For rising superstar J-Rod, what a difference a year makes

February 17th, 2023

PEORIA, Ariz. -- His world has changed so drastically in the year since he reported here as a precocious prospect eager to play his way onto the Opening Day roster. A childhood dream manifested. An electric Home Run Derby performance inspired. A drought ended. An American League Rookie of the Year Award achieved. A face-of-the-franchise trajectory underway.

is already a superstar in Seattle, quite possibly the next one across MLB. As he enters his age-22 season, what’s next?

“I feel like understanding the game was huge for me throughout the past year,” Rodríguez said. “And that's where I feel like I gained the most knowledge. And that never ends, so that's what gets me really excited because I'm looking forward to all the things that I'm about to learn.”

Since becoming Seattle’s fifth AL ROY winner, Rodríguez received congratulatory calls from Aaron Judge, Mike Trout and more in symbolic moments of game recognizing game. Yet despite his rapid ascent, historic for a player his age, he’s hungry to be a potential Most Valuable Player candidate this spring.

“With Julio, he's coachable. I've said it for a long time,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “He's coachable on the field. He's coachable off the field. He asks good questions, and I think he's talking to the right people to help him along.”

Rodríguez became the first player with 25 homers and 25 stolen bases in a debut season, and he passed Trout as the fastest to achieve those feats, doing it in just 125 games. Only eight rookies since Rodríguez was born in 2001 compiled more than his 5.3 wins above replacement, per FanGraphs.

From an analytical vantage, Rodríguez ranked in the 90th percentile or higher in hard-hit rate (50.75%), barrel rate (13.1%), sprint speed (29.8 ft/sec), outs above average (plus-9) and arm strength (93.8 mph average), per Statcast, joining Fernando Tatis Jr. in 2020 as the only players to rank that highly in all five since those metrics became publicly tracked.

In addition to his on-field exploits, Rodríguez demonstrated incredible charisma.

“That’s what endears him to our fan base so much, it's just the pure joy he plays with,” Servais said. “And along with that, young players have a certain innocence about them, and fans and people love that, especially when they're really good players. He’s an entertainer. I think that’s a big part of our game.”

Rodríguez achieved these feats despite hitting just .205/.284/.260 (.544 OPS) with zero homers in April, perhaps aided by some arguably inconsistent strike zones. He also played just 132 games overall, hitting the IL in the second half with a right wrist contusion and a lower back strain.

All of this has the Mariners bullish on what J-Rod could be with a full season at full strength, but given his high-octane style of play -- and that he was admittedly gassed towards season’s end -- health is as paramount for him as it is for any of Seattle's position players.

“I feel like you've always got to stay with your routine,” Rodríguez said. “I feel that's always going to take you a long way because it's a long season. If you basically step away from it or like things like that, it could definitely get dangerous for you. I feel like that was my biggest takeaway.”

The Mariners will watch Rodríguez play in the upcoming World Baseball Classic with full support -- but also with bated breath, strictly for health reasons. But the opportunity to play in the most prominent international baseball tournament -- and more so, his passion for his homeland in the Dominican Republic -- was too special to pass up.

“When I was a kid, I remember watching the World Baseball Classic," Rodríguez said, "and it was a dream of mine to be part of a lineup like that.”

Rodríguez knows that with prestige comes pressure. One year ago, he reported to camp a headliner in prospect circles. Today, he’s becoming among the most recognizable stars in the entire sport. With that status comes endorsements, media attention, fan adulation -- and the balance of handling it all while remaining elite on the field.

“All this stuff's great, but number one is baseball,” Servais said. “Be a good teammate. And as long as those priorities don't get out of whack, which is no different than a lot of other 21- and 22-year-olds running around the world right now, it's time management and prioritizing some things. And I don't have any concerns that he will be able to do that and continue to get better at that.”