Young Tribe Slugger Rodriguez Plays with Something to Prove

The Cleveland Indians have a young right-handed slugger hitting his way through the farm system at first base, a position of consistent need for the organization over the last several years.

If you are active on Twitter and follow members of the Indians minor league system at all, chances are you already follow Nellie Rodriguez, the 21-year-old prospect who spent time in Lynchburg and Akron during the 2015 season. If you pay any attention to his tweets, you will find he is motivated to prove his doubters wrong.

The solid 6’2”, 225 pound right-handed bat was selected by the Indians during the 15th round of the June 2012 draft straight out of high school. He attended George Washington High School in New York, New York, former home of Hall of Famer Rod Carew and longtime Indians slugger Manny Ramirez, each of whom spent 19 seasons in the Majors.

Rodriguez can only hope to find success similar to what the pair had at the Major League level, and especially Ramirez, whom he has spent the majority of the last decade being compared to.

Rodriguez played rookie ball for the Indians in 2012 and started 2013 at Single-A Lake County, but was moved to short-season Mahoning Valley after hitting .194 in his first 47 games with the club with a homer and 13 RBI. He batted .252 for the year in 120 games, hitting 23 doubles, ten homers, and 50 RBI between the two stops. He returned to the Captains in 2014, spending the season there while appearing in 130 games. He hit .268 with 32 doubles, 22 homers, and 88 RBI for the season.

He was promoted to High-A Lynchburg last season and hit .275 over 108 games for the Hillcats. He matched his 2014 doubles production in that span, hitting 32 of them to go with 17 homers and 84 RBI. His early season numbers earned him a trip to the California/Carolina League All-Star Game, where he won the Home Run Derby at the event.

“Making the All-Star Game in the first half, that was awesome,” Rodriguez shared in a story on on August 18, 2015. “Experiencing [California] and the players was amazing. Just interacting with them and knowing how they go about their business and how much fun they have during the game was pretty amazing.”

In addition to the extra traveling for the All-Star experience, Rodriguez got a second chance to travel to new territory in early August, when he was promoted to Double-A Akron.

“Just an accomplishment knowing all the hard work I’ve been doing the whole year has been working, and I’ve got to keep on doing what I’ve been doing here,” Rodriguez said in a story in The News and Advance (Lynchburg) on August 10. “It’s the same game, just different levels and another step closer to my dreams coming true.”

Strikeouts tend to come to players who flash some pop, but early in Rodriguez’s career, they were attributed more to him being too selective of his pitches and not to the aggressiveness usually associated with a hitter with his power potential. His walk rate remained relatively consistent last season, but his strikeout rate hit a new career high as he struggled to adapt to Eastern League pitching with the RubberDucks. There, he struck out 37 times in 105 plate appearances and hit .118 in 25 games.

Even with some adjustment difficulties, he still showed his potential in his first plate appearance of Double-A action with a grand slam in a 10-3 win in New Hampshire against the Fisher Cats.

Rodriguez has fought through slumps, struggles, and demotions on the field and the loss of his father when he was just ten years old. He wears the number 25 in honor of his father, Nelson Rodriguez, who played in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization for one season in 1985 and passed from Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

Rodriguez’s strong season for the Hillcats and his passionate, loyal follower base on Twitter led him to a tie in a competition put on by his former Lynchburg club in the offseason. The organization conducted a fan vote in mid-January to determine the cover athlete for their 2016 schedule and, in a Steve Harvey-esque moment, announced that Bradley Zimmer had received the most votes in the contest. A second look found that Rodriguez had won the Twitter vote and Zimmer the Facebook vote, and the two will share cover duties for the pocket schedule.

Akron would seem to be a likely destination to start the coming season for the slugger, who will look to prove the doubters wrong and give the Eastern League a taste of the power he has displayed throughout his young career. His hopes of reaching the Majors depends on it and the Indians could use his help. With Mike Napoli under contract through 2016, Carlos Santana locked up through at least 2017, and the statistically-similar Jesus Aguilar still unable to punch through for a spot on the MLB roster, there is a noticeable deficiency at the position and, if Rodriguez can stay on course with a season of development at Akron and another at Columbus, his turn would line up when the Indians could use him the most in several years.

It will be a new year and a new challenge for Rodriguez in 2016, but he has stood strong to the task before. While he may have some doubters out there, he certainly has his fair share of supporters in his corner.

Photo: Lee Luther Jr./The News & Advance

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