Rodriguez, a 24-year-old first baseman presently playing for Low-A Greenville, is the latest success story in a line of independent league signees given a second life in the Red Sox system. The Colombian slugger has been the primary offensive catalyst in leading the Drive -- the only Red Sox minor league affiliate to make the postseason -- to being just two wins away from the South Atlantic League Championship. And he comes with a similarly interesting back story to those of Nava and Coello.
A native of Cartagena, Colombia, Rodriguez signed with the Yankees organization as a catcher at the age of 17 in 2003. He spent five seasons lingering at the rookie-ball level in the Yankees’ system, highlighted by 2005 and 2007 campaigns in which he hit .335 and .349, respectively, in the Dominican Summer League. However, he missed all of the 2008 season with an arm injury, and New York released him following his recovery in late 2008.
After receiving his walking papers, Rodriguez returned home that offseason to play for Monteria of the Colombian Winter League, a non-affiliated foreign league sponsored by major league shortstop Edgar Renteria. In reigniting his career in Colombia, Rodriguez moved back to first base, a position he primarily played as an amateur. In 49 games for the Leones, he hit .378/.468/.558 with 17 doubles and 4 home runs, taking home the league batting title and most valuable player honors.
From there, Rodriguez signed on with the Yuma Scorpions of the independent Golden Baseball League, a team that had just signed an affiliation agreement with the Colombian Winter League to field a roster exclusively comprised of Colombian players. Rodriguez excelled in 74 games with the Scorpions in 2009, hitting .335 with six triples and six home runs, earning himself the nod as the GBL Rookie of the Year. He was also named the top prospect in all of the independent leagues by Baseball America in 2009, a recognition bestowed upon Nava in 2007.
The Red Sox acquired Rodriguez's rights from Yuma following the 2009 season, but not without controversy. Contemporaneously with Boston’s acquisition, Kansas City reported to the commissioner’s office that it had previously reached an agreement with Rodriguez on a minor league deal, a claim that the first baseman rebuffs.
“The Royals were interested and said that they signed me -- but that wasn’t true,” said Rodriguez, using Greenville hitting coach Luis Lopez as a translator. “When Boston found out I was available, I actually signed with them.”
In late October 2009, the dispute was resolved when the commissioner’s office found that Boston went through proper channels by acquiring Rodriguez’s rights from Yuma before signing him to a three-year minor league deal.
After signing with Boston, Rodriguez returned home to play with Monteria this past winter and put up a line of .303/.386/.455. He came into spring training in great shape, showing gap power, a strong ability to make contact and a refined plate approach. However, the Red Sox front office opted not to assign him to a full-season affiliate even though he was 23 at the time. Rodriguez took the assignment to extended spring training in stride.
“It wasn’t disappointing to me. I was just trying to control only what I could control -- my play on the field,” said Rodriguez, explaining that the front office used the extra time to analyze his skills in the outfield. “They asked me if I could play another position in addition first base, and I said I was willing to do it, whatever they wanted me to do.”
Rodriguez spent six weeks in Fort Myers before he was promoted to Low-A on May 15. “I worked down there as hard as I could, and when I got the chance to come to Greenville, I considered it a blessing.”
In spite of his positive attitude, the first baseman struggled out of the gate with the Drive, hitting .163 in May. He showed slight improvements in early June, but his offensive game really started to come together following the June 21-23 South Atlantic League All-Star break. After the break, Rodriguez hit .309/.416/.571 with 10 home runs in 175 at-bats for Greenville, earning SoxProspects.com player of the month honors for August.
He attributes the improved success to putting in extra time on the field and at the plate. “It’s just been a product of hard work,” said Rodriguez. “From day one I’ve just tried to keep my own routine -- spending time in the batting cage, trying to put work into the intricacies of the game on a daily basis -- that’s what the organization preaches.”
Rodriguez ended the regular season with a line of .281/.387/518, with 14 home runs and a .905 OPS, the second highest OPS in the Red Sox system behind Chris McGuiness, who was sent to Texas in the Jarrod Saltalamacchia deal.
In the postseason, Rodriguez has already vaulted Greenville to victory on three occasions. In four postseason games, he is hitting .412 with an .882 slugging percentage, including a three-hit, three-RBI night in an 8-3 victory over Savannah in Game 1 of the best-of-three divisional round and a game-winning home run in Game 2 to lock up the series sweep. He then led Greenville to a 3-1 victory over Lakewood in Game 1 of the championship series, going 2-for-4 with a home run and two RBIs.
“I can’t take the credit,” said Rodriguez. “I really just want to thank the organization for giving me a chance to play and my teammates for playing well and sticking together. It’s been a great season, and hopefully we can end it with a championship”
With the SAL Championship Series tied 1-1, Greenville travels to Lakewood, N.J. for the final three games of the best-of-five series. Game 3 is Thursday at 7:05 pm.
As for Rodriguez’s future, there is not a lot of room for error given that the former indy-leaguer is already 24 playing at Low-A -- and has only two years left on his contract. Much like Nava before him, Rodriguez will need to produce quickly at every level in order to climb the organizational ladder. But with the examples of Darnell McDonald, Nava and reliever Coello this year alone, the Red Sox organization has certainly shown that there is the potential for major league advancement for all players who produce, regardless of age and background.
Look for Rodriguez to begin the 2011 season as the starting first baseman for High-A Salem, with the opportunity for a midseason promotion to Double-A Portland, a track that would mirror Nava’s advancement from the 2009 season.
Rick Connolly of SoxProspects.com contributed to this column.