Cubs prospect profile: Right-handed pitcher Manuel Rodríguez
About 500 miles west of Havana, Cuba, and 700 miles southwest of Miami, Florida, sits Mérida, Mexico. It’s the largest city and capital of the Mexican state of Yucatán, one of Mexico’s eastern-most points jutting into the Gulf.
Known for its Mayan ruins, the city is also home to the Leones de Yucatán, a team in the Mexican Baseball League who have won their division in each of the last two seasons. Despite Mérida’s ties to competitive baseball, there has never been a major league player to come from Yucatán.
The Cubs’ Manuel Rodríguez is trying to change that.
A 23-year-old right-handed pitcher, Rodríguez was born in Mérida and played for three seasons with Leones de Yucatán. If he makes the major leagues, he’ll be the first Yucatán-born player to step on a big-league mound.
At just 17 years old in 2014, Rodríguez pitched his first innings for Leones de Yucatán with uninspiring results. He surrendered a home run and 4 walks in just 2.2 innings. At the time, he was over 11 years younger than the average pitcher in the Mexican Baseball League, according to Baseball Reference.
When he bounced back in 2015, with a 1.84 ERA over 49 innings, international scouts took notice, like the Cubs director of international scouting and special assistant to the GM, Louie Eljaua. After his age-19 season in the Mexican Baseball League, where he battled injuries and pitched only 16 innings, the Cubs signed Rodríguez to a minor league contract on July 21.
Rodríguez’s first innings in pro ball came in 2017 with Class A short-season Eugene before an August promotion to Class A South Bend. He posted a 3.94 ERA in 29.2 innings across both levels, striking out 38 batters, the first time he had managed to strike out more than one batter per inning in his pro career. That winter, Rodríguez pitched in the Mexican Pacific Winter League, with various former current Triple-A players as teammates — Ramon Urias of the Cardinals, Mitch Walding of the Phillies and Drew Ferguson of the Astros.
Rodríguez received a full-season assignment to Class-A South Bend in 2018 and remained there for the entirety of the season. He posted a rocky ERA, but managed to preserve his upside with a FIP that suggested ample bad luck and the highest strikeout rate of his pro career (30%).
Last season, the Cubs assigned Rodríguez to High-A Myrtle Beach, where he posted a true breakout season. In 47 innings, he held a 3.45 ERA with 65 strikeouts and only 17 walks. His FIP held steady at an incredible 2.04, suggesting that with league-average batted ball results, his ERA could have been even better. He even had a natural ability to suppress home runs, allowing only 1 all season, and pushed his fastball velocity up to 99 mph.
As last winter approached, the Cubs added Rodríguez to their 40-man roster along with shortstop Zack Short, catcher Miguel Amaya and right-hander Tyson Miller to protect them from selection in that December’s Rule 5 draft. The Cubs also invited Rodríguez to major league camp this spring, where he threw in 3 games before being shut down indefinitely with a grade 2 right biceps strain on March 1.
Rodríguez’s main asset on the mound is a hard fastball. He routinely touches the upper 90s, sitting between 94 and 97 mph and topping out at 99 mph. His primary off-speed pitch is a hard, biting curveball, which draws above-average grades from some analysts, suggesting the pitch can be more than effective against major league hitters. As all teams search for viable relievers with velocity — just look at the Cubs’ 2020 draft selections of 100-mph hurlers Burl Carraway and Luke Little — Rodríguez fits right into the mold.