The Case For No. 1: Julio Rodriguez
In putting together the Baseball America 2022 Top 100 Prospects, a clear top three prospects emerged in Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman, Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. and Mariners outfielder Julio Rodriguez. As part of the process of gathering feedback for the Top 100, Baseball America surveyed nearly two dozen front office executives and scouting officials across the game on who the No. 1 prospect should be. Rutschman, Witt Jr. and Rodriguez each received multiple votes, and most officials said all three were worthy candidates with very little separation between them.
As part of the lead up to Wednesday's release of the 2022 Top 100 Prospects, Baseball America is presenting the case for all three players to be No. 1. Below is the case for Rodriguez.
It’s been nearly three years, and the long-time front office official still can’t get the sound out of his mind.
It was only a spring training game. Still, the way the ball came off of Julio Rodriguez’s bat that day at Camelback Ranch in 2019, and the sound it made, left a lasting impression.
“He takes this easy, low-effort swing and the ball just explodes off of his bat over the right fielder’s head the other way,” the front office official said. “Whenever you see him, it’s man-child kind of stuff. His barrel is very heavy. Even his hard ground balls, you remember.”
Rodriguez, 21, has been an offensive force since the Mariners signed him as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2017. He owns a career .331/.412/.543 slash line despite being young for every level he has played at and continues to get better every level he climbs.
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound right fielder had his finest season yet in 2021. He hit .347/.441/.560 with 13 home runs, 47 RBIs and 21 stolen bases in 74 games across High-A and Double-A despite frequent interruptions to his season. He twice left to represent the Dominican Republic in Olympic qualifying tournaments, played in the Futures Game in Denver and led the D.R. to a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics, the first Olympic medal in baseball in the nation’s history.
In the process, he solidified himself as arguably the top pure offensive prospect in the game.
“The swing is beautiful,” one National League assistant general manager said. “Just the way the ball jumps off his bat, he’s so physical and there’s not a ton of effort and the ball is coming off hot.”
Rodriguez has been known to hit balls out of stadiums entirely with raw power that earns 80 grades on the 20-to-80 scouting scale. He already posts exit velocities as high as 117.4 mph, the same as Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s maximum exit velocity in 2021.
What separates Rodriguez is how prolific a hitter he is for someone with so much power. He is a consensus plus hitter—and some argue he’s a plus-plus hitter—with an ability to stay short to the ball, an advanced two-strike approach, strong pitch recognition and a mature feel for making in-game adjustments. His 18.9% strikeout rate, 26.1% whiff rate and 24.7% chase rate in 2021 were all well above the minor league averages and cemented him as one of the rare players who can get to his power without sacrificing the ability to hit for average.
Since 2000, only 11 players have hit at least .330 in their minor league careers while averaging 32 or fewer plate appearances per home run. They are Rodriguez, Guerrero Jr., Juan Soto, Buster Posey, Ryan Zimmerman, Kyle Schwarber, Michael Conforto, Brandon Belt, Kendrys Morales, Billy Butler and Matt Wieters.
Rodriguez has yet to make his major league debut. The other 10 have combined for 19 all-star selections, 12 Silver Slugger awards, five top-five MVP finishes and two batting titles, with Guerrero, Soto, Schwarber, Conforto and Belt still active and adding to those totals.
“He’s going to be a plus player,” a National League pro scouting director said. “Could there be some 40-home run years? Yes. He’ll consistently be .280, 30-35 home runs, 100 RBIs, in that range.”
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That level of production would make Rodriguez a star regardless of his defense, but the same athleticism that makes him such a dangerous hitter translates to the other side of the ball. Despite his size, Rodriguez is an above-average runner with fluid strides and covers plenty of ground in all directions in right field, especially going back into the right-center gap or toward the right-field corner. He complements his glovework with a plus, accurate arm that has yielded 13 outfield assists in 127 career games in the field.
The only knock on Rodriguez has nothing to do with his ability, but rather his profile. He is a corner player at a time when up-the-middle athletes are prioritized by statistical models and front offices. He is capable of playing center field as needed, but he is best suited for right field.
Even so, there is little doubt about the value he can provide for a club.
“Corner players get banged, but Juan Soto is a corner player,” another National League pro scouting director said. “(Rodriguez) can rip. He can make adjustments. The way he uses the whole field, he can catch the ball out front, he can let it travel deep, he’s a great athlete. You can’t poke any holes with Rodriguez in his offensive profile.”
There isn’t really a question, in anyone’s mind, that Rodriguez will be a middle-of-the-order force for years to come. If he can combine the ability to hit for average and power like Soto and Guerrero before him, it’s not going to matter that he’s doing so in a corner, as they are.