Yesterday, we made it fairly clear that our prospect rankings would diverge sharply from most other outlets when we ranked Justus Sheffield—the consensus number one at most other sites—as the Mariners’ #3 prospect, leaving the top two spots to a pair of teenaged outfielders who haven’t played above rookie ball. And while both these players are high-risk, we recognize it’s slightly outrageous to place a player who hasn’t yet played ball stateside in the number two slot ahead of colleagues who have put in countless more time, played at higher levels, and are much more experienced in seeing high-level pitching. We know all that. Nevertheless, Julio Rodriguez is our #2-rated prospect headed into the 2019 season.
It’s worth noting that Julio didn’t receive any first-place votes in our voting, but got a combination of enough second- and third-place votes to edge out Sheffield. He didn’t fall outside of anyone’s top four, which is higher than you’ll see him elsewhere; BP has him 8th, FanGraphs hasn’t done their ranking yet (but didn’t consider him in the top 132 prospects, meaning he’ll at least slot in behind his six teammates who did make the list); Baseball America, generally the high man on J-Rod by dint of having someone on staff who actually watched him take hacks, lists him fifth. Generally prospect lists slant heavily towards players who have some kind of track record in the States. Even Braves phenom Ronald Acuña was only #26 in BA’s 2015 list despite skipping the DSL entirely and coming straight to the States to mash, although in Atlanta’s system that’s more like #13. The fact that Julio has attracted as much prospect buzz as he has while playing on a literal island should tip one off that this is a special player.
J-Rod would probably find himself on some of those Top 100 lists now if the Mariners hadn’t kept him squirreled away in the Dominican Academy for so long. Unlike fellow prodigies Acuña, Juan Soto, or Vladimir Guerrero Jr., J-Rod spent a full season the summer after he signed in the Dominican Summer League (DSL), a level his contemporaries skipped over. He’ll play his age-18 season most likely for the A-ball West Virginia Power, the same level Vladito and Acuña spent their age-18 seasons at, although both of them did it with the benefit of having played their age-17 seasons stateside, as well. Of the bright young stars in today’s game who did spend time in the DSL, Julio’s slash line of .315/.404/.525 compares favorably with Victor Robles of the Nationals (.313/.408/.484). Generally, though, top prospects get sent along to the States to play in the Gulf Coast League or the Arizona League, making comparison hard. (The Mariners are somewhat unique in keeping their top prospects in the DR for so long, but it is a reflection on the quality of the facilities and development offered to players who are building both their English-language skills and their baseball skills.)
So all that’s left to rely on is videos and images from Julio’s own enthusiastic social media posts. Some are subjective pleasures: Julio on a dirt field in the Dominican, chickens chuckling softly in the background, the occasional crack of the bat breaking through the softly-lit morning:
Others are objective: the howls of his softball teammates, mostly pro players, as he gets into one to win a charity home run derby:
Blast Motion measures the average swing speed of a major leaguer at around 70 mph, with the elite hitters posting 75, and the elite elite mashers—your Aaron Judges, your Giancarlo Stantons—posting 75-80. 83.5 is, well, it’s real fast.
So far we’ve been given just a small taste of Julio in big-league camp, gunning down a runner at third and then doing a Mutombo-style finger-wag that should be annoying but isn’t, because there’s so much genuine joy in Julio. Yes, he wants to be a star and he believes with his whole heart he will be, but he’s also incredibly generous with his time and his talent. He wants to learn as much as he can, to be the best he can, and he wants everyone around him to be they best they can, too. (When I mentioned to him back when he and other top prospects were in Peoria for the mini-camp that I’d like to meet Noelvi Marte, he dragged over a very shy Noelvi and made him say hello in English.)
By the time camp ends and Julio packs his bags to live for the first time in a climate where it snows, we will have a much better picture of who J-Rod is, but the picture will still be incomplete. For now, all we have are dreams of what Julio may be. Prospects bust all the time. The Mariners don’t have a strong track record of developing them. Things fall apart. But we are choosing to believe that Julio’s future is as bright as his smile; that, for years to come, parents will gift their children “J-Rod” jerseys to tears and delight; that finally it will be the Mariners who have an intriguing young international signee, a national headline-snatcher, the kind of player 29 clubs are kicking themselves for not signing. All it takes is belief, and we believe in Julio.