In the spring of 2009, the Tampa Bay Rays had to make a decision between two out-of-option starters: Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann. The Rays decided on Niemann and shipped Hammel off to the Colorado Rockies. In hindsight, Hammel has become the better pitcher, but who knows if he has the same success in the American League East. In return for him, Tampa Bay received 21-year-old right-handed pitcher Aneury Rodriguez.
Pitching at the Advanced-A level, Rodriguez posted a 3.74 ERA/3.38 FIP in 2008. Upon his arrival to the organization, the Rays promoted him to Double-A. He struggled in the early parts of the 2009 season, but finished strong enough to earn a promotion despite his 4.69 FIP. As a swingman for the Triple-A Durham Bulls (17 starts, 10 relief appearance) in 2010, he posted a solid 3.80 ERA/4.04 FIP in 113 innings.
The team left Rodriguez unprotected from the Rule 5 draft in 2009 where he went unselected. They tried to sneak him through again in 2010, but the Houston Astros scooped him up. While Rodriguez has talent and a potential future in the Majors, he was arguably the 10th best — or lower — arm in the Rays’ system. You can make a case for protecting him, but you can also see why there was no immediate need to burn a 40-man roster spot.
The Astros, meanwhile, were in desperate need of Major League caliber prospects. Upon the selection by Houston, Marc Hulet called it the best pick in the draft, noting that Rodriguez would instantly become a top-10 prospect in the system. Without many attractive alternatives available, it was not surprising to see him make the opening day roster as a member of the Astros’ bullpen.
In nine relief appearances, Rodriguez was okay. His strikeout rate (7.88 K/9) was slightly above-average while a walk rate of 4.50 per nine shows there is work to be done. His 2.25 HR/9 as a reliever looks ugly, but is a bit inflated by two home runs allowed in 10 flyball chances. The results are not awe-inspiring, but the Astros aren’t going anywhere and they don’t have many talented 23-year-old arms waiting to take his spot.
Instead of wasting more time watching the 36-year-old Nelson Figueroa in the rotation, the Astros recently swapped him out in favor of the youthful Rodriguez. Making his first Major League start on Wednesday, the Higuey native tossed five scoreless innings against the Reds. He allowed just one hit and one walk while striking out three in 83 pitches (49 strikes).
Had Rodriguez stayed with Tampa Bay, he would have ultimately ended up as a reliever. Not only because the talent ahead of him, but because he has yet to develop a solid third offering. In his relief appearances with the Astros, he threw mostly fastballs (60%) and sliders (30%) while tossing a few curveballs and changeups in the mix. It should be stated that in a small sample size, his slider has been pretty effective.
In his start yesterday, it was more of the same. Of Rodriguez’s 83 pitches, 80 of them were either fastballs or a sliders. He threw 61 heaters, 19 sliders and just three changeups. He located his fastball well (67% strikes), but his slider was more of a chase pitch (12 located out of the zone). It’s hard to argue with the results of five shutout innings on the road in his first start, but few pitchers can get by with just two pitches — and Rodriguez does not have elite stuff. Going forward, the development of his changeup and curveball will be key, which is not uncommon for most youngsters.
Considering the lack of depth at the minor league level, the selection of Rodriguez was a wise” risk” by Houston. At the minimal cost of the Rule 5 pick, Rodriguez is worth the “take and see” approach. It was also wise of them to remove a future-less Figueroa for a younger, more talented arm. The switch is simply a better use of assets. In his Rule 5 recap, Hulet said Rodriguez has the ceiling of a #3 starter. Even if he doesn’t reach that potential, the Astros are losing nothing this season by giving him a shot.