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2019 BYB Tigers Prospect #17: RHP Elvin Rodriguez earned our interest in 2018

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The righty may not be flashy, but he certainly earned his keep during the 2018 season.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Yet another former Los Angeles Angels prospect who now wears the Old English D, Elvin Rodriguez arrived in the deal that sent Justin Upton out west. While the other prospect in the deal — RHP Grayson Long — was considered the better player at the time of the deal, he has since undergone surgery for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and missed the whole of 2018. That opened up a place in the spotlight for Rodriguez, who took the opportunity and ran with it.

Rodriguez took a distinct step forward with both his fastball and his consistency, making himself into a top-20 prospect in the Tigers’ system. His ranking on this list may be a bit aggressive, but we’re intrigued by the profile here at Bless You Boys.

Background

Signed by the Los Angeles Angels in 2014, Rodriguez spent three seasons playing ball in various levels of the low minors of their system. He posted very good numbers at most of his stops along the way, albeit with small sample sizes. His final stop before joining the Tigers organization was a 14.0 inning stint with the Burlington Bees, the Angels’ Low-A affiliate. He put up a matching 4.50 ERA and FIP in that time, among the worst of his young career.

Although he got his first taste of full-season ball in 2017, the 2018 campaign was the 20-year-old’s first chance to play all year at a single level. He adapted well and anchored the Whitecaps’ rotation. His 3.34 ERA is backed with a solid strikeout rate of 8.66 batters per nine innings, and his usual excellent walk rate. That success at the Single-A level cemented his potential as a backend starter.

Strengths

Rodriguez has a well-rounded arsenal of pitches that all show the potential to be above-average one day. He deals in three different pitches: a fastball, a curveball, and a changeup. His fastball ranges from 88-93 miles per hour with a modest amount of tail and riding life and he locates it pretty well for his age. That’s a bit underwhelming, of course. Especially when Rodriguez is rated more highly than pitchers like Gregory Soto, Sandy Baez and Zac Houston, all of whom throw intimidating heaters. It plays up, though, and Rodriguez does a better job spotting the offering than do the others.

There’s also reason to believe that the fastball will continue to improve as time goes on. He’s seen his velocity tick up from sitting in the high 80s two years ago and still only weighs 160 pounds despite standing at 6’3. As he fills out and his musculature catches up to his frame, he should be able to put more oomph behind the heater.

Rodriguez can also boast a better feel for his offspeed stuff than many of his peers do. His curveball isn’t a buckler, but it’s a solid offering that attracts weak contact when he’s able to keep it low in the zone. It’s also useful early in the count to steal a strike from a hitter who’s expecting something harder. He can get too cute with the strategy and has to get more consistent break on the curve, or he’ll have to depend on it less as he faces better competition. It’s not quite a swing and miss curve at this point. Advanced batters adapt more quickly to a pitcher and will smoke average curveballs in the zone.

Another major tick in the ‘pros’ column is that Rodriguez won’t battle the issue that plague most young pitching prospects: lack of a viable changeup. It is his third pitch, but it’s only a hair behind his heater. It has enough sink and run to fool batters into a few whiffs. Both Lance Parrish and Jorge Cordova, the Whitecaps’ manager and pitching coach, respectively, complimented the pitch in interviews with Bless You Boys.

In short, any doubts about Rodriguez’ ability to start will be centered around issues unrelated to the legitimate depth of his arsenal.

Weaknesses

While his lack of a big weakness makes Rodriguez a prospect, it’s also what caps his value the most. Unlike many of the arms the Tigers’ system sports, he doesn’t have power stuff or a vicious secondary. That means that he has quite a few less paths to the majors than many players. His stuff doesn’t lend itself to a role much greater than a backend starter. Things will go sour if he can’t stick as a starter; modest deception and batted ball profiles don’t suggest he could cut it as a specialist.

A lot of the issues regarding his role will be cleared up as Rodriguez plays out his age-21 season in 2019. His fastball should take a distinct step forward, and whether that comes to fruition will be a major determining factor. A lot of other factors go into determining success, but the fastball is really the anchor of a fundamentally sound pitching profile in a modern environment dominated by velocity and strength.

Another major determining factor will be whether his command comes together the way scouts expect it to. Rodriguez generally throws strikes, but his precision comes and goes, with clearly distinguishable good and bad nights. The number of bad nights has to decrease by a lot if he’s going to get consistent outs against high-level batters with his relatively soft stuff.

We can expect the fastball to improve, but it’s unlikely that Rodriguez will ever have a plus secondary pitch in his toolbox. As a result there is pressure on him to sharpen his fastball command and fill out his physical projection. There’s no major mechanical issues holding him back — his delivery is a bit unsightly, but it isn’t violent — but mental roadblocks could be just as detrimental as older hitters begin to tee off on those mistakes.

Rodriguez will be walking a tightrope as he climbs the minor league ladder. His physical projection may bode well for improvement in his overall repertoire, but lagging secondaries are going to put pressure on his ability to spot his pitches. If he can refine his secondaries and continue to develop physically, a role as a future backend starter in the majors remains in sight. He has a better shot at realizing that reality than most 20-year-olds do, but also has less of a relief profile to fall back on than some in the Tigers’ system.

Projected Team: High-A Lakeland Flying Tigers

There’s no reason to expect Rodriguez won’t get the promotion he earned in his time with the Whitecaps last season. He’ll be entering his second full season of pro ball, facing better competition than he ever has before. Unless things go far better than expected, there’s no reason to believe that the Tigers will be aggressive with his assignments and promote him midseason. A bit of a logjam is developing in the system as a whole, and Lakeland is the best fit for him both in terms of talent and developmental age. A full season there facing more seasoned hitters will reveal a lot about him as a player.