Photo: Perfect Game USA

Rodriguez finds spot on the mound

Draft : : Top Prospects
Jeff Dahn        
Published: Friday, May 06, 2011

His father is a former American League Most Valuable Player, 14-time MLB All-Star, seven-time winner of the Silver Slugger Award and a 13-time Gold Glove Award winner, each time as a catcher.

But catching never came into play for young Ivan Dereck Rodriguez. When he played baseball as a youngster in Texas and as he continues to play today as a high school senior in Plantation, Fla., he has always found his spot in the outfield.

And, just recently, on the pitcher’s mound.

Rodriguez, the 6-2, 175-pound son of Major League star Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez who goes only by Dereck these days, has used his hitting and outfield skills to become Perfect Game’s No. 125-ranked national prospect in his high school class of 2011 (No. 24 in Florida).

Now his stock has risen even higher in the eyes of MLB scouts in the last eight months or so.

Intrigued by a 95 mph throw from center field to home plate at the 2010 Perfect Game National Showcase, baseball people including scouts, his coaches at Monsignor Edward Pace High School and at his summer travel ball team Florida Diamond Pros Baseball, encouraged Rodriguez to try his hand at pitching.

He has spent this spring as Pace’s starting center fielder and closer.

“The whole fall season they were training me and showing me proper mechanics, and over that time I developed a slider, a changeup, a cutter and a straight fastball,” Rodriguez said this week. “I don’t know, it’s worked out real well for me lately.”

When a very raw and unschooled Rodriguez first threw off a mound last fall, his fastball was already hitting the 91-92 mph range. He has since touched 95 with his heater.

“It came real natural to me because I didn’t change my arm slot at all,” he said. “Pitchers and outfielders really have almost the same arm rotation – you still have to come over the top and everything. I’m 6-2 and I throw it straight over the top, so the ball comes straight down and it’s really hard for the hitter to pick it up.”

Rodriguez still sees himself as an outfielder at the next level, whether that’s at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Fla., or in the professional ranks. But scouts have seemed to be showing up more frequently just to watch him pitch.

Harold Vaca is the program director and a coach at Florida Diamond Pros Baseball. The organization has helped Rodriguez get invitations to Perfect Game tournaments and showcases, and Vaca said Rodriguez has been invited to pre-draft workouts with the St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers, Houston Astros and Toronto Blue Jays.

“He’s got a lot of interest all around simply because he’s always been a kid known for his draftability and now even more so because of his pitching,” Vaca said. “He is a kid who is really being looked at because he is now what they call a ‘two-for-one.’ Now he can hit and play outfield and he can also throw off the mound.”

He seems to really enjoy himself in the role of Pace’s closer. He can now excel at the plate and defensively in the outfield, and then come in and pick up a save.

“Playing the whole game in the outfield and then coming in the last inning and shutting it down for your team, there’s nothing better than that,” Rodriguez said. “I have so much confidence up there, and I’m thinking in my head the whole time, ‘You ain’t going get a hit off me, you ain’t going to get a hit off me.’”

Rodriguez has attended 11 Perfect Game events since 2009. He has played in the PG WWBA World Championship twice and made his first National Showcase appearance last June at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The National Showcase experience was a keeper.

“That was the first time that I’ve ever been treated like a real top-notch player,” he said. “I had never been to a showcase like that and got to play in a stadium like that. It was really, really cool. When I first started playing I was speechless (and) I was really nervous. I had never seen so many scouts in one place at once.”

Except, maybe, at the two trips Rodriguez made to Jupiter.

“I remember when I went to the World Wood Bat (in 2009) and I was shocked … the first year I ever went. That was really cool seeing all those scouts there at once,” he said. “I like Perfect Game and it’s been really cool. The way they blew me up – nobody really knew who I was until after I went to there.”

Rodriguez had played with a couple of other Florida travel ball organizations before hooking up with Vaca and the Diamond Pros a little more than a year ago.

“When I got to Diamond Pros, they promoted me a lot,” he said. “They helped me out with scouts and they really know what they’re doing.”

Rodriguez’s father, known throughout the years as either “Pudge” or “I-Rod,” seems destined for the Hall of Fame when he finally wraps up what has been a remarkable career. Ivan Rodriguez, 39, is playing in his 21st Major League season this year and his second with the Washington Nationals.

Some doors may have opened even more easily for Dereck Rodriguez if had decided to go through life as Ivan Rodriguez. It’s just not the way he wanted those doors to open.

“My whole life growing up, everybody used to call me ‘Little Pudge’ and those were the people who knew me (in Texas) and knew who my dad was,” Rodriguez said. “When we moved over here to Florida in ’03, I told everybody to start calling me Dereck.

“I wanted to make my own name,” he continued. “I don’t want to be who I am today because of my dad. I’m glad I did it, and I’m where I’m at today is because of me, not because of my (name).”

Vaca, of the Diamond Pros, recognized Rodriguez’s independent streak immediately.

“Dereck is a special kid. One of the main things that we’re very proud of him for is that he’s always wanted to do things on his own merit,” Vaca said. “If he was going to be selected for something or if he was going to be praised for something, he wanted it to be because of his talent and not because of who his dad is.”

That does not mean Rodriguez isn’t proud of his father’s accomplishments – he most certainly is. His parents are divorced and he lives with his mother, Maribel Calderin, but said he has a “good relationship” with his dad.

“We talk a lot,” he said.

He also feels he learned a lot from his father about what it takes to become a Major League baseball player.

“I really do feel blessed because I know what it takes. Not a lot of kids know what it takes to become a Major Leaguer and the work they have to put in,” Rodriguez said. “Most kids, they’re like, ‘When I become a Major Leaguer I won’t really have to nothing because I’m already up there.’ That’s not true. That’s when you have to start working even harder to keep your job.”

Rodriguez has signed an LOI with SFCC but is excited to see what transpires at the MLB First-Year Player Draft June 6-8. Like all the other young men in his situation, he said he’ll carefully weigh his options.

“I’m looking forward to going to Santa Fe to concentrate on my studies and develop as a player over there,” Rodriguez said. “But if I get drafted, and it’s good, I’ll talk it over with my family and make a decision from there.”

That decision will most likely lead to a collegiate or professional career as an outfielder- or maybe a pitcher. Either way, Rodriguez will remain grounded.

“His goal is to get better, his goal is to stay humble and just continue growing in the sport,” Vaca said.

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