How Ichiro helps Julio in next steps forward

February 26th, 2021

PEORIA, Ariz. -- The banter wasn’t there a year ago, when Julio Rodríguez was in his first big league camp as a wide-eyed 19-year-old, gushing over his first introductions to Ichiro Suzuki and succumbing to some shy behavior, wildly uncharacteristic for the oft outlandish outfielder. But this year is a drastically different story.

Rodríguez is just three days into Spring Training and already barking at his BP pitcher, Ichiro, in good fun. It started with a few sharp fastballs -- Mariners hitters tout Ichiro as the best BP arm for his ability to throw tight, crisp heaters with sink -- but it followed with a few intentional breaking pitches. After Rodríguez took him deep on Day 1, Ichiro dropped in a curveball to keep Seattle’s No. 2 prospect on his toes.

“If you think of a legend like that in your sport, you wouldn't think that he's so nice,” Rodríguez said. “Like, in my head before I met him, [I didn’t know] he was going to be like that friendly. I would have thought that he would have been in his own world. But like, he's with us, chilling, talking with us, having fun with us. As you can see, I just like facing him, somebody that I look up to, it’s great. He's great.”

Rodríguez’s admiration for Ichiro began when he was seven years old playing a video game back home in the Dominican Republic. Now, it’s Rodríguez who will be featured in MLB The Show 21 -- one of many signs indicating that his dreams of becoming a big leaguer could be right around the corner.

His infectious personality makes him a favorite of his teammates, and his joyous, positive and forward-thinking attitude helped him quickly move past the comments made about him by former president and CEO Kevin Mather, who resigned on Monday.

“I wasn't even thinking about it, to be honest,” Rodríguez said. “I'm focused on my progress. I’m focused on baseball and the field being with my friends enjoying the time here, because it was a long time without baseball. And I'm really excited to have it now.”

Rodríguez comes to camp leaner, healthier and with a broadened baseball acumen compared to where he was just six months ago. His hype as a newly minted Top 5 prospect in all of baseball, per MLB Pipeline, coupled with some uncertainty coming off a 2020 season in which he fractured his wrist and saw no Minor League action, make him arguably the most intriguing player in Mariners camp.

Rodríguez made up for the lost time last year with a very intentional offseason. He spent six weeks in the Mariners’ fall developmental league in October, then he played 18 games in the Dominican Winter League, which was no cupcake given the bevy of big leaguers he was surrounded by -- all of whom treated the DWL as seriously as the Major League season, he said.

In 64 plate appearances, Rodríguez hit just .196/.297/.250 with zero home runs and 16 strikeouts, a byproduct of running into some legitimate pitching beyond the fastball-heavy hurlers he’s seen in the low Minors.

“Playing 18 games in the D.R. is different than playing a season in the Minor Leagues, because you’re playing against big leaguers,” Rodríguez said. “A lot of sliders, a lot of fastballs. You get a guy throwing, like, 85 [mph] and then the next guy throwing 99, so just like a lot of that diversity and like, a different mentality out there.”

“It actually taught me how competitive baseball works. Because if you know, in the D.R., as in MLB, they work for a title. Like, that's what they're playing for. You still get paid and everything. But [a championship] is the main goal. … So that was what they taught me -- actually competitive baseball. And being around the veteran guys, it was just the best feelings. Like I said, the best feeling I've ever had of competitive baseball.”

After the DWL, Rodríguez connected with private trainers Dylan Smith and Joe Murphy in Tampa, where he hit and worked out five to six times per week each, with the objective of making himself more nimble in the outfield. He was last listed at 6-foot-3, 180 pounds, but he’s looked trimmer in camp.

He’s also far more relaxed. Even for the incredibly confident yet equally easygoing Rodríguez, at times last spring, he looked overwhelmed -- and not just due to his work with Ichiro and the stakes of playing in his first big league camp. Major League pitching caught up to him quick, and he was reassigned to Minors camp early.

That won’t happen this go-round, since Minor League camp won’t begin until after the big leaguers leave the facility for the regular season. But because Rodríguez’s last professional games stateside were in 2019 and topped out at Class A Advanced, he’ll likely remain in Peoria, continue training and break camp once the lower-level affiliates begin their respective seasons, likely in May.

For now, he’s installing the practices he’s learned this offseason and enjoying his teammates’ company.

“Julio is a special kid,” fellow outfield prospect Jarred Kelenic said. “Not even just baseball-wise. I mean, fans are going to get to see what he gets to do on the field, but not everyone in the clubhouse gets to see him as a person, and that's something that really separates him.”