Julio Rodríguez is focused on the present

Julio Rodriguez on Instagram

In a strong first season in the United States interrupted by injury, the electric power-hitting prospect remains goal-oriented.

If there was envy or frustration in his heart, Julio Rodríguez’s eyes did not betray it. Fewer than 24 hours after hearing his April teammate Jarred Kelenic had been promoted to AA-Arkansas, Rodríguez remained upbeat and high-spirited as we spoke on the steps of the third base dugout at FirstEnergy Park before the West Virginia Power’s game with the Lakewood BlueClaws. I wondered how the outfielder who struck many as a prodigio felt his season had gone, and whether his goals had changed in a season that paired precocious performance with his first serious injury.

“My goals haven’t changed a lot. Though I missed some time with the injury, I feel like I’ve accomplished my goals up until now, but I have a couple more to reach.”

His simplest goal from the outset was to break camp in Spring Training and remain here in the United States, though there was little doubt of that. Still, for an 18 year old born three days before New Year’s Day of 2001 it could’ve been forgiven to see a hint of sullenness. Instead, Rodríguez remained relentlessly focused on the future, and his own self-improvement. For a kid raised in Loma de Cabrera, a town of around 20,000, Charleston, WV was not perhaps the jarring change it could be to some.

“I went to Arizona one time (this Spring), and it feels kind of alike. Living by yourself, it’s something I think I’ve adjusted to really well. I’m 18 years old, but I have to live like a grown man, you know?”

Reminiscing on my own diet the first time I left home and lived by myself, not to mention the underwhelming fare often available for minor leaguers, I asked Rodríguez if he cooked. A grin broke out on his face. “Yeah a little bit! With my friend (West Virginia Power 1B) Onil Peña, we make rice, chicken, beans, we like that a lot,” before accentuating it with a laugh and a flex of his arms to convey that that was where their home run power came from.

The South Atlantic League doesn’t exactly offer a typical tourist’s slate for the first experience of the United States, but Rodríguez was happy to be in Lakewood. The nightlife or lack thereof doesn’t offer much one way or another to the gigantic teenager, but the proximity to New York City and northern New Jersey gives Rodríguez an opportunity for friends and extended family to visit and watch him play, something he loves and appreciates.

His play itself remains impressive. In the four-game series he went 6-for-16 with a double, a walk, and just one strikeout. Every bit of contact he made Saturday and Sunday was consistently the hardest of anyone on either team.

With the Power trailing 7-0 in the sixth, Rodriguez strolled to the plate to face 2018 draftee and Phillies top-30 prospect Dominic Pipkin. Pipkin is a long-term project but was considered a top-100 pick candidate before injuries slowed him late in his senior season. The stadium gun had him 91-93 all the same, and Rodríguez went down 1-2 on a foul rocket and a called strike on the outer edge. Unwilling to panic, he took two more pitches just a shade further off the plate before drawing a seven-pitch walk on a fastball up and out.

Before the game, Rodríguez spoke to me about pitch selection being his major focus in improving during his time in West Virginia, and he has seemed to be comfortable once again after recovering fully from the HBP he took to the hand in April. Swinging with intent, as he spoke of before Spring Training this year, remains the goal, but intent seems natural in all that the Dominican slugger does. Scouts often mention “little things” and “intangibles” as reasons they are optimistic on a player. The praise for Rodríguez’s character long precedes me, however I’ll simply say his attitude on the field, even on the road, as far as possible from his coaches and teammates, deep in right field, was engaged and endearing. Small fist-pumps at third outs, even when he was not due up to hit soon. Laughing and playing between innings with the swarm of youths that grew over the course of the game in the grass behind right field.

It’s fluff, in a sense, and not the makings of a scouting report to say Rodríguez seemed present in the moment and at ease in his actions. But I was looking intently to see something, anything, conveying frustration or impatience. Instead it was enthusiasm, positivity, and glowing reviews from all around. Sometimes you have to look a gift horse in the mouth, but from any angle all that’s in that mouth is a big smile.

Though he did not record an assist on Saturday, Rodríguez unleashed a trio of throws that showed his ability to impact the game defensively. He made a play at third closer than it had any business being, held Phillies prospect Luis García to a single, and uncorked a laser to home that, despite having little chance of nailing the runner there, was low and on target to send the wide-turning runner Malvin Matos scrambling back to 1st in surprise.

Right field is likely his long-term home, and he should handle it well, even as he continues to fill out. I am 6’3, ostensibly the same height as Rodríguez according to his player page, yet he is easily 6’5 at this point. I am unaccustomed to feeling small, so do not take it lightly when I say the young man must still be growing. He dwarfs Nelson Cruz and Vladimir Guerrero, looking like a more lithe and coordinated Domingo Santana or Trey Mancini moving on the ball, and with any luck should offer a bit more defensive consistency than other sluggers of his size. Whether he’ll get to bring his skills to Modesto in the final three weeks of the minor league season is unclear, and he may simply begin with the Nuts next year or even receive an aggressive Arizona Fall League assignment after the season.

Rodríguez still harbors hopes to join Juan Soto, Ronald Acuña, and his idol Alex Rodriguez as teenagers to debut and star in the big leagues, and the further he pushes in the 2019 season, the better his odds of earning that precocious promotion. More likely, if all goes well with a strong showing in A+ and AA next year, Rodríguez could be slated for a still-optimistic 2021 arrival. Just be wary of betting against him once he sets himself towards a goal.