May 23, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; New York Mets second baseman Neil Walker (20) prepares his bat while in the on deck circle in the first inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
The Atlanta Braves acquired outfield prospect Mel Rojas, Jr. from the Pirates for cash. What kind of player can he be?
Who Is He?
Rojas has an extensive family history in the game. His father was a reliever that closed for a few years with the Montreal Expos, pitching for 10 years and 5 teams, making his major league debut just a few months after Junior was born. His father the nephew of the famous Alou brothers, Felipe Alou, Jesus Alou, and Matty Alou. That, of course, means that his father and Moises Alou are first cousins. To say baseball is in his blood is an understatement for sure!
Rojas went to college before being drafted in the 3rd round by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2010. The Pirates sent Rojas to State College in the New York-Penn League, where he hit .207/.309/.250 with 7 steals, 11.1% walk rate, and 22.2% strikeout rate over 189 plate appearances.
He was promoted to low-A West Virginia in the South Atlantic League in 2011, and he spent the entire season there, hitting .246/.312/.335 with 7 triples, 5 home runs, 23 stolen bases (along with 14 caught stealing!), 8.2% walk rate, and a 21.1% strikeout rate over 564 plate appearances.
In 2012, he again spent a full season at a level, this time with high-A Bradenton of the Florida State League. The league is known as a very pitcher-friendly league, and Rojas’ stats showed it, as he hit .245/.303/.354 with 12 triples, 6 home runs, 16 stolen bases, a 6.4% walk rate, and a 19.6% strikeout rate over 546 plate appearances.
Rojas continued his one-level-per year climb through the Pirates system in 2013, spending the entire season with AA Atloona in the Eastern League, where he hit .274/.332/.410 with 9 triples, 5 home runs, 14 stolen bases, a 7.7% walk rate, and a 20.2 strikeout rate over 496 plate appearances. He spent time with two winter leagues attempting to work his way through the crowded outfield bundle in the Pirates system.
The Pirates started Rojas back in Altoona to start 2014, and he finally took some big steps forward offensively and earned his way to AAA Indianapolis in the International League in late May. He put together a solid overall season with a slash line of .288/.370/.423 with 5 triples, 10 home runs, 11 steals, an 11% walk rate, and a 19.2% strikeout rate in 500 plate appearances.
With their major league outfield stacked, the Pirates sent Rojas back to Indianapolis to start the 2015 season, but he struggled, which got him demoted again to Altoona. He worked his way back up to Indianapolis to finish the season, but overall 2015 was a lost season for Rojas. His final combined slash line was .259/.326/.343 with 4 triples, 2 home runs, 9 stolen bases, 8.7% walk rate, and a 21.3% strikeout rate.
The Pirates sent him back to Indianapolis to start 2016, and he couldn’t break the Mendoza line, predicating the trade to the Braves, who were willing to give the shot to the toolsy outfielder. He almost immediately started to pick up his performance with AA Mississippi, and when the Gwinnett outfield was ravaged by injury, he got the call up to AAA, where he played extremely well.
Overall, he hit .253/.322/.433 with 6 triples, 12 home runs, 12 stolen bases, a 9.4% walk rate, and a 21% strikeout rate over 424 plate appearances, but his time in Gwinnett yielded a .270/.349/.491 line with 5 triples, 10 home runs, and 9 steals of those totals.
Rojas is listed at 6’2 and 225 pounds. He’s a switch-hitter and throws right-handed. He looks leaner than the 225, but he’s also built heavily in his lower half, so it’s very possible that he’s carrying that level of weight.
Rojas has a similar approach from both sides of the plate. His approach from the right side of the plate is hand-led, and he makes better contact on the right side with a more direct bat path to the ball, which does cut down on his power from that side, but it allows him to adjust quickly on pitches.
From the left side, Rojas has a more looping swing that utilizes his strong lower body at the point of contact when he can get both his swing and his hips in coordination to generate impressive power. The issue is that with the loop of his swing, he rarely has both in sync to do that. He was locked in during his time in Gwinnett, but as you look at previous season’s video and at video from Mississippi, you see the issues when he has that timing off.
From either side, his pitch recognition really goes in and out. He seems to go in streaks where he lays off anything outside the zone and picks up spin well to lay off stuff, but then he’ll have another streak where he’s swinging at everything. If he could simply be consistent in pitch recognition, he could really make strides offensively.
Rojas is a very good athlete, though in his minor league career, he’s been successful on less than 2/3 of his stolen base attempts in his career. That’s a ridiculously bad number for as fast as Rojas is at top speed.
Rojas is much better on the base paths when he can get a step or two jump as he gets going. He has a very good top-end speed, and when he gets going, he can eat up a ton of ground in a hurry, going from first to third or second to home with ease.
Defensively, Rojas doesn’t have the elite jumps you’d want from a guy in center field, but he does possess a strong arm and good top end speed that play well in either corner, but especially in right field. He wouldn’t grade out as an elite defender by any means, but he’s certainly above-average.
Rojas has a solid ability to hit and steal bases along with a good build and some ability to take a walk as well. That was hard to find a comp for, especially as Rojas enters his age 27 season still awaiting his major league debut. To find a guy like that who toiled in the minors for a while is a tough guy to match.
However, I was then discussing the Twins teams of my college years with a college friend and we started recalling their outfielders of that era that seemed to come up late and make an impact for a year or two – Lew Ford, Dustan Mohr, and the guy I went with, Bobby Kielty. Kielty was a guy who I always thought looked like he would have made a good football safety in his build.
He had decent power and decent speed and was even a decent defender, but Kielty still took until he was 26 to get a full-time job in the big leagues. Kielty had better pitch recognition skills, but otherwise, the two have very similar physical and baseball profiles. Rojas really just needs to get the chance to do it at the big league level and run with that chance the way he ran with his time in Gwinnett.
Rojas is a bit of a question mark for the 2016-2017 offseason. He’s going to be a minor league free agent this offseason, but last year, the Braves retained a number of their minor league free agents, so that’s not a given that he’ll leave the organization. Rojas really does need to make his major league splash this year if he’s going to make it, though, as he’s in his age 27 season, and time is of the essence.