Lancaster, California —— Entering play Saturday night, Brendan Rodgers is now riding a 17-game hitting streak with the Lancaster JetHawks, the Colorado Rockies‘ High-A affiliate in the California League. Lancaster is a great place to hit—every rumor you’ve heard is true—but Rodgers is on a different level, slashing .402/.421/.701 to date this year with 18 doubles and ten home runs over his first 40 games. He’s only 20 years old (he’ll be 21 in August), but how much more can he honestly prove in Lancaster?
As Twitter alternately clamors for Rodgers’ ascension to the Double-A Hartford Yard Goats, and ponders whether it matters that he’s tearing up High-A in Lancaster of all places, there are a few things lost in translation. Rodgers has probably done enough for a promotion at some point this season, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s not for at least a few more weeks. Here’s why.
Brendan Rodgers scouting report — notes
There’s a ton to love about Brendan Rodgers, of course. Defensively, he’s a good shortstop with surprisingly good range and a strong arm, though his size and feel for the position both say to me that he’s probably destined to play second base or third base in the big leagues. He more than makes up for his value with his bat, and he’d survive as an everyday shortstop moving forward, but Rodgers is not the best defensive infielder the Colorado Rockies have in Lancaster right now.
Offensively, though, Brendan Rodgers is on a different level; his swing is short and compact with great bat speed, and the infielder has a great feel for finding the barrel. He’ll almost undoubtedly hit for average one day in the big leagues, but he’s deceptively strong, too, with a stroke that should see him hit more balls in the air one day—and he’s going to hit for some power. He’s pretty pull-heavy right now, though, and his plate coverage can take a slide as he looks to drive everything he can to left field. When he’s going to right-center, and his swing looks like this, he’s deadly:
Of course he doesn’t always take a right-center approach at the plate (nor should he), and often he’s liable to lunge out on breaking balls in an attempt to pull everything with authority, only to roll over weakly. He has good enough contact skills that he’s able to limit strikeouts at the High-A level and still put the ball in play (he’s whiffed just 26 times in his first 174 High-A at-bats), but that won’t continue against better pitching at higher levels without an adjustment at the plate to use the whole field more consistently.
Couple that with his abysmal walk rate—just 2.7% through his first 40 games this year—and you’ve got an extremely aggressive hitter who is able to overcome his free-swinging ways at this level thanks to great contact skills. He will see a challenge against better pitchers who have vastly improved command over breaking balls and the first base side of the plate, though. In other words, there are still a few things for Rodgers to iron out at the plate even accounting for his white-hot 17-game hitting streak the last few weeks.
Double-A is a different animal
“When you’re in Double-A, I don’t care what people think, you’re there,” a prospect in another organization with an affiliate in the Cal League told me a few weeks ago. “People don’t realize, that’s the biggest, hardest jump, and when you get to Double-A, you’re liable to get plucked [to the big leagues] at any time if you’re the hot hand.”
There’s little question Brendan Rodgers will make an impact in the big leagues within the next 24 months, if not significantly sooner, but Double-A is a beast that can temporarily tame even the best of prospects. His overaggressiveness will undoubtedly be exploited there, and the Colorado Rockies must weigh whether it’s worth it for him to struggle and learn in Hartford for a few months, or keep killing High-A pitching in the short-term to prepare for a long look at the Eastern League to begin 2018. You can make a case for either side, but it’s probably worthwhile to look at what the franchise has done in other recent situations here, beginning with the last major prospect they had come through the California League: right-handed pitcher Ryan Castellani.
After being babied through his first few years of professional baseball, the Rockies took the reins off Castellani in 2016 with the Modesto Nuts, and he responded accordingly: 142 strikeouts against 50 walks in 167.2 innings pitched last summer over 26 starts, with just 156 hits and eight home runs allowed. Named by several publications as the best pitching prospect in the Cal League in 2016, Castellani ran through High-A with a mid-90s fastball and Max Scherzer-like mechanics, but the big league club decided not to test the then-20-year-old with a late-season Double-A promotion. He’s in Hartford now, having made the massive jump from High-A, and he’s struggling a little bit to the tune of a 5.40 ERA and 76 hits in 66.2 innings pitched through his first 12 starts there.
