SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The biggest name among White Sox players in the Arizona Fall League is outfielder and $2 million international signee Yoelqui Cespedes, the team’s No. 2 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline.
But the prospect who has created the most buzz since the start of the season is a little-known, $50,000 signee from four years ago — 20-year-old shortstop Jose Rodriguez.
On performance, Rodriguez would make a strong case for Sox minor-league player of the year in 2021. He slashed .301/.338/.469 with 14 homers and 72 strikeouts in 501 plate appearances combined at Low-A Kannapolis, High-A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham. He also stole 30 bases.
Another middle infielder playing for the Glendale Desert Dogs with Cespedes and Rodriguez and making noise is Yolbert Sanchez, who earned AFL hitter of the week honors for the week of Nov. 1-8, going 7-for-15 with seven RBI. Sanchez, like Cespedes from Cuba, is ranked 15th on the prospect list.
“I’m proving to myself that I’m able to play with the best players and prospects,” Sanchez said.
Rodriguez, though — ranked ninth and climbing — is one who emerged from nowhere. His knack for getting the barrel of the bat on the ball, low strikeout rate and power for a middle infielder are drawing attention.
Rodriguez’s run through three levels of the minors was rapid, but there was no holding him back.
“I didn’t imagine moving along as quickly as I have,” Rodriguez recently told the Sun-Times through a translator. “But I’m very thankful. I’ve played very well, and I’ve earned it.”
Indeed he has. The Sox gave Rodriguez, the youngest player on the Desert Dogs, a spot in the AFL. The Sox like his gap power, ability to play the middle infield, potential to man an outfield spot and infectious energy.
“I absolutely will play in the big leagues,” Rodriguez said.
At 5-11, 175 pounds, Rodriguez does not have Cespedes’ array of tools, but he’s making people notice — and he’s four years younger.
“Certain players just have this determination to prove to the organization and the industry that they can play at the highest level,” Sox assistant general manager and director of player development Chris Getz said. “We identified that early in Jose. The first time we had him over at our Arizona instructional league, he stood out very quickly.”
Because of the 2020 coronavirus shutdown, Rodriguez was only allowed instructional-league playing time, “but, man, he didn’t skip a beat,” Getz said. “From Day 1 of the season, he just kept it rolling. He just loves to play.”
“Plays with a ton of energy,” Birmingham manager Justin Jirschele said. “He can run, has a great arm, plays his tail off at shortstop. Has shown flashes of power, so he’s exciting. He was dominating everywhere he went, and he opened a lot of eyes this year. You can see there is a fire lit, and he’s determined to contribute in Chicago.”
When Rodriguez signed out of the Dominican Republic as a 16-year-old, he said the small bonus didn’t bother him because he would play for free. But he used that as a chip on his shoulder by ascending to No. 9 on MLB Pipeline’s most recent list of Sox prospects.
“For sure, that was motivation for me,” he said of signing for the modest sum.
That said, Rodriguez admitted he wasn’t expecting to get paid by a professional team.
“When the time came and I did get paid, it was a surprise, a shock,” he said. “But I don’t play baseball for money. I play it for the love the game.”
When an interviewer reminded Rodriguez that baseball is a difficult game, that prospects often struggle and get beat up mentally trying to master a sport that often requires years in the minor leagues before finally reaching the majors — if they do at all — Rodriguez hesitated to agree, staring at his shoes while contemplating an answer. After all, he hasn’t struggled much.
“At times,” he said. “It depends on the situation.”
There have been rough moments defensively, primarily throwing, but Getz said those issues are getting ironed out. He’ll be a prospect worth watching next season.
“A real bright spot in the organization,” Getz said. “Hit from Day 1 this season and continues to develop at shortstop. He’s playing both second base and shortstop, and we really like the bat. The simplicity of the swing, the strength and the ability to play the middle of the field.
“And the kid loves to play. Great attitude, fearless competitor, and he’s still only 20 years old. So you can really dream on Jose.”