There has not been a prospect since the first season of Kyle Lewis who has captured the enthusiasm of the fanbase like freshly 18-year-old OF Julio Rodríguez. While Spring Training looms just weeks away, we’re still trapped in the offseason’s Winter Vortex, and there’s no better time to get psyched up for the future with hype videos of talented youths. Earlier this week, the Mariners themselves delivered a brilliant showcase of the farm systems most high-ceiling player:
After an MVP season in the Dominican Summer League, @J_RODrodiguez44 eyes bringing his game stateside.— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) January 28, 2019
And a lot more. pic.twitter.com/ROkzURZ76w
If you’re a frequent reader here or a minors enthusiast, you’ll know we track our collective enthusiasm for the young Dominican outfielder by the number of o’s appended to Julioooooooooooooooooo at any given moment. That clip, and the delightful interview hosted by LL alumnus Colin O’Keefe, shine a spotlight on the infectious attitude that comes paired with Rodríguez’s immense talent. If you have a subscription to The Athletic you can also read the brilliant profile of Julio by our own Kate Preusser in which he states a cheery but serious desire to “break baseball”.
I was fortunate enough to chat with Rodríguez myself via FaceTime recently, just before his flight to Peoria. I was curious about his experience growing up in Loma de Cabrera, a town in the Dominican Republic without a rich history of producing MLB players. I came away impressed with both Rodríguez’s passion and his desire to keep learning and improving.
Loma de Cabrera is a town of roughly 20,000 in the northwestern edges of the Dominican Republic. The entire Dajabón province, in which Loma de Cabrera exists, hosts fewer than 90,000 people, and when I ask Julio about the baseball history of his hometown he was able to list the MLB players on one hand.
“[former Royals OF] Alexis Gómez, [Rays reliever] Jairo Labourt, and [retired shortstop] Rafael Furcal.”
Baseball Reference supports Rodríguez’s memory: the only other player to crack the majors from the entire Dajabón province is retired Marlins righty José García. Like Labourt, he only earned a cup of coffee. While the Furcal family still donates to the town, they have made their home in Santiago, far away from their bittersweet legacy in the area. That leaves Gómez, who Rodríguez mentions maintains a presence in his mountainous hometown, and even he managed just 170 plate appearances over four seasons from 2002-2006. Undaunted, Rodríguez is eager to represent Loma de Cabrera proudly.
Eager to practice his English, Julio insisted on conducting the interview en Inglés. Taking time to consider his answers, Rodríguez explained his progression from neighborhood kid to million dollar talent.
“When I was younger, seven or eight, I loved to play [baseball], always. But I was short and... erm...”
[Julio opens his arms wide around his sides, searching for the translation]
“¿Gordo? Chubby?” I offer.
“¡Sí! Chubby, fat, yes,” Julio replies with a laugh. “I was good, but short, and then later I began to grow a lot.”
When Julio grew, the notice certainly came. The Mariners signed him for $1.75 million in July of 2017, dramatically shifting the young man’s life at the age of 16. In a town of ~20k, news travelled predictably fast.
“Before I signed my contract, I would walk down the street and nobody would recognize me or care,” Rodríguez recalls. “But the day after I signed, every person I saw would smile and wave, saying hello and congratulations. It’s been very funny.”
Now, after tearing the cover off the ball in the Dominican Summer League, Rodríguez is headed stateside for what will likely be the rest of his professional career. It would be understandable for the kid who turned 18 on December 29th to be nervous, and with uncharacteristic maturity he recognizes that fact. And yet, excitement is all he feels:
“Wherever it is, Arizona, Everett, West Virginia, I am excited. I have been to Arizona and like it there, it is hot and I like that. People who have played there have told me very good things about Everett also. I don’t know anything about West Virginia except that their fans are passionate, but I am excited for that too.”
We’ve heard Single-A West Virginia will be Julio’s likely landing place, putting him in the same outfield as Jarred Kelenic. That exciting combo hopes to be at the core of Seattle’s future, even if Julio was initially shocked by how cold it was in Seattle on his first visit this winter. Other members of the organization, teammates and coaches alike, have raved about Julio’s makeup and work ethic, and he has been similarly effusive about the advice and support he’s received from “veterans” like Kyle Lewis and Evan White. While the delineation there is amusing, there is an essentially equivalent age separation between Daniel Vogelbach and Kyle Seager as there is between Rodríguez and his fellow top prospects.
For prospects of any age, what matters most is to continue improving. I asked Rodríguez what he looks for when trying to improve, and if there were any current players he looks to model his game after. After reiterating Alex Rodriguez as a former player he hopes to emulate (in results at least), Julio mentioned Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez as a role model. He outlined what piqued his interest, and how he translated that into his training:
“I heard about the... adjustment, swing change he made to get more power, get more doubles and line drives, to swing with more intent. So, I watched video and looked at what he did, how he changed his hands to get more speed. I showed the video to my trainer and asked him to watch for this, and so when we trained I had this in mind.”
Just as Rodríguez outlined in the Mariners’ video at this article’s outset, he is hungry to learn, to improve, and is often proactive about doing so.
So go ahead, be excited about Julio Rodríguez. We know he is.