What's fun isn't always what's smart, and the Pittsburgh Pirates starting Endy Rodriguez at Triple-A may be the smart move, regardless of service time reasons.
Emotions are running wild