PHOENIX -- Julio Rodriguez should have been resting.
It was just after lunch, and his belly was full of his favorite food: white rice, kidney beans and roasted chicken. His legs were tired after his first three-hour training session of the day, but instead of taking a nap before the afternoon workout, the 14-year-old was back in the bleachers at the main field at MB Academy in Santiago, Dominican Republic, watching the prospect from Cuba who trained after him.
Back in those days, Rodriguez trained every day at the complex from 9 a.m. to noon. The Cuban teen trained for the next three hours.
“I can still hear the sound of the ball hitting the bat,” Rodriguez recalled. “It was so loud. I knew he was somebody, and I knew I needed to be that good. That was my goal, right there. Be like that guy. He could rake.”
The “guy” was 18-year-old Yordan Alvarez, who eventually signed with the Dodgers and has blossomed into a star with the Astros.
Now, it’s Rodriguez’s turn to shine. The 18-year-old, who ranked No. 10 on MLB.com's Top 30 International Prospects list in 2017, is the Mariners’ No. 2 prospect and the Major Leagues' No. 26, per MLB Pipeline. Where he goes from here is to be determined, but at least two things are certain: The Mariners believe in Rodriguez, and the young outfielder trusts them.
“I signed with the Mariners because I believed they want what’s best for me and the organization,” Rodriguez said. “They made me and my parents feel comfortable. That was important, because it was a family decision. It’s just been an incredible experience.”
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Rodriguez, who signed for $1.75 million on July 2, 2017, at age 16, had a splendid first full season despite being slowed by a hand injury. He hit .293 during 67 games with Class A West Virginia before he was promoted to Class A Advanced Modesto, where he put up even better numbers, slashing .462/.514/.738 in 17 games with the Nuts.
So far, Rodriguez has driven in three runs and scored twice in three games for the Peoria Javelinas in Arizona Fall League play.
“Overall, it was a good season,” Rodriguez said. “There were some ups and downs, but that’s baseball. I always felt like I could overcome all the obstacles in front of me, because I always remember what my father says: ‘See things in a positive way and learn from it.’”
Former Mariners’ supervisor of scouting for the Dominican Republic Eddy Toledo discovered Rodriguez at a tryout in Santiago when he was 14 and immediately made him a top target. There was a lot to like. Rodriguez was a big, muscular teen with tons of athleticism and power potential. The Mariners also loved his makeup. But other teams loved him, too.
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And if the Mariners were going to sign Rodriguez, they would have to not only win him over but also win over his parents. Yes, the money mattered, but the size of the signing bonus wasn’t the only factor for the Rodriguez family.
Julio Rodriguez Sr., an agricultural engineer, and his wife, Yasmiry, a dentist, made it clear that the team that signed their son would need to keep him on the right path on and off the field. The parents made education a priority and did not let Rodriguez sign until he graduated from his local high school.
In fact, Rodriguez’s tryouts were scheduled around school exams during the two years he trained with Quico Pena at his baseball academy in Santiago. The teenager often made the three-hour trek from Santiago to his home in Loma de Cabrera, a town near the border with Haiti, to keep up with his schoolwork.
“My father saw a lot of guys drop out of school for baseball, get released and not have a future because they didn’t go to school,” Rodriguez said. “He didn’t want that for me. What happened if I got hurt? It wasn’t easy trying out for teams and going back for exams, but I’m glad my parents made me do it.”
The Mariners, led by former international scouting director Tim Kissner, assured the Rodriguezes that Julio’s education would continue, and there were programs in place to help him develop as a player and a person. It didn’t hurt that the Mariners had a state-of-the-art academy for international prospects, complete with a dormitory and most of the amenities provided to college athletes in the United States.
Rodriguez also visited the academies belonging to the Angels, Rangers and Tigers. They also tried to sell him on their programs.
“We would bring him in on what was basically recruiting visits, and he would talk about things like wanting to win and wanting to be remembered,” said Cesar Nicolas, the Mariners' Latin America development coordinator, who now serves as the Double-A manager in Arkansas. “He said Derek Jeter was the guy he wanted to be like because Jeter won championships, and we saw that Julio had the same mentality. He’s obviously very talented, but the way he would interact with our current players was something that stood out. He was very confident and outgoing even at that age.”
The Mariners kept their word to the family. Rodriguez excelled in the club’s educational programs, and now he’s fully bilingual. He is also living up to his promise on the field.
Last summer, Rodriguez hit .315/.404/.525 with more hits (69) than games played (59) in the Dominican Summer League. He went on to participate in the club’s high performance camp in Arizona last fall and estimates he added 15 pounds of muscle.
Impressed with Rodriguez's work ethic and progress, the Mariners inserted him into five Cactus League games. He ended up with four hits and two runs scored in seven at-bats.
“When Cactus League games started, we would call over six or eight ‘just in case’ kids from Minor League camp, and every day Julio would high-five those teammates who were coming over and then come over with his backpack to the stadium to watch,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “We finally call Julio over for a game, and I remember [Mariners manager Scott Servais] putting him out there for his first at-bat and Scotty saying something like, ‘Are you ready?’ and Julio answers nonchalantly, ‘We are going to find out.’ He’s just so genuine and wildly talented.”
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Rodriguez knows there’s lots of work to do. Still, he has come a long way from those early days in Santiago at MB Academy on and off the field. And if all goes according to his plan, Rodriguez will square off against his old friend Alvarez in the big leagues one day.
“We are both young and in the same division, so it could happen,” Rodriguez said. “It would be cool to be on the same field again. I can show him how much I have grown.”
Jesse Sanchez, who has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2001, is a national reporter based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook.