(Photo courtesy of Eddie Michels)
It's a mere 2 days until the start of AB4AR Prospect Week 2014. It's right there, folks. You can almost reach out and touch it (you can't). As another lead-in to that magical week, let's look at yet another young player in the Yankee system who's making some noise but not enough to crack this year's AB4AR Top 30. We went international on Tuesday and we're staying there today. This time, however, we're stepping it up from the small money surprise signings and focusing on Cuban pitcher Omar Luis Rodriguez, the last big signing bonus swing the Yankees took before the new international spending rules were put into effect in 2012.
Rodriguez became a millionaire on June 20, 2012, when the Yankees signed him to a $4 million signing bonus. Then 19 at the time, today Rodriguez is a 21-year-old, shorter (5'11"), stocky (205 pounds) left-hander with a solid 4-pitch mix and a reputation of good command. His fastball lives in the 88-92 MPH range and he throws a good curveball and good changeup to back it up along with the occasional slider, a combination as a young lefty that makes it easy to understand why the Yankees broke the bank for him. He's coming off his first season of American pro ball, a 31.2 inning debut in the GCL.
What really hurt Rodriguez this season was his delay in coming to the US. Caught up between visa issues and a health scare that led to the voiding and re-signing of his contract, Rodriguez was not able to come to the US immediately after signing. The resulting delay as the visa issue was worked out threw off his normal offseason routine and chances are he was underprepared when the 2013 GCL season started. Another problem that came up as the result of Rodriguez signing a new $2.5 million contract in April of 2013 was the unique Rule 5 eligibility clause that kicked in. Because he was technically signing his 2nd contract with a team, that required the Yankees to add him to the 40-man roster. When they didn't, he became eligible for last year's Rule 5 Draft and will be eligible for that draft every offseason from here on out until the Yankees add him to their 40-man.
But back to the on-field stuff. Rodriguez pitched his 31.2 innings in 2013 over the course of 11 starts, 10 of them for the Yankees' 2nd GCL team. Known for mixing pitches well and pitching aggressively to both righties and lefties, Rodriguez struggled mightily with his command and control this past season. He walked 29 batters in his 31.2 IP, almost a batter per inning, and paired with 30 hits allowed that led to an ugly 5.68 ERA. It wasn't all bad news though. Rodriguez did strike out 43 batters and he did not allow a single HR in any of his 11 starts, so the stuff is real. Had his travel plans to the US not been delayed, there's reason to think that Rodriguez could have pitched better.
A 7-figure signing bonus should be enough to get an international prospect on a top 30 list. But I want to be cautious with Rodriguez, in part because of his command problems and in part because of other concerns. The GCL isn't exactly flush with patient, disciplined hitters, so to give up that many walks means he was missing badly. If there are problems with his mechanics that are going to negatively affect his ability to throw strikes, he won't survive at the full-season league level unless they are ironed out. His weight and build is a potential problem area as well, and Rodriguez will have to stay on top of his conditioning to make sure he doesn't put too much extra weight on his smaller frame. And just this morning I read that he was pulled over and cited for DUI in Tampa yesterday morning after driving the wrong way down a one-way road, so that's obviously not good.
There are plenty of things to be wary of when evaluating Rodriguez, and until I see some improvement in his on-field performance and off-field decision making, I don't want to fall for the $4 million hype. I imagine the Yankees will start him in SS Staten Island in 2014, but given his age I'd like to see them be a little more aggressive and at least more him to Charleston before the end of the SS league season.