PEORIA, Ariz. – Julio Rodriguez has The Look.
It goes beyond his 6-foot-4, 225-pound physique, a body straight out of five-tool central casting. It even goes beyond his obvious baseball skills, which are on display here in the Arizona Fall League but, Rodriguez promises, are headed on the bullet train to T-Mobile Park.
No, it’s more about the charisma that Rodriguez exudes, a winning combination of charm, eagerness and confidence. Look at Rodriguez, who at age 18 has set for himself the loftiest of goals imaginable and mapped out his path to achieving them, and you see the future of the Mariners. And what a buoyant one it could be.
Dave Turgeon, the coordinator of instruction for the Pirates, has been around Rodriguez for a month as manager of the Peoria Javelinas in the AFL. Here’s what Turgeon said about the teenager.
“He has a joy of life, and he brings it to the game. It’s very obvious when you watch him play, there’s a joy in his heart.”
This one is for you, beleaguered Mariners fans. This column is for the cynical, who have watched 18 years pass by since the last playoff appearance. For the steadfastly faithful, yearning for the team’s drastic rebuild to yield positive results.
Rodriguez represents the pinnacle of general manager Jerry Dipoto’s dream scenario for turning his “step-back” into a title team. He and fellow outfielder Jarred Kelenic, 2o, are the youngest of the core pieces but also the ones with the highest potential to become the budding superstar talent the Mariners have craved.
“He wants to make Seattle proud, and he wants to bring a championship to the Pacific Northwest,” said Carson Vitale, the Mariners’ minor-league field coordinator who is serving as a Javelinas coach. “Julio’s bar for himself is as high as I’ve ever been around a player. Jarred is very similar in that regard. Just different packaging.”
On the way to covering the UW football team vs. Arizona in Tucson last weekend, I stopped in Peoria to watch two Fall League games and get a measure of these two blue-chip prospects. Kelenic, it turned out, had been shut down for the season as he dealt with some lower-back stiffness – a precaution after a productive season at three minor-league levels.
But I got to see Rodriguez in all his glory. The first day I was there, Rodriguez obliged by displaying his skills. He had an opposite-field single to right field, drew a walk, stole two bases and made a great running catch in center field as he crashed into the wall.
Though he was hitless in the second game (with a walk and RBI ground out), Rodriguez would participate the next day in the AFL All-Star Game, no small feat in a league that brings together the top prospects in baseball. Last year, Pete Alonso played in the Arizona Fall League. This year, he hit 53 homers for the New York Mets. Everyone here is on the fast track – and Rodriguez fits that description despite being the youngest player in the league.
Entering Tuesday, Rodriguez was hitting .288, with a .397 on-base percentage in 15 games. Though he has yet to show much power in Arizona, Rodriguez was bubbling about his stolen bases when I talked to him in the dugout after the first game. That brought his total to four in five attempts.
Few have doubted that Rodriguez will develop into a power hitter. If he can add stolen-base ability to that mix, well, you have two of the five tools taken care of. I asked him if he saw himself as a 30-30 type player – 30 homers and 30 steals.
“I’m pretty sure I can make that possible,” he said.
In person, that didn’t come off as cocky as it may read. Rodriguez is friendly, engaging and insists on doing all his interviews in English, of which he has perfect command despite growing up in the Dominican Republic and not coming to the United States until this past season.
Playing in Class A West Virginia and Modesto, Rodriguez hit a combined .326 in 2019 with a .390 OBP and .540 slugging percentage, 12 homers and 69 RBI. Though limited to 84 games because of a hand injury, the “JRODshow” (his Twitter handle is @J_RODshow) was impressive enough to rocket him up baseball’s prospect rankings. He’s No. 26 overall on MLB Pipeline, and No. 34 in Baseball America.
It has been motivating for Rodriguez to see Mariners minor-leaguers with whom he has already begun the bonding process reach the majors. It has been equally motivating to see players in other organizations not much older than him – the likes of Juan Soto (20), Ronald Acuna Jr. (21) and Vlad Guerrero Jr. (20) – break into the majors.
And he sees it sooner than anyone else thinks – like next season. That’s an aggressive timetable for someone who has never been above A ball, but the “JRODshow” doesn’t believe in placing limitations on himself.
“I don’t want to say I’m pretty sure, but I’m pretty confident if I keep doing like this, I think I can make it next year,” he said. “That’s a goal I have in my mind.”
Rodriguez has unambiguous ambitions. He wants to be a superstar, and lead the Mariners to a World Series championship.
“My main goal, to be honest with you, whenever people talk about baseball, I want them to mention my name,” he said. “That’s my goal for me.”
His confidence, he said, is borne of preparation and devotion to craft.
“I trust myself. I’ve been working hard, harder than anyone else, so I really trust all the work I’ve put in,” he said.
It should be added that such an attitude has not alienated Rodriguez from his teammates; quite the opposite. He is beloved by a cross-section of Mariners (and Javelinas) teammates that cuts across age, position and cultural lines. In particular, he and Kelenic have become close-knit.
Dipoto, speaking at a recent event, evoked a term he said he had never used to describe a player.
“Julio is a loving teammate,” he said. “He cares about everybody. He cares about the game. He loves what he’s doing.”
One reason Rodriguez has honed his English skills, and continues to do so, is so that he can better relate to everyone in the clubhouse.
“I really work hard for it,” he said. “That helps me a lot. Sometimes I don’t know the word, I just ask them. It makes the thing I love easier. I’m always talking to new people. I try to learn something new from everybody. I’m the person that asks a lot of questions.”
To which Vitale said: “He is one of the most advanced learners I’ve ever been around. Meaning, his ability to take information and use it to his benefit, whether it’s English or hitting mechanics or base running. It’s a very unique skill set.”
I can hear Mariners fans screaming, “Yeah, we’ve heard all this before.” And indeed, the organization has a long and sordid list of prospect flameouts. But Rodriguez wants to defy that history. He’s already planning a winter of hard work that will begin in the Dominican Republic after a short respite to visit his family.
“The thing I’m going to focus more is my body,” he said. “ … So I will put a lot of work in the gym, eating healthy, doing everything to get ready for next season.
“My numbers were really good this past season, but I still think I can be better.”
The “JRODshow” is coming, and it wants to be the best you’ve ever seen.