When prospect list season arrives in January, the talk is almost always centered around players who managed a breakout, or who regressed to a degree than warrants dropping them down and diminishing expectations. Less common is the young prospect who simply holds serve, but that was certainly the case for righthander Elvin Rodriguez in 2019.
Much has been made in recent years about the fact that teams are far less willing to trade quality upper level prospects than they might have been five or 10 years ago. The takeaway? In order to maximize a return when trading a veteran player, teams need to look to the rookie ball level for unpolished gems.
For example, the Detroit Tigers’ best trade in recent years may prove to be the acquisition of infielder Isaac Paredes, who was only available in trade because he was still many years from the major leagues. Elvin Rodriguez is not of Paredes’ caliber, but he was a similar sort of pickup, as the Tigers reached for a 19-year-old who had only just reached A-ball when they dealt Justin Upton to the Los Angeles Angels in 2017.
Ranked 17th in our 2019 preseason rankings, Rodriguez dropped two spots this year, but that was largely the result of additions through trades and the draft. His 2019 season didn’t show any major progress, but Rodriguez continued to refine a solid arsenal while flying a bit under the radar in Florida State League action. We are nearing the point where he has to show more substantive improvements, but for now we’ll hang in there with the 21-year-old and wait to see how he handles the jump to Double-A in 2020.
Rodriguez was signed by the Angels back in 2014 and came up in their Dominican academy. Already well over six feet tall with a fastball that touched the low 90s, there was plenty of projection in his frame, and he possessed a modicum of control that you don’t often see at that age.
The Tigers weren’t going to get much in return for Justin Upton’s hefty contract when they dealt him to L.A. in August 2017. However, by selecting Rodriguez as their player to be named later in the deal, they managed to get a little more potential than they would have picking from older role-4 types in the Angels system.
At that point, Rodriguez had just gotten his first taste of A-ball in the Angels system. He has progressed from there to throw 247 total innings over two full seasons in the Tigers organization. His strikeout numbers and overall stuff remain a little underwhelming, but the fastball command has developed and allowed him to stifle Midwest and Florida State League hitters, against whom he has posted ERAs of 3.34 and 3.77, respectively.
Prospect hounds love loud tools. It is known. Typically, it’s easier to look at a young pitcher with at least one future plus pitch and imagine how the profile could all come together to support it, rather than to expect small, across-the-board gains in a modest but fairly well-rounded profile like Rodriguez’s.
This is another way of saying that his profile isn’t particularly sexy, but he is more likely to maximize what he has than many others in his age group. It should also tell you why 2020 is a big year for Elvin Rodriguez. Heading into his age-22 season and nearing physical maturity, he needs a bit of a breakout in terms of raw stuff, or we’re unlikely to be talking about him this time next year.
Right now, Rodriguez’s biggest strengths are his durability and advanced control. He is rarely wild, and even at his worst keeps the ball around the zone. When he is going well, he can spot the fastball to both sides of the plate, and shows basic ability to sequence hitters with the fastball-curve combination. The durability is a nice plus, but it can also be viewed as a double-edged sword, in that consistent health in a young pitcher generally allows them to improve quickly. Because Rodriguez has been so durable, yet hasn’t really seen a major tick up in his stuff, one might worry that he is closer to his ceiling than his age might otherwise suggest.
Rodriguez currently features a fringe average fastball sitting in the 92-93 mile-per-hour range and touching 95 mph. The righthander can locate to both sides of the plate, and utilizes the ride on his four-seamer for whiffs and weak contact in the air to finish hitters off. His delivery is fairly simple, leading to a high three-quarters arm slot that produces some two-plane life on the fastball. However, as we will explore later on, he does have some mechanical flaws that sometimes flatten out the heater.
The curveball remains below-average in total, but at its best, it features good downward bite and some 11-to-5 tilt. Typically, Rodriguez spins it in around 78-80 mph, and it plays best as a tight power curve at the top of that range. More consistency is required.
His changeup has decent fading action and Rodriguez maintains his arm speed pretty well. However, a lack of velocity separation from the fastball, along with mediocre extension, leave the cambio lagging behind his other offerings in terms of potential. It’s usable enough to fool A-ball opponents, but is unlikely to be effective against better hitters without substantial refinements.
Rodriguez’s weaknesses bring to mind our 21st ranked prospect, righthander Paul Richan. Both are of the type whose command and pitchability stand out relative to their peers, to the casual observer. Both may appear closer to finished products than other more highly-touted arms, but that can often fool people into more enthusiasm than is warranted by the quality of their stuff, and thus, their future viability as a potential big-leaguer. In both cases, it’s difficult to see where much-needed gains in raw stuff are going to come from.
Rodriguez’s delivery features some tilt and a hitch in his motion that leaves him late and loaded on his plant leg too long. The move helps him to get on top of the ball, but often short-circuits his drive to the plate, especially later in starts as he tires. It also doesn’t help with deception. Rodriguez is long-legged relative to his height and takes a nice long stride, but he doesn’t have the lower body strength needed to consistently reverse the move and drive out over his lead leg at front foot strike. At times, this leads him to cut off his delivery and short-arm the ball, flattening the life on both his fastball and his curve.
The hope is that Rodriguez can build a little more muscle onto his 6’3 frame, particularly in his lower half, and produce a little more effective drive toward home plate. If he can, it still seems possible that he could gain another tick or two on his fastball, and turn his curveball into more of a bat-missing power offering. Those developments would bring a fallback role in relief into play, and make his current future ceiling as a back-end starter a lot more viable.
Overall, it probably wouldn’t be unreasonable to rank Rodriguez anywhere from 19th to somewhere closer to 40th. Most of the pitchers behind him require at least a full grade improvement in their command to become truly major league viable. By comparison, Rodriguez needs smaller, subtle refinements.
However, he also needs one or more of his offerings to pop a half grade just to bring a ceiling as a major league starter more clearly into view. Without at least one pitch taking off and developing into an above average offering, he’s just not going to miss enough bats to find his way to the majors in any notable capacity. That was easier to hope for heading into his age-21 season than it is now. If the stuff doesn’t take a step forward heading into 2020, his introduction to the Double-A level will be met with a lot more hard contact, and in a friendlier hitting environment than he enjoyed in the Florida State League.
Projected 2020 team: Double-A Erie SeaWolves
The upper levels of the Tigers system are now chock full of quality pitching prospects. No system in the game can boast a better set of starting arms, and the Tigers have added quite a few depth pieces this offseason that may or may not find their way to either the major league roster or to Triple-A Toledo. None of this should impact Rodriguez too much, though. He is ready to make the jump through the prospect pipeline’s notorious Double-A bottleneck, and by next season will have either solidified his position with a good showing for the SeaWolves, or been pushed out of the way as organizational depth as more quality young talent enters the system.
H/T to James Chipman of the Tigers Minor League Report for this footage.