With Spring Training just around the corner, it’s officially prospect ranking season. Baseball America just released their Top 100, MLB Pipeline is scheduled to do the same tomorrow, and FanGraphs is slowly publishing their detailed system reports. In Walker Jenkins and Brooks Lee, Minnesota has two consensus top-40 prospects, but there is no player in the Twins’ system more polarizing than Emmanuel Rodriguez.
MLB Pipeline has always been higher on him, ranking 48th in their prospect list by the end of the season and likely to be even higher in their updated list, but didn’t even crack FanGraphs’ Top 100 prior to the 2023 season.
Part of that is due to certain evaluators’ preferences. FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen tends to like prospects with high floors, explaining why Brooks Lee is in his top 10 and why Louie Varland and David Festa both ranked above Rodriguez in 2023. But, in a way, that perfectly exemplifies the type of prospect Rodriguez has become: high risk, high reward.
The upside is apparent, starting with his best-in-class plate discipline. Rodriguez has walked at staggeringly high rates across his minor league career, despite a lower batting average. Through 807 minor league plate appearances, Rodriguez carries a .242/.413/.463 batting line with a 21.3% walk rate. More impressively, his bat speed has maintained as he’s grown into his frame, allowing him to tap into plenty of power. In 2023, he hit 16 home runs in 99 games, along with 13 doubles and nine triples. His defense and speed have remained as well, altering many scouts’ assumption that he would move to an outfield corner.
So, a 21-year-old centerfielder with power, speed, and Juan Soto-esque plate discipline. What’s the issue?
Well, let’s start with the hit tool, where there’s the most split among scouts. MLB Pipeline gave Rodriguez a 50 on the 20-80 scale, essentially grading out as league average. Combine that with his age and other tools and he’s an easy top prospect. FanGraphs, on the other hand, gave his hit tool a 35 future value, projecting him to become a fourth outfielder. To quote Longenhagen’s 2023 scouting report:
Part of the reason Rodriguez strikes out so much is because of his tendency to run very deep counts. He is patient and has terrific breaking ball recognition, so he’s walked a ton so far in pro ball, but there’s zero sign of a two-strike approach here, and Rodriguez could stand to shorten up and be in better position to spoil tough pitches with two strikes rather than try to do damage all the time. Rodriguez’s swing is long and has big natural uppercut, which weaponizes his strength and power. It’s also part of why he has in-zone whiff issues against fastballs that will likely worsen as he climbs the minors. Because he’s built like a little tank and isn’t a long-levered guy, Rodriguez is on time more often than a lot of other hitters who swing like this. His swing is long, but his levers are short, and so he has a better chance of getting by with this swing.
Let’s also give Rodriguez a bit more credit. This report is dated June 2, 2023, before Rodriguez fully recovered from an early season injury and started hitting. The overall mechanical and approach critiques remain, but early season numbers could have been hurting Longenhagen’s evaluation. Below you can see his splits pre- and post-June 1.
Emmanuel Rodriguez Date Splits
The Edouard Julien Parallels
More good news: the Twins have very recent success with almost this exact type of prospect. Edouard Julien’s numbers at High A in 2021 were strikingly similar, hitting .247/.397/.494 while walking 19.4% of the time and striking out at a 29.1% clip. Julien followed that up with his breakout 2022 campaign where he spent the entire season at Double-A, raised his average to .300, dropped his K rate five percentage points, and maintained his power and elite walk rate.
One advantage Rodriguez has over Julien is his penchant for hitting lefties. Where Julien never hit left-handed pitchers in the minors, Rodriguez has excelled, putting up a .943 OPS against southpaws in 2023 and .991 in 2022. That figure will likely go down as he advances in the system, but as John Foley pointed out last month, hitters rarely close their platoon splits, so starting from a higher base is important.
Being two years younger than Julien at the same stages in their careers, Rodriguez doesn’t need to have the same giant leap, but he does need to move in the right direction in 2024. The Twins will be more patient with Rodriguez; he’ll likely start the season at High-A once again, with hopes he shows enough progress for a midseason promotion to Wichita. However, his minor league option clock is already ticking.
Whether he’s in centerfield or an outfield corner, the Twins need Rodriguez to show Big League ability soon. The farm system may be flush with infield depth, but the outfield is a completely different story.
Max Kepler will be a free agent after this season. If he plays like he did in 2023, he will be out of the Twins’ price range. If he plays like he did in 2022, they probably don’t want him back anyway. Matt Wallner is a prime regression candidate and fields poorly. Trevor Larnach has never been able to put it all together in the bigs. Byron Buxton will always miss stretches. After that group, the Twins’ best outfielders are utility players (Willi Castro, Nick Gordon, Austin Martin) and prospects that are even further away than Rodriguez (Walker Jenkins, Kala’i Rosario, Brandon Winokur, [insert your preferred 18-year-old in Low-A here]).
Outfield stopgaps are easy enough to find, but with the Twins’ financial future still uncertain, Rodriguez turning into a good fielding version of Julien would be a boon. Nobody has better insight on Rodriguez than the Twins, and while self-scouting has not been their strong suit in recent years, Rodriguez is still the type of prospect that could net them a top-end starting pitcher. If the organization is less confident in his development, better to sell now while his value is high than to see it crater after this season.