A's Prospect Dilemma: Henry Rodriguez

Henry Rodriguez's outing on Thursday night was all too typical for the talented right-hander this season. Rodriguez's outing lasted five scoreless innings with six strike-outs. However, Rodriguez also walked seven batters. This has been an ongoing problem for Rodriguez and it has some wondering whether his future will be in the bullpen rather than the starting rotation. We examine the dilemma.

Since he arrived in the United States in 2006, there has been a buzz surrounding right-hander Henry Rodriguez. The Venezuelan native struck-out 59 in only 43.2 innings in his US debut with the Arizona Rookie League A's in 2006. He followed that up by whiffing 106 in 99.2 innings for Low-A Kane County in 2007, and has continued to strike-out batters at a prodigious rate this year, with 114 Ks in only 89.1 innings. Rodriguez uses an electric fastball that can reach triple digits and a hard slider to miss bats. He had those talents on display at the MLB All-Star Futures Game last Sunday, when he struck-out the side and saw his fastball register at 101 MPH.

Unfortunately, Rodriguez has yet to demonstrate that he can maintain control of his remarkable stuff for a consistent period of time. In 2006, Rodriguez walked 50 in 43.2 innings; in 2007, it was 58 walks in 99.2 innings; and in 2008, he has 66 walks in 89.1 innings. Rodriguez has shown the ability to pitch around his wildness at the lower levels of the minor leagues. This season, he has a 2.59 ERA and a .181 BAA in the hitter-friendly California League. In 2007, he posted a 3.07 ERA and a .214 BAA for Low-A Kane County.

However, that wildness caught-up to Rodriguez when he made the move to the Double-A level earlier this year. In 33.2 innings for the Midland Rockhounds, Rodriguez posted an 8.82 ERA. He struck-out an impressive 36 batters, but he not only walked a lot of hitters (36), he also found himself frequently pitching behind in the count, which left him vulnerable to hitters looking for his fastball. Texas League batters hit .329 against him as a result.

Since returning to the California League on June 8th, his control has improved. He has walked more than two batters in only four outings while striking out well more than a batter an inning (55 in 38.2 innings). However, he took a big step backwards on Thursday when he issued seven walks in only five innings against the Visalia Oaks. Rodriguez was once again able to pitch around the walks (he didn't allow a run), but his pitch count was quickly elevated by the walks, limiting him to only five innings. He left with the score knotted at zero, but saw the Stockton bullpen falter, as the Ports lost to the Oaks by a score of 6-2.

On Thursday, Rodriguez didn't issue his first walk until the third inning, when he walked the bases full while simultaneously striking out the side. He also walked three in the fifth inning, but escaped the jam unscored upon. Although his Thursday outing was an extreme example, Rodriguez has had numerous instances this season where he has been pitching relatively well, only to see his control suddenly escape him. In Midland, those control problems were most acute in the third inning, when he walked 13 in only eight innings and threw three wild pitches. In Stockton, he has had similar troubles in the third inning, walking nine in 10 innings.

"In Midland, it would seem like he was turning the corner and he would go a few innings and put up some zeros and then it would seem like all of a sudden, he'd get a guy on or he'd walk a guy and then maybe there'd be an error, and it would seem like he couldn't quite hold it all together," A's Minor League Pitching Coordinator Gil Patterson said by phone earlier this week.

It is performances like the one on Thursday night that has led a number of scouts to speculate that Rodriguez would be better off in the bullpen, where he would only have to concentrate on maintaining his command for short periods of time and where he could be pulled mid-inning should his control escape him. It is switch that has crossed the minds of the A's brass, although the indications are that Rodriguez will continue as a starter for now.

"He is still a work in progress. Whether it turns out to be a Mariano Rivera career or a Pedro Martinez career for him, I can't answer that at this second," Patterson said.

"I can give you my thought. My thought would be more of a Mariano. But, heck, if I had that crystal ball that could allow me to tell Billy [Beane], David [Forst] and Keith [Lieppman] what it would be for sure, I'd do it now so it would get him there quicker."

There are a number of benefits to leaving Rodriguez in the starting rotation for now, even if he struggles. Rodriguez is only 21-years-old and he is only in his first option year, meaning that the A's have three seasons to develop Rodriguez before he would have to be on the team's 25-man roster or be released. Relievers tend to move through the minor leagues rather quickly. The development of current A's set-up man Santiago Casilla is a good example. Casilla (who was known as Jairo Garcia at the time) spent the 2001-2003 seasons going back-and-forth between the starting rotation and the bullpen in Low-A. In 2004, the A's moved Casilla into the bullpen for good and he moved up three levels in one season and was in the big leagues by the end of that year. Rodriguez has already shown in "relief" appearances in the Futures Game and during major league spring training this past March that he can over-power even advanced hitters in a short appearance, so the learning curve for Rodriguez should he move into the bullpen may not be a long one.

In addition, the longer that Rodriguez stays in the starting rotation, the more innings he will have to learn to pitch. A dominant late-inning reliever in the minor leagues may not have too many situations where he has to pitch through a bases-loaded situation when his command is off. Then when that situation does occur in the major leagues, that reliever is unprepared to deal with it. Even the most dominant minor league starter, however, is bound to have some difficult innings during the course of a season.

Another benefit to keeping Rodriguez in the starting rotation is that he will have more opportunities to work on his change-up. His fastball and slider are both plus-pitches, although the command could improve on both. However, his change-up is very much a work-in-progress. As a starter, a third pitch like a change-up is essential for a pitcher's success. As a reliever, only two pitches are really needed. However, a reliever who can throw an effective third pitch in a difficult situation can be devastating for hitters to face late in games. A good example is the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim closer Francisco Rodriguez, who has added a change-up to go along with his fastball and slider this season. Although K-Rod's velocity is down, he has maintained a very high level of success thanks to his new weapon.

Lastly, the biggest benefit to leaving Rodriguez in the rotation is that the longer he is there, the greater the chance that he will put it all together as a starter. As valuable as closers and set-up men are to a big league team, starting pitchers are three times more valuable just by virtue of the fact that they pitch three to four times more innings than does any one reliever. Rodriguez has the kind of stuff that wins Cy Young awards, if he can learn to harness it. Given his relatively young age, it is worth it for the A's to take the chance that he can make the adjustments to become a number one starter.

"It's all a learning process. When I was with the Yankees years and years ago, and it wasn't for the same reasons, but Ron Guidry didn't pitch in the big leagues until he was 27, and there aren't too many people who wouldn't like to have had the career that he had," Patterson said when discussing Rodriguez.

"Sometimes, you don't get it right away. For every [Trevor] Cahill and [Brett] Anderson who seem like they are getting it quick, there's Guidrys and other guys that I am missing that takes them a little bit of time."

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