Dereck Rodriguez hit his first home run as an Elizabethton Twin on Tuesday, but the organization already knew he had some “pop” in his bat.
Rodriguez is the son of future Hall of Famer Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez. And while it’s obvious baseball’s in his blood, Rodriguez’s tools embody different prospects.
The 6-foot-1 Dereck, who turned 21 last month, is four inches taller than his father. He also gave up catching early on, and has spent the majority of his life in the outfield.
“You’ve gotta love catching,” Dereck said Wednesday afternoon while E-Twins staffers tried in vain to prepare Joe O’Brien Field for play. “I’m not a big fan of squatting down there for nine innings. I tried it for a couple of years. I mean, I liked it, but it just wasn’t what I love. One day they put me in the outfield, I made a good play and I’ve stayed there ever since.”
Elizabethton manager Ray Smith and Jeff Reed were major-league catchers, but they don’t needle Dereck about lacking the grit to wear a catcher’s so-called tools of ignorance.
“Nah, not too much,” Reed said. “But I tell you what, his dad was awful tough.”
Reed remembers playing for the Cubs and Rockies when they would take on Rodriguez’s Rangers.
“What impressed me the most about his dad was we came in there in July to play them, and Pudge had more stolen bases than the opposition had stolen off him,” Reed said. “And that was pretty impressive in July. I think Pudge might’ve had, like, 15 stolen bases and the opposition had, like, 12. He had a canon for an arm and he got rid of the ball really quick. …
“Pudge would catch, like, 148 games. To be able to catch that many games in that kind of heat in Texas, you’ve gotta be pretty tough.”
Dereck was born in Texas but moved to Miami when his father signed with the Marlins. Perhaps his favorite childhood memory was watching his dad play for the World Series champion Marlins in 2003.
“I was 11 years old,” Dereck said. “They had Josh Beckett, Brad Penny, all those guys. … That was a really fun season.”
Dereck got to play winter league with his father in Puerto Rico two years ago.
“I think it was the first time in Puerto Rico it’s ever happened,” Dereck said. “So that was pretty cool. I remember one time I tried to steal off him and he threw me out by, like, 30 feet. I kind of knew it was gonna happen. He knew I was gonna try it anyway.”
Minnesota selected Dereck in the sixth round of the 2011 draft out of Pace High School, and not because of his bloodlines.
“It wouldn’t have mattered what the kid’s last name was,” Reed said. “You could see that he had a lot of ability. … He throws very good. He runs pretty good. He’s got some serious snap in his bat, whip in his bat. He’s got all the tools, no doubt about that.
“He’s got pretty good instincts, too. He looks like he knows the way to play the game. He’s got a shot to be really good.”
Minnesota general manager Terry Ryan has come to Elizabethton every summer except one since 1986. He’s seen a lot of potential in Elizabethton dugouts, and sees a lot in Rodriguez.
“He’s got a boatload of tools,” Ryan said. “He can really throw and he can run, and he’s got some power and enough range to play every outfield position, including center. Now, it’s just a matter of refining those skills.
“He’s probably swinging through some pitches here he should hit. He’s fouling back pitches here he should hit. And he’s gonna have to shorten up his swing some to put the ball in play more frequently and consistently.”
Rodriguez is hitting .286 with five doubles, a home run and nine RBIs in 12 games. He’s steadily improved, having batted .156 and .263, respectively, in each of his first two pro years, which were spent in the Gulf Coast League. He’s also striking out once every four plate appearances after striking out approximately once every three times to the plate the previous two seasons.
Many hitters have said it’s easier to hit as you advance through the minors, as pitcher’s command and umpires’ strike zones are more consistent.
Rodriguez said he has seen better command from pitchers in the Appalachian League than he saw in the GCL.
“These guys are good,” Rodriguez said. “They spot up a lot more than down there.”
One of Rodriguez’s primary goals is to become a better base-stealer. He’s 4-for-5 in stolen base attempts this season.
“He’s just got a whole different body than his dad,” Smith said. “But he’s athletic and moves well and he’s got some sting – some life – in his bat. He’s got a good grasp and the mechanics of a good swing, and he knows how to adjust different components of his swing when things aren’t going quite right. He’s like a coach on the field.”
Smith remembers seeing Rodriguez playing for the Twins in Fort Myers, Fla., last year in extended Spring Training. His father had come out to watch, among other things.
“We’re playing a game against Boston or somebody like that,” Smith said, “and we looked over on the other field and his dad’s out there running sprints. And he just came to watch Dereck play. …
“Dereck has a lot of those characteristics. He comes out here every day ready to play. I think he’s mature beyond his years.”
Dereck’s pedigree hasn’t produced any pretense.
“He’s approachable,” Smith said. “He doesn’t act like a big tough guy that knows it all. He’s out there and has that wide-eyed enthusiasm. He’s trying to learn.”
The defending-champion Twins are a perennial power in the Appalachian League, and it’s easy for Rodriguez to see why with fixtures such as Smith and Reed instructing.
“They’re great coaches, great guys, great human beings,” Rodriguez said. “You know, they’re not like those type of coaches that are on you twenty-four/seven. They teach you stuff. They want you to work on it. But when you’re in the game, they let you do what you do best. They let your natural talent take over, and I like that about them.
“If you do something wrong, they’ll hint it to you here and there, and then they’ll work with you the next day. But they’re not pounding on you the whole game trying to do it.”
Rodriguez said Elizabethton isn’t everything he expected, but he prefers it over the humid, 102-degree weather in Fort Myers. He enjoys living with teammates.
One of them is pitcher Andre Martinez.
“I played against him in high school,” Rodriguez said, “We grew up like 10 minutes apart. So even in the offseason we hang out and all that stuff.”
The three other roommates are also pitchers, South African Hein Robb, Brandon Bixler (16th-round draft choice out of Florida Gulf Coast) and Sam Houston State product Dallas Gallant.
Rodriguez said his father plans to visit “for a couple of days in a couple of weeks.” Of course, it will be Pudge’s first time through the Appalachian League.
“My dad started off in high A and then went to Double-A, and then he got called up,” Dereck said. “He got the good life.”
Dereck has a shot at the good life, too.
“He has a chance,” Smith said. “He’s got a live bat. He can play D and he can run. He’s got a plus major-league arm and he’s got some pretty good instincts for the game. I guess that’s because he’s been around the game since he was a little guy all the way through.”