The Indians have been trying and failing to develop a true starting first baseman ever since Jim Thome left for Philadelphia in 2002, but the long wait may finally be over. Of course, it might not be as well.
There have been plenty of solid options and some less so since then. Looking all the way back to the early 2000’s there were those who made it to the majors and failed, like Ryan Garko and Matt LaPorta (although he doesn’t really count since he came from Milwaukee), but even more who failed out before getting their cup of coffee. Who doesn’t remember the greatness of Michael Aubrey, Beau Mills and Chun-Hsiu Chen?
Taking a look at the current state of the position, however, there appears to be a new name to add to that list: Nellie Rodriguez. Rodriguez had a very limited tenure as the Indians potential first baseman of the future between the Indians giving up on Jesus Aguilar after 2015 and moving on to Bobby Bradley this year. The team showed their confidence in Aguilar and Rodriguez back in December of 2016 when they signed Edwin Encarnacion to the biggest deal in franchise history, four years blocking what would have been the beginning of Rodriguez or Aguilar as the Indians starting first baseman. While Aguilar saw some success (1.3 WAR) in Milwaukee, Rodriguez responded by hitting .170/.271/.342 in his first season in Columbus. With all the injuries, the Indians could have used another bat in September, but Rodriguez made the decision not to include him on the roster extremely easy.
It may be a little premature to give up on Rodriguez, who will become a minor league free agent after the 2018 season if not added to the 40 man roster before then, but it is only by a small measure. In addition to his looming free agency, Rodriguez is rule 5 eligible already and would have to be protected on the 40 man soon or the Indians will risk losing him at the Winter Meetings.
Despite hitting 69 home runs and 94 doubles between 2014 and 2016, Rodriguez saw his slugging percent dip to .474 in Akron, then .342 in Columbus while the light hitting short stop, Eric Stamets, was slugging .455.
In any event, this isn’t about Nellie Rodriguez, because hot on his tail is the Indians #2 prospect (according to the recent BurningRiverBaseball Prospect Rankings) and a top 100 prospect in baseball (according to Baseball American and MLB Pipeline), Bobby Bradley.
Bradley is two years younger than Rodriguez, but just one level behind and is played in the Arizona Fall League this year to make up some of that distance. Unfortunately, Bradley’s numbers are eerily close to Rodriguez’s and he suffers from some of the same problems. Take both hitters seasons in Lake County for example (with Aguilar’s numbers thrown in for comparison):
Following this, Bradley played a full season in Lynchburg and struck out 170 times. Rodriguez only played a partial season in Virginia following his season in Eastlake, but struck out 159 times between high A and AA before K’ing 186 times in his first full AA season. Instead of constantly improving his plate discipline, Rodriguez has looked more over matched at every level.
This is where Bradley has separated himself from Rodriguez. After posting almost identical seasons in A ball and having a lesser season in Lynchburg, Bradley made his adjustments and had a very positive growth season in Akron. Bradley significantly cut his strike out rate while maintaining his slugging percent and walk rate at a level that is notorious for separating out the players who will make it and those who won’t. Against a mix of talent in the AFL, Brandley increased his average and power production, but took a step back in plate discipline.
While we are currently in a new era as far as home run and strike out production is concerned, not just in the majors, but through the minor leagues as well, one has to wonder if Bradley’s minor league K rate is going to make him untenable once translated to the majors. Obviously, he made improvements from 2016 to 2017 and could continue to do so, but that’s impossible to predict.
What is worrisome is the fact that the Major League players who Bradley could potentially project to be similar to never struck out in the minors like Bradley does. Mark Reynolds, who lead the league in K’s four straight years at the beginning of his career peaked at 109 strike outs in 106 games in 2006 between Advanced A and AA. Chris Davis, who lead the league in strike outs more recently with over 200 in both 2015 and 2016, had his worst K season in 2007, but he still slugged almost .600.
In fact, going back to 2006 no Carolina League player has had a strike out rate that approached Bradley’s in 2015, so it’s difficult to project anything. The league record is actually held by Glenallen Hill (211 in 1985) and, while he never walked much, he wasn’t a big strike out victim in the Majors through a 13 year career. There may be no relation at all between minor and Major League strike out rates, so all this worry could be over naught.
The good news is that there is still time. While Rodriguez is nearing the end of his minor league days whether he is ready to be or not, Bradley just finished his fourth professional season and has not been added to the 40 man roster yet so the Indians don’t have to worry about service time, options, minor league free agency or the rule five draft. He can take his time in AAA to hone his game before getting the call-up.
Once he is ready, there’s no question that there is plenty of room for him. With Edwin Encarnacion preferably the DH, a slick gloved first baseman like Bradley would be a welcome addition. Because Encarnacion can play first, the Indians don’t need Bradley immediately, but he will be welcome as soon as he is ready, much as the Indians other recent top prospects fit in immediately by filling long vacant positions.