Rodriguez aiming to make most of second shot in Lake County
The Low-A Lake County Captains have set sail on a new season. Along with that brings all of the anticipation of a new season, and more importantly, which prospects will don a Captains uniform and emerge as the new big prospect for the Indians.
The Captains roster is loaded with a good mixture of legit high-upside prospects and solid veteran role player types. They also have a few returnees from the 2013 roster, one of which is first baseman Nellie Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, 19, had a rough go of it last season for Lake County. After a nice showing in spring training, the Indians were aggressive sending the then 18-year old to the Captains at the outset of the season, but he struggled and hit just .197 with one home run, 13 RBI and .561 OPS in 47 games before he was shuttled off to Arizona at the end of May and never returned.
It was in Arizona where Rodriguez had a chance to catch his breath, relax, and make a few adjustments, which got him back to the approach and production he showed during spring training just a few months earlier. After a few weeks in Arizona, he was assigned to short season Single-A Mahoning Valley and spent the entirety of the rest of the season there and impressed with his performance.
After a slow start through the first few games Rodriguez settled in and had a ridiculous month of July where he hit .383 with seven homers, 21 RBI and 1.104 OPS. Overall at Mahoning Valley he hit .287 with nine homers, 37 RBI, and .818 OPS in 73 games, and ranked 12th in the NY-Penn League in batting average (.287), 6th in home runs (9), 7th in RBI (37), 2nd in total bases (118), 10th in walks (29), and 6th in OPS (.818).
"I felt pretty good and felt more like a leader than I was in Lake County," Rodriguez said about his time in Mahoning Valley. "I just tried to work every day on things I need to work on and get better at."
So what clicked for Rodriguez at Mahoning Valley?
"My mentality just changed after they sent me down," Rodriguez noted. "You have to struggle to succeed in life or anything you do. That helped me out to send me down. I wasn’t happy, but I knew it was beneficial for me to go down as I would have been frustrated the whole year at Lake County. So I just tried to stay positive and focused and tried to start fresh at Mahoning Valley and just had a good year there."
Rodriguez is hoping that all of the work with his strength and conditioning as well as improvements with his bat and defense will help him have a much better showing at Lake County this time around. He spent two months in the Indians strength and conditioning program out in Arizona over the December and January months and feels like he is in much better shape after turning some of his body fat into muscle.
"It just feels good to be back to playing baseball," Rodriguez said. "I have improved a lot with my defense and improved on my hitting just trying to slow down the aspects of my hitting approach. Defensive-wise I am getting better and I am just trying to stay focused and have a good year."
After enduring the early season struggles he did with the Captains last season, Rodriguez feels he is better prepared to handle the pitching at the Low-A level and play in cold weather in the early parts of the season.
"[I learned to not] put too much pressure on myself if things don’t start off on quite on the right foot like I want them to," Rodriguez said. "It is not the way you start, it is the way you finish. I just want to try and improve every month of the season and try to stay focused and not put too much pressure on myself if I go into a slump. I know I can break out of it if I keep on working."
Rodriguez was born in New York, grew up there, and attended George Washington High School in New York City. Some may recall that the Indians drafted a prolific hitter by the name of Manny Ramirez out of the same high school a little of 20 years ago. It is a good baseball program that has been run by head coach Steve Mandl – this season is his 30th as the skipper of the team. He has coached Ramirez, Rodriguez and many other players that have gone into professional baseball.
"It is a great program and every year it gets better," Rodriguez said. "Just knowing that Manny came out of there, a lot of players like to go there and it has the same coach as when Manny was there."
It was right around the time of his freshman year that Rodriguez began to believe that he could play professionally one day. He had a significant growth spurt in the summer of his eighth grade year where he came into high school as big or bigger than most seniors.
"Going into my freshman year I knew I had a chance of being drafted if I worked my butt off," Rodriguez said. "I just tried to improve every year in high school and everything worked out my senior year, thank God."
Rodriguez only played catcher and did not pitch or play any other positions, and his sophomore year he started attending showcases throughout the country to get his name out there. He did just that in 2011 when he won the Perfect Game home run contest at Petco Park in San Diego.
"I started traveling in the summer of my sophomore year to go to showcases and make a name for myself," Rodriguez said. "Every year I had a good summer so my name was out there."
Rodriguez has certainly made a name for himself as one of the Indians’ better prospects. His power is his best tool, but he shows some ability with the bat and a developing approach. He is also showing some steady improvement with his defense at first base, a position he is new to after being moved there during the fall of 2012.
"I am just trying to work on every little thing in my defense to get better," Rodriguez said. "My first year in rookie ball the transition was tough because I could not get a read on popups well because it has a different spin on it than a fly ball to the catcher. I worked on it all offseason and in spring training last year and I got better. Now everything is coming together naturally."
Rodriguez hopes to continue his work at first base this season and at the same time show a much more consistent and potent bat than he did with the Captains last season.
"I just want to try and be a better player than I was last year," Rodriguez said. "I want to challenge myself to be a better player than the two months I was in Lake County last year. I just want to play my game and not put too much pressure on myself and see how I improve and just go from there."