The Pittsburgh Pirates have no shortage of quality pitching prospects. This year they saw Gerrit Cole graduate to the majors and start his transition into a number one starter. Next year could be the same story with top pitching prospect Jameson Taillon. One of the biggest stories in the minors this year was the emergence of Tyler Glasnow, who looks like he could also be a top of the rotation starter.
Behind those pitchers, the Pirates have guys like Nick Kingham and Luis Heredia. Kingham has shown the potential to be a strong number three starter, and possibly a number two starter if he continues improvements to his game. Heredia is young and raw, but has shown some potential in his young career, and has a lot of upside.
Then there’s a ton of talented pitchers who have the chance to pitch in a major league rotation one day, with some of those pitchers possibly having the upsides as number three starters. If you’re projecting future rotations, then you start with Cole, Taillon, and Glasnow. You add in Kingham, and maybe Heredia down the line. Not all of those pitchers will make it, or live up to their potential in the majors. But the Pirates should get 2-3 top of the rotation pitchers out of that group. Because of this, it’s easy for the other potential major league starters to get lost in the mix.
That creates unfair situations for a prospect like Joely Rodriguez. The left-hander was 21 this year, and combined for a 2.70 ERA in 140 innings between West Virginia and Bradenton. Rodriguez is a talented pitcher who has the upside to pitch in a major league rotation one day. But in a system loaded with top of the rotation candidates, and plenty of legit rotation candidates, it’s easy to overlook Rodriguez.
I first noticed Rodriguez during the 2010 season. I was making my way up to Williamsport at the end of the season for the sole purpose of getting a look at Zack Dodson with the State College Spikes. Dodson had a good start, but the most impressive part of the evening was when Rodriguez came to the mound. The lefty was 18 at the time, and was pitching in his first season in the US, after spending one season in the DSL. He had a 3.99 ERA in 47.1 innings in the GCL that year, with a 4.9 K/9 and a 1.3 BB/9.
I didn’t know much about Rodriguez at the time. He only signed for $55,000 in March 2009, so he wasn’t a big bonus player. He had just been promoted to State College for the end of the season in only his second year in pro ball. It didn’t take long for Rodriguez to grab my attention. He struck out two batters and got six groundouts in three innings of work. He gave up one unearned run on a walk and two hits, with the run coming due to two throwing errors on a stolen base attempt. But the most impressive thing was the velocity and the moment of his pitches. Rodriguez was throwing 88-92 MPH in that outing, with a lot of movement on his two-seam fastball. He had been throwing 88-92 all year, and had hit 94 a few times, which was outstanding for an 18-year-old lefty. The movement on his pitches was also good, with a lot of good, late cutting action.
I was looking forward to Rodriguez pitching the following season, and saw his first start in State College. It didn’t go as well, and he was shut down after that with a left elbow ligament injury, and missed the rest of the season. The injury didn’t require surgery, and Rodriguez was back the following season, pitching in extended Spring Training. He returned to State College in 2012, putting up a 4.50 ERA in 64 innings, with a 4.5 K/9 and a 2.1 BB/9 ratio.
“I thought last year he was our best guy,” Justin Meccage said over the summer. Meccage was the Spikes pitching coach in 2011-12, and was the pitching coach for the Bradenton Marauders this year. “All the way through extended he was definitely the best. But over the course of the last month of the season I think he got tired because he hadn’t been that deep in the season because he’s always been hurt. But two-thirds or three-quarters of the year last year I thought he was our best guy.”
Rodriguez did have a great start to the season in 2012. He put up a 2.66 ERA in 44 innings through his first start in August. After that he combined for a 7.89 ERA in 21.2 innings over his final five starts of the year.
Perhaps the full season of work helped prepare Rodriguez for the 2013 season. He started the year in West Virginia, putting up a 2.72 ERA in 72.2 innings. He paired that with a 7.1 K/9 and a 2.5 BB/9 ratio. By the middle of the season, Rodriguez was promoted to Bradenton, where he reunited with Meccage and put up a 2.67 ERA in 67.1 innings. His strikeouts were down, with a 5.9 K/9, but his walk rate was the same, with a 2.5 BB/9. He also looked much improved over the versions that I saw in the previous three seasons.
“The biggest thing with him that I’ve noticed over the last few years is that he’s matured,” Meccage said shortly after Rodriguez arrived in Bradenton this year. “Mentally, physically, everything. He’s handling adversity very well. Two years ago I saw some meltdowns because of some small adversity things that were going on. And now I see a guy developing very nicely, both physically and mentally.”
Rodriguez has matured physically. He’s now up to 200 pounds, rather than his listed 175 pounds from when he was signed. As a result, he’s been sitting in the 91-94 MPH range more consistently, touching 96 at times. He had that velocity in previous years, but this year the velocity is more consistent, and he’s able to command the fastball at that velocity.
“The velocity is holding longer in the games than it used to,” Meccage said. “He’s just a strong guy. To be able to do that and be left-handed, that’s impressive.”
A left-hander with his velocity on a two-seam fastball is a good start, especially when that fastball has a lot of life. But Rodriguez is more than just a fastball pitcher. He also throws a strong changeup and a good slider. Prior to this season, the slider was his best overall pitch. The improvements with his fastball have made it possible for him to effectively set up that pitch, which led to some of his highest strikeout rates in his career.
One of the big problems in previous years was that there wasn’t much separation between the fastball and the slider. The slider works in the low-to-mid 80s. The fastball was mostly 88-92, and dropped to the lower end in later innings when Rodriguez couldn’t hold his velocity. The fact that both pitches had late cutting movement, and were thrown with similar velocity made it look like Rodriguez was throwing a fastball and a slower fastball. The larger gap in velocity between the two pitches this year definitely improved the effectiveness of the slider.
The fastball wasn’t the only thing that was improving. Meccage noted that his changeup quality might be moving ahead of the slider. That’s a key for any left-handed pitcher, as it is the difference between being a future starting pitcher or a future LOOGY. He still has some work to do with the changeup and his effectiveness against right-handers. This year he had a .754 OPS against right-handers, compared to a .571 OPS against lefties.
It’s easy to just pay attention to the future top of the rotation starters in the system, and overlook guys who could be number 3-5 starters. Rodriguez is one of those potential 3-5 starters. He’s a left-handed pitcher with a 91-94 MPH fastball, along with a slider and a changeup that could both be major league average pitches. He has improving command of all of his pitches. A safe projection would put him as a strong number four starter in the majors. If the Pirates have too many better options, he could either be used as rotation depth, or he could go the Justin Wilson/Tony Watson route and be a dominant full inning left-hander pitching in the late innings. Either way, he’s a guy with major league upside, and just another talented pitcher to add to the mix in the Pirates system.