Thursday, April 28, 2011

OTF's 32 Most Interesting Prospects: No. 28, Rafael Rodriguez, OF and Carlos Willoughby, 2B

I was torn between these two mainly because I like what they bring to the table, but I'm a bit unsure if they really will develop into legitimate Major League players. As enticing as their tools and skills are, they both don't offer much power, and they have shown some inconsistencies at the plate in their short times in the minors (mostly so in Rodriguez's case). That being said, they still are extremely young (Rodriguez is only 18 years old and Willoughby is only 22), so they still have a lot of time to develop, which makes me optimistic.

Rodriguez came in with a lot of hype when he was signed as a 16 year old out of the Dominican Republic. At the time, Rodriguez got one of the biggest signing bonuses in team history at $2.55 million passing Angel Villanona's, who signed for $2.1 million in 2006 (Buster Posey later passed him in 2008). When he was signed, many people were making comparisons to Vladimir Guerrero in terms of his body type and athleticism. At six-foot, five-inches and 198 pounds, it is certainly understandable to see the Guerrero comparison, but so far, Rodriguez hasn't really lived up to lofty projection.

In the Arizona Rookie League in 2009, Rodriguez held his own in 148 plate appearances, posting a .299 average and a .392 OBP. While he didn't hit for much power (he hit no homers and he only had eight extra base hits), his plate patience was a promising sign considering his age at the time (he was only 17). However, the next season he took a bit step back as he struggled in his second go-around in Rookie League and his promotion to the Northwest League. In a combined 181 plate appearances between Arizona and Salem-Keizer, Rodriguez hit only .265 with a .309 OBP and .653 OPS. What was even more concerning though was his change in plate discipline (as his walk numbers dipped from 16 to 8) and how overwhelmed he looked in Short Season Single-A. In the Northwest League, he only hit .163 with a .459 OPS and had 12 strikeouts in 63 plate appearances. The only silver lining to this was the fact he was only 17 years old, and he was competing with guys who were three to five years older than him.

This Spring though, Rodriguez was "stinging the ball" in Minor League according to AZ, and ended up getting a promotion to Augusta despite the lackluster campaign with the Volcanoes. So far, he's off to a good start as he is hitting .293 with a .711 OPS. He has also recaptured some of the plate approach he flashed in Rookie League in 2009, as he has five walks and only three strikeouts in 63 plate appearances. As AZ stated, Rodriguez is still raw, but if he can develop his strength (which is likely as he gets older and grows into his tall frame) and continue the solid plate approach of 2009 and this year, he could become a legitimate prospect a few years down the road (not necessarily a bad thing considering his age).

As for Willoughby, he's a bit older than Rodriguez, but he already has a lot of professional experience under his belt. At 18, the native of Colombia began in the Dominican Summer League and immediately had an impact with the Giants' club. In three seasons in the DSL, he posted OPS numbers of .756, .759 and .904. The most attractive quality of Willoughby's game seems to be his speed, as he stole 91 bases in three seasons in the Dominican Republic. As he made the transition to the states in 2010, he didn't slow down, as he posted an OPS of .804 and stole 23 bases in 27 attempts in 45 games in the Arizona Rookie League.

Willoughby is a lot more developed than Rodriguez and his plate patience numbers have been a lot more consistent than Rodriguez. Willoughby posted a .372 OBP in the Arizona Rookie League last year and this year, he has an OBP of .402. Even in the DSL, the same proved to be true, as he never had an OBP below .414 in his three years in the DR.  With his speed and ability on the basepaths (he already has 10 stolen bases in only 19 games with the Green Jackets), his ability to draw a walk and get on base only adds to value as a prospect.

My only issue with Willoughby, much like Rodriguez, is that Willoughby seems to be more of a slap hitter without much power. His slugging percentage in his three years in the DSL was only .388, and unlike Rodriguez, it doesn't seem like he has a lot of potential to develop much power the future considering his size (he's five-feet, 10-inches and 170 pounds). That being said, Willoughby did post a slugging of .432 with six triples last year, so if he can hone his slap-hitting abilities, while still maintaining his patient plate approach, the lack of "big fly" potential might not be a big issue anyways. After all, Jose Reyes isn't hitting 30 bombs a year, but he is still a threat because is he able to stretch singles into doubles and doubles into triples. Willoughby could have the same kind of potential (then again, he could also develop into Luis Castillo as well).

In terms of upside? I like Rodriguez more. In terms of who's better now and will have a shot of breaking into the higher levels of the Giants system sooner? I got to go with Willoughby. Either way, these two are both very interesting players, and their good starts so far in the SALLY this year should give Giants fans (and the Giants management) a lot of hope concerning their potential as prospects.


  1. I like RafRod as a prospect a lot more than you do. I had him 6th (and I only ranked down to 6th), but perhaps you weigh closeness to the majors more than I do (I tend to lean a lot more towards potential than closeness, mostly because most other seem to value closeness more, just to give another perspective).

    Obviously, hasn't really done much, but really, what he has done has been masked by the fact that he's been much younger than the players he's playing against, which gives him a huge disadvantage.

    There are two things I focused on which led me to rate him highly. First of all, all the scouting reports rate him very highly as a physical specimen and talk of him as a 5-tool player. That tells me that he should have the raw physical talents that he could make into a good all-around ballplayer. And regarding power, remember that Sandoval had no power until he hit 22 YO.

    Second of all, we do have some evidence of what he might do once he is older and closer in age to the opposing team, his time in the Rookie League. True, he didn't dominate, but this league is more pitching oriented, so his numbers, while underwhelming on the surface, is actually pretty good.

    First, his OPS was above average both years, so even though he looks like he regressed in 2010, and quantitatively he did, he was still above average, as the average was just .237/.326/.365/.692 and he hit .301/.323/.398/.722.

    And just look at the batting average .301 vs. .237! He can learn to walk, but you can't learn to hit, typically. And he did take a lot of walks his first time in the league, .299/.392/.362/.754, leading to a great OBP. And he bumped up his ISO from 63 to 97.

    Second, the accomplishments as a hitter is magnified by the fact that he was 16/17 YO in a league where the average pitcher was 20.4 YO in 2010. So he's 3-4 years younger, meaning he's physically not near them nor has the experience of them either. Yet he was an above average hitter in the league.

    Third, I was encouraged by his strikeout rate. It was not great in normal terms, roughly 82% contact rate, but given #2 above, that is great as he was close to the 85% that the better hitters are at or better. And given small samples, he could be even closer given enough ABs.

    That's why I think he will prove to be good, the best young prospects are able to avoid the strikeouts even down in the minors (like Sandoval didi) and continued to do so as he rose. Then as he matures and develops, the power kicks in and take his batting line up to another level.

  2. I am intrigued by Raf as well, and I guess I rate him low on my rankings because he is so young and it's hard to really project on how he'll fare at this point. (Remember these aren't really a "who's the top guys" rankings but more of a "who interest me the most in my opinion" rankings; some of its based on projection, but some of my rankings are just based on who is either close to being major league ready or has had a fluctuating career in the minors, such as Nick Noonan for example.)

    I too have read good things about Rodriguez's athleticism and tools, and I don't think the Giants would have awarded him that signing bonus if there wasn't potential. I guess I'm a little judgmental on the guy because his numbers don't jump out at me, but then again, he is a couple years younger than everyone, so that goes in his favor. However, he is starting to pick it up a little and if he can show some more development in Augusta this year, I think I'll really be high on Rodriguez because I like guys of his skill sets.