Rodgers' Versatility Gets a Test In 2018
By Jack Etkin
Shortstop Brendan Rodgers is in his first big league camp, a developmental milepost that will launch a season where his versatility is expected to increase.
Farm director Zach Wilson said Rodgers would work at third base, a position he has never played professionally, but not play there in major and minor league spring games. Wilson said Rodgers, 21, would play second base and shortstop this spring in both Cactus League and minor league games.
By the end of the season, Wilson said, “I wouldn't be surprised if you saw kind of an equal split" for Rodgers between the three positions. The intent, Wilson said, is to make Rodgers more versatile “so that when his bat is big league ready, wherever that opportunity ends up, he can go in there and play and feel confident at any of those three positions.”
Wilson likened this developmental approach to that employed with shortstop Trevor Story. Before reaching the majors on Opening Day in 2016, Story played 29 games at second base, 73 at third base and 409 at shortstop. Rodgers, the third overall pick out of Lake Mary (Fla.) High in 2015, who signed for a franchise-record $5.5 million, has played 34 games at second base and 165 at shortstop.
He missed the first 17 games last season at high Class A Lancaster with a bruised left wrist before hitting .387/.407./671 in 51 games with 12 home runs. Rodgers then hit .260/.323/.413 with six homers and 17 RBIs in 38 games at Double-A Hartford, where he missed three weeks with a right quad strain and had 36 strikeouts and eight walks in 164 plate appearances.
The Rockies sent Rodgers back to Lancaster to play in three of the final four regular-season games so he could then gain the valuable experience of participating in the California League playoffs. Lancaster took the best-of-five game series 3-1 from Rancho Cucamonga in the first round before getting swept in three games by Modesto in the best-of-five series for the league championship. Rodgers went 5-for-17 with one homer and four RBI against Rancho Cucamonga and 1-for-11 with a double against Modesto, playing shortstop in the first playoff game and serving as the designated hitter in the final six.
The righthanded-hitting Rodgers has a simple swing and is short to the ball but with power. He uses his hands very well, enabling him to manipulate the barrel of the bat and maintain that power. And Rodgers is also adept at incorporating the lower half of his body in his hitting approach and swing. Wilson said Rodgers' gifted hands, how well he uses the big muscles in his lower half and his ablity to keep his head still during his swing are “how he's able to stay short but also have the power.”
“As he continues to get stronger and continues to see advanced pitching, that's only going to continue to improve," Wilson added. “He needs to see advanced pitching on a consistent basis. That's where he's going to continue to improve as he starts to see the big league type of breaking balls and the big league type of changeups and starts to recognize what he can attack and what he needs to lay off. And I think you’ll see the strike outs continue to go down and the walks continue to go up.
“(He's) no different than a lot of guys that hit the Double-A level. David Dahl went through that at Double-A where he had to make the adjustment of continuing his aggressiveness but also knowing how to balance that with patience. And that’s kind of where Brendon is right now, because he’s an attacker and he’s going to attack things that he can hit and that’s part of what makes him really good. As he balances that with patience as he continues to see better pitching, he’s going to become even a better offensive player.”
At shortstop, Rodgers is particularly good at making plays where he has to come through the ball. He makes the off-balance throws necessitated by those plays very well. Rodgers has plenty of arm strength to play shortstop. Wilson said Rodgers has “very, very good accuracy and an easy plus arm. When he really wants to let it go, it can be a 70 arm at times.” Wilson was referring to the 20-80 scale scouts use to evaluate tools, with 80 being the highest grade.
There are questions whether Rodgers will be quick enough to stay at shortstop. Asked about that aspect of his game, Wilson said, “His lateral range to his left and right, his first-step quickness is going to continue to be an area of development for him...It’s more the first step coming off the bat that we’ll continue to work on. And last year he continued to get better there. But he still has work to do there.”
Not surprisingly, Wilson said Rodgers needs the most work at second base on plays around the bag. The position also requires adaptation in very general ways when compared with years of shortstop experience.
“People don’t realize, they think if you played short you can just move over and play second base,” Wilson said. “It’s a much different position because everything’s across your body, whereas at short, everything’s going right toward first base. That takes an adjustment, that takes understanding where to release the ball, the different arm angles you got to use. He’s a good enough athlete with good enough hands, and he’s fundamentally sound. When you combine that stuff, he’s going to have no issue making the transition either to there or third base.”
Assuming Story, an outstanding defender, continues to build offensively off his second half of 2016 when he hit .254 with an .834 OPS after hitting .224 with a .699 OPS in the first half and holds down shortstop, and Rodgers' bat continues to develop, Rodgers could replace Rockies second baseman DJ LeMahieu in 2019. LeMahieu, who turns 30 in July, can be a free agent after this season when his salary will be $8.5 million. It's not like the Rockies are looking to part ways with LeMahieu, by any means. But they have weighty financial decisions looming with center fielder Charlie Blackmon, also eligible for free agency after this season, and third baseman Nolan Arenado, who can become a free agent after 2019. If the Rockies deem him ready, Rodgers could provide a low-cost alternative to LeMahieu next year.