Would it have been valuable for the Rockies to promote Castellani to Hartford for even one or two starts late last year to get his feet wet? Maybe. But he’s a key pillar to the organization’s pitching future, and at some point the decision was made to keep his development path linear rather than give him a jolt with the big jump to Hartford. He finished 2016 on a high note with a stellar season in Modesto, and got to re-calibrate to the big jump into the Eastern League, where he’s now making more nuanced adjustments against better hitters.
Go back a few years to a more positionally-appropriate comparison, if you like: Trevor Story. The Colorado Rockies stuck with Story after a first not-so-good year in High-A back in 2013, again as a 20-year-old, and opted to send him back to Modesto for another half year in 2014 where he hit .332/.436/.582/1.017 in 50 games in his second time with the Nuts, finally earning that promotion to Double-A. Of course, Rodgers isn’t going to repeat in Lancaster next year, but the Story trajectory is salient if only because it indicates the Rockies haven’t been in rush mode with their top prospects. As well as the big league club is playing now, too, there’s extremely little value in rushing Rodgers through the minors. The Colorado Rockies are the best team in the National League (imagine typing that a year ago!) and frankly, there’s little value to rush Brendan Rodgers right now. What’s to gain—attempt to get him big league ready by Opening Day 2018? They don’t need him soon; they need him developed.
What benefit does Lancaster really bring?
Lancaster is likely the best hitting environment in all of professional baseball, and Brendan Rodgers, like everyone else playing half their games at The Hangar, benefits from that. But Rodgers’ hot 40 games this year isn’t the product of high fly balls that catch the wind and land on Highway 14; more often than not, he’s getting the barrel on the ball and hitting line drives, rather than wind aided fly balls, to the left side of the field. The barrel skills will play at any park in pro ball, and while he may not hit quite this well at a more pitcher-friendly venue, he’s not fully a product of the wind-swept Antelope Valley any more than he’s a product of being a very contact-heavy hitter who’s flat out better than virtually all of the pitching at this level.
Yes, granted, his absurd .519/.540/.962/1.502 slash line in 18 home games in Lancaster is video game-quality, and that won’t continue forever, but if he were in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League he’d still be one of the level’s best hitters, albeit with a slightly more fair slash line. To call him a product of Lancaster alone, or to discount his contact ability and line drive pull approach simply because of where he plays, is as ill-advised as it is to write off Charlie Blackmon‘s stellar season in the big leagues simply because he plays at Coors Field. Good hitters get the barrel on the ball, and Brendan Rodgers—even with his overaggressiveness and too-pull-heavy approach—is a very good hitter.
Brendan Rodgers scouting report — projection
There’s a point where Brendan Rodgers’ complete dominance of the Cal League will get ridiculous. He hit .409/.434/.748/1.182 across the entire month of May, for goodness’ sake. If he does more of that over the next few weeks, there’s just no way the Rockies can keep him from some time in Double-A this year, whether it’s most of the season’s second half or a couple-week cameo at the end of the summer. One way or another, he’s going to hit his way out of Lancaster soon.
It wouldn’t surprise me if he earns a post-California League All Star Game promotion to Hartford in late June, simply because he’s better than the pitchers at this level. There are holes in his swing still, as is the case with any young hitter, and pitchers in Double-A will exploit them further as they get a book on his approach, but let’s not overcomplicate this: his raw talent alone is vasty better than what pitchers are throwing to him in High-A. He’ll struggle with overaggressiveness as he sees a steady diet of better breaking balls in Double-A, and his numbers and hot start will inevitably come back down to earth a bit in turn as he rolls over more off-speed pitches and wrestles with the vastly improved command of pitchers at that level. But that’ll all get ironed out in time, whether by the end of 2017 or at some point during 2018, and Rodgers’ talent will only rise. He’s as legit as they come right now, and is deservedly the Colorado Rockies’ best prospect. If you’re in southern California, as I am, go see Brendan Rodgers play sometime very soon; one way or another, he won’t be here for long.
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