“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
These famous opening words of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities could easily describe the 2015 season of Indians prospect Luigi Rodriguez.The now 23-year-old outfielder began the season at the High Class-A level for his sixth professional season. Even though it was his third season at the level, he had only 133 games with 449 at-bats there entering the year.
Injuries during the 2013 and 2014 seasons while in Carolina had derailed the progress he had made in 2012 while playing for the Low-A Lake County Captains. In that season he had eleven home runs, 48 runs batted in, and 24 stolen bases backed up by a .338 on-base percentage and a .744 OPS. With two seasons marred by an initial shoulder injury, his power and speed had fallen off to where he only hit a single home run in 2013 and his combined stolen base totals for the 2013 and 2014 seasons only reached 23, one shy of his previous season high.
So on opening day of 2015, assigned again to the High-A level, Rodriguez had something to prove. He needed to perform to re-establish his status as an outfield prospect in the Indians farm system. He did just that through the first half of the Carolina League season.
Through June 7th, he was tied for the Hillcats team lead in home runs with nine, within spitting distance of his career high of eleven. On May 5th against the Wilmington Bluerocks, he had a two-homer, five-RBI game. He consistently batted in the leadoff spot for the Hillcats and was a key player for a team offense that was developing into a potent force.
“Luigi is a guy who has a good batting practice routine, he works at it.” said Hillcats 2015 hitting coach Bobby Magallanes. “He’s one of the guys who has been most consistent, very few slumps. He does a good job of making adjustments, hits the ball great the other way and he’s got special hands. They are incredible, quick hands, giving him power to all fields, and he’s a kid. We really credit him as he’s come a long ways in his maturity.”
By the midseason All-Star break, Rodriguez had put together an outstanding batting line of ten home runs, 35 RBI, 125 total bases, a .342 OBP, a .854 OPS, and 16 stolen bases to only five times caught. Only Bradley Zimmer, who would be promoted to AA Akron immediately after the All-Star break, had a higher OPS on the Hillcats. This performance earned Luigi a trip to the California-Carolina All-Star game in Rancho Cucamonga, California, along with Zimmer and teammate Nellie Rodriguez.
When he returned from the break, Rodriguez was ready to go for the season’s second half and to build on the numbers he had put up.
“Try not to do too much, and work smart,” he said when asked about what he needed to do in the second half, “and be consistent, bring my A-game every day.”
Unfortunately for him, July and August were not as kind to his statistics as April, May and June had been.
On July 31st, he was placed on the disabled list for the fourth time in the past three years. He would not play in another game during the 2015 Carolina League season.
His final totals for the year were 12 home runs, 49 RBI, 183 total bases, 24 stolen bases, a .335 OBP, and an OPS of .827. The homers, RBI, OPS, and stolen bases all exceeded or tied previous career single-season highs.
If that had been the end of his season, he could have looked forward to a possible move up to AA Akron either to start or at some time later during the 2016 season. Instead, on August 14th, the agate type had a more disappointing message to those who had followed Rodriguez’s path – Lynchburg Hillcats place RF Luigi Rodriguez on the restricted list.
This is not what any aspiring major leaguer wants to see. MLB announced that he and veteran Major League pitcher Jose Valverde were both suspended for 80 games for testing positive for a banned steroid.
The gains, seasonal career highs, and a pathway to a possible Major League opportunity had changed for Luigi Rodriguez.
His six years of toil, struggle, and injury from playing in the Dominican Summer League at the age of 17 to his league-wide excellence in 2015 were cast into doubt. Was the performance everyone saw on the field this season Luigi Rodriguez, or was it a product of his use of the banned steroid Stanozolol?
The Indians did not put Rodriguez on the 40-man roster at season’s end, and no one selected him in the Rule V draft.
On October 16th, 2015, he was assigned to the Gigantes del Cibao, a Dominican Winter league club. He got into eleven games for a team that featured several former and current Major Leaguers, notably Wilson Betemit, Marcell Ozuna, Matt Joyce, and Phillies top prospect Maikel Franco.
In limited time (eleven games and 23 at-bats), he hit .111 with one home run and three RBI, accumulating only seven total bases, and having no walks to ten strikeouts…not the type of performance you would want to see to suggest his recent past performance was due to mastering his talent and skills.
Instead, as spring training for 2016 draws near, Luigi Rodriguez is back where he started the 2015 season, sitting on a question mark. Once he has served the remainder of his 80-game suspension, will he be able to recapture his prospect status, or will he just become an organizational man?
Only time will tell which direction Rodriguez heads. He is young enough at 23 to still make something of his career in baseball, but now he will have to overcome suspicion as well as all the other challenges faced by every player who dons a uniform to play professionally.
Photo: Max Oden/The News & Advance