Editor’s note: This is the first of an occasional series of stories about how the coronavirus shutdown has impacted minor league baseball players.
Angels minor league pitcher Chris Rodriguez was nowhere near a mound the last two summers. Now that he has overcome a back injury that claimed his entire 2018 season and forced him to have surgery to repair a stress fracture after three starts in 2019, Rodriguez is ready to pitch again.
It is very likely he won’t get the chance.
Major League Baseball is grappling with the near certainty that thousands of minor leaguers will not accrue valuable game experience this summer. Officials are considering expanding the Arizona Fall League to help make up for the lost season. If an agreement isn’t reached, the Angels will consider beefing up their instructional league efforts, general manager Billy Eppler said.
Doing nothing would drastically slow the progress of many players and further stall the career of one of the Angels’ top prospects.
Rodriguez, 21, is not letting the uncertainty discourage him.
“At this point, it is what it is. I can’t worry about the future,” he said on a recent phone call from Florida. “The good thing is I’ve gotten very good mentally, where if this season doesn’t happen, I’m ready to take on the challenges and do whatever I can down here to make sure that when I do get on the field, I will be at my best and I can take advantage of every moment.”
Rodriguez was drafted in the fourth round out of Monsignor Pace High in Miami Gardens, Fla., in 2016 and the Angels paid him an over-slot bonus of $850,000. The right-hander progressed swiftly enough to reach a full-season affiliate within 14 months of signing.
Back problems surfaced in the spring of 2018, derailing the linear path Rodriguez had been charting to the major leagues.
Yet Rodriguez remains optimistic about his future. So do the Angels.
Despite having appeared in three games since 2017, Rodriguez has remained one of the team’s highly regarded prospects. Team officials gush about his competitiveness and his command of a large repertoire. He showed off those qualities for high-A Inland Empire last April, touching 97 mph with his fastball without letting his secondary pitches suffer. Before surgery, he struck out 13 batters and issued four walks without allowing a run in 9 1/3 innings over three starts.
“I saw the game reports as they came in after the first start, and I was really looking forward to reading the game report after the second start,” Eppler said. “He caught everybody’s attention. What’s the line from ‘Bull Durham’? ‘To announce my presence with authority.’… He announced his presence with authority early on.”
Before the novel coronavirus ended spring training in mid-March, Rodriguez was again commanding interest — this time on the lower fields of the Angels’ facility in Tempe, Ariz. He was pitching at full intensity, stronger than he had been the last time he was healthy. The core strengthening work he started in his rehabilitation last summer paid off every time he let a baseball loose.
“Stuff was, I feel like, the best it’s been,” Rodriguez said. “I was super pumped.”
The reports Eppler received matched Rodriguez’s impressions.
“I’m just excited for when the time comes and we can get him back on a mound and pitching to hitters,” Eppler said. “That would be good to see. Even in spring training in his live batting practice sessions early, he was making some noise on the lower fields.”
Rodriguez had propelled his career forward after spending most of the previous two years throwing in pain. He had to find other ways to improve. When he couldn’t even play catch post-surgery, he lay on his bed and threw baseballs above his head. He used those sessions to work on his pitch grips.
“I did hit the roof a couple times and it came back and hit me,” he said. “When that did happen, I had to be like, ‘OK, I’m done. We’ll resume tomorrow.’ ”
At least he is able to stand upright when he throws during this layoff.
Since spring training was canceled, Rodriguez has been working out alongside a group of baseball players he grew up with in Miami and friends he has made in the minor leagues. They play catch on a grassy field and throw off a mound they built in the backyard of a catcher who plays in the Cleveland Indians’ farm system. When they’re not doing baseball activity, Rodriguez works out in the garage of his parents’ home. It is outfitted with dumbbells, weightlifting bars and plates and some machines.
The setup is enough to keep Rodriguez on track even though he might not pitch all summer. Because he’s pitched only 9 1/3 innings at Class-A the last two seasons, it’s unlikely the Angels would include him among the handful of minor leaguers they’d place on a taxi squad if a major league season occurs.
“I’m a person who believes everything happens for a reason,” he said. “Maybe I’m not developing with the Angels right now but at the same time the Angels are keeping an eye on me. They’re staying in contact with me the best they can. I’m developing down here. I take my opportunity wherever I can get it.”