Romine was only a top 25 prospect, but he remained on prospect lists until he made it to the majors.

Rodriguez has had an interesting path to the majors. After the 2013 season, he was Baseball America’s No. 7 prospect in the Indians system, a farm that at the time featured Danny Salazar, Francisco Lindor, Trevor Bauer, Clint Frazier, and Jose Ramirez. Something happened, though. Just one year later, Rodriguez fell to being the No. 30 prospect in the system, and after 2015, he wasn’t ranked at all. How did he fall from being ranked alongside now-superstar infielders Lindor and Ramirez to not being ranked at all? The answer is in the numbers.

Minor League Performance

Kelly, Romine, and Rodriguez all had fairly similar minor league careers by raw numbers, but their age and number of games at each level differ dramatically.

Tigers Utility Player Statistics

Player AA Statistics (AVG/OBP/OPS) AAA Statistics (AVG/OBP/OPS) MLB Statistics (AVG/OBP/OPS)
Player AA Statistics (AVG/OBP/OPS) AAA Statistics (AVG/OBP/OPS) MLB Statistics (AVG/OBP/OPS)
Don Kelly .297/.335/.687 (ages 24-26, 190 G) .264/.335/.794 (ages 27-29, 32, 36, 482 G) .230/.294/.628 (ages 27, 29-36, 585 G)
Andrew Romine .282/.370/.736 (age 24, 106 G) .284/.356/.731 (ages 25-27, 281 G) .238/.294/.601 (ages 24-31, 510 G)
Ronny Rodriguez .257/.289/.673 (ages 21-23, 306 G) .274/.308/.735 (ages 24-25, 233 G) TBD

Kelly played very well in Double-A ball and was serviceable in Triple-A (and clearly spent a lot of time there), which suggests that his flexibility in the field played a key role in him making it to the majors. Romine, meanwhile, flew to the majors, getting his first taste of playing time at age 24 but not becoming a regular player until age 28. This is still much quicker than Kelly, who became a regular player at age 30.

Rodriguez, should he see regular playing time with Detroit in 2018, would become the youngest of the three to see regular major league playing time. That would make sense; after all, he made it to Double-A three years quicker than the others. However, he dramatically fell off in Double-A. Rodriguez was ranked the No. 7 prospect in the Indians system after his first year with the Double-A Akron Aeros, but his average fell from .265 to a weak .228 in his second year. His power disappeared, as well. In 2012, he hit 19 homers in 126 games in High-A ball. In 2013 and 2014, he combined for 10 homers in 234 games. Rodriguez’s development came to a striking halt with Akron.

Rodriguez, for the most part, didn’t play that well from 2013 to 2016, only posting an OPS above .700 once, in an injury-shortened 2015 season. In 2017, however, he may have rediscovered his potential. In 117 games with the Triple-A Clippers, Rodriguez batted his way to a .778 OPS with 17 homers and a surprising 15 stolen bases, more than he stole from 2014 to 2016 combined. He was blocked from making it to the majors with the Indians by Lindor and Ramirez, though. Rodriguez was not a consistent player in the minors, but there was clearly a resurgence in 2017, with a sneaky amount of power and speed and a very good OPS (which is, shockingly, not better than Don Kelly’s career Triple-A OPS, so take it with a grain of salt).

Conclusion

Romine posted a total 0.7 rWAR in his four years with the team, and his predecessor posted a total 0.8 rWAR in six years with the team. Over the span of eight competitive years, the Tigers amassed a total 1.5 rWAR from their roster spot dedicated to a utility player. (For context, catcher James McCann amassed 1.4 rWAR in just 103 games in 2017.) If Rodriguez can provide a role-player level rWAR for the Tigers in his entire tenure with the team, he will more than live up to Romine and Kelly on the field. Based on his past and his recent resurgence, there’s an outside chance he could turn into a solid starter for the team, as well.

All in all, while we can’t reliably project how many #RonnyDeeds will be performed in the next few years, the Tigers have most likely found a worthy heir to their beloved utility player throne.