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Elite prospect checks all boxes

by Mitchell Gladstone | July 11, 2021 at 2:29 a.m. | Updated July 11, 2021 at 5:07 p.m.

Driving back from Santiago to Santo Domingo, Seattle Mariners Director of Dominican Operations Eddy Toledo called his boss, Tim Kissner.

It was January 2017, a full 18 months before the Mariners would eventually sign Julio Rodriguez to a $1.75 million bonus, yet Toledo was sure of the player he'd just seen.

"He said, 'I just saw a player that I would give every dime in our [international] pool budget for, ' " Kissner said, recalling his conversation with Toledo. "And I go, 'Eddie, we don't even know what that is.' We both kind of laughed and he goes, 'I know but whatever it is, I want to give it to him.' "

Kissner, then the Mariners' director of international operations, had gotten that kind of call before. It's not uncommon for a scout to come away enthralled by the potential of a teenage prospect.

But when Kissner was finally able to watch Rodriguez about a year later, Toledo's excitement made all the sense in the world.

"He checked the make-up box, he checked the passion and love for the game box, he checked the quality and character box and then he checked all the tool boxes," Kissner said.

Perhaps that's what makes Rodriguez, the No. 3 prospect per Baseball America, different from so many top talents. There have always been power-hitting corner outfielders from the Dominican Republic -- Vladimir Guerrero, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez, to name a few.

And despite all the skill and baseball instincts packed inside Rodriguez's impressive 6-3, 230-pound frame, no scout, coach, analyst or teammate can go very long without raving about the 20-year-old's disposition.

"[Baseball is] a game. It's fun," Rodriguez said. "You've got to enjoy it. If you don't enjoy it, it's not a game anymore."

'Raised right'

If the baseball world isn't already familiar with Rodriguez, it's going to see plenty of him over the next month. This afternoon, he'll represent the American League in the Futures Game as part of MLB's All-Star festivities in Denver.

In 18 days, he'll be in Tokyo playing for the Dominican Republic as baseball returns to the Olympics.

Those are opportunities Rodriguez didn't seriously consider until he was 14. Up to that point, he'd played plenty of baseball with his friends in Loma de Cabrera, a town of 20,000 just east of the Haiti border.

But it wasn't long after that when MLB teams first started to watch Rodriguez. He was constantly working out for clubs, and that was part of why Kissner, who made plenty of trips to the Dominican, had to wait almost a year to finally see Rodriguez in person.

The talent stood out that day, no question.

Kissner recalls putting Rodriguez through 20 to 25 live at-bats against 10 different pitchers with Rodriguez swinging and missing at just three pitches.

It was the conversation afterward, though, that was maybe even more memorable.

"A lot of kids, whether they're from the Dominican Republic or Seattle, Washington, they really haven't learned a lot of life lessons yet," Kissner said. "He'd been raised right. He talked about character and morals, and I remember thinking, 'Wow, this is a very mature kid for his age.' "

Once the Mariners signed Rodriguez on July 2, 2017, he spent the rest of that year and the next in his home country, working at the club's $7 million facility in Boca Chica.

Rodriguez made his United States debut in April 2019 at Low-A West Virginia and in 67 games, he solidified what the Mariners had long believed.

"[We knew we had hit] the first time he came to the United States and got to know him in person," Mariners Director of Player Development Andy McKay said. "You're looking at this physical human being that -- you understand the level of production he's had, you understand how to read a scouting report and then as soon as you see him, all those things check out for you.

"But it's not until you're able to get to know Julio as a human that you begin to understand just how special and unique he is. And for somebody that is arguably one of the top two or three prospects in all of baseball, he's also the most genuinely grateful and appreciative and selfless person we've had."

Anything he wants

All of that is separate and aside from Rodriguez's prodigious baseball ability.

Kissner typically would only sign up-the-middle guys as international prospects, but Rodriguez was a rare, instinctual hitter.

In his first season in the U.S., Rodriguez hit .326 with a .929 OPS and 12 home runs over 84 games. Before the Mariners promoted him to the Class AA Arkansas Travelers last week, Rodriguez was batting .325 with 6 home runs in 28 games for High-A Everett.

The power is, without a doubt, the can't-miss piece of Rodriguez's game.

And yet it's everything else that makes him that much better.

"There are a lot of guys that can hit long home runs in the minor leagues. But you have to be able to manage the bat, you have to be able to make adjustments, you have to have that natural ability to check down and put the bat on the ball0, and he does that," Baseball America's Kyle Glaser said. "It's not like he's home-run-or-nothing. His outs are hard. He'll hit singles, he'll hit doubles. He really can do anything he wants at the plate and that makes him really special."

The expectations of what Rodriguez can become remain almost the same as they were when the Mariners signed him four years ago -- a consistent middle-of-order presence who can be a perennial All-Star and MVP contender.

Much of that is because of the pressure that Rodriguez keeps on himself.

"Whatever people say, it's good, but I know what I have [in] myself," Rodriguez said. "The work that I've been putting in every day is higher than whatever expectation anyone has for me."

That shows in his on-field work -- he's become a plus defensive outfielder and baserunner, on top of everything he can do at the plate.

It also manifests in his English. While Rodriguez could speak and understand the language back in 2017, it's vastly improved and he does not use a translator.

But that's not the only thing that remains unchanged.

The character and maturity that Kissner recognized right away are what define Rodriguez.

And it was a simple voice message a little more than a year ago that reaffirmed to Kissner why he had no hesitation giving a 16-year-old Julio nearly $2 million.

" 'Hey Tim, it's Julio,' " Kissner recalled hearing on the morning of July 2, 2020. " 'It's been three years, man, three years since you signed me. I try every day to make you proud, make the Mariners proud. I keep working. I just want to say thank you. I'll always be appreciative.'

"For Julio to go out of his way, in his non-native language -- I hadn't talked to him for two years -- to leave a voice message of how appreciative he is, that's pretty special."

CORRECTION: Julio Rodriguez is the No. 3 prospect per Baseball America. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect name.

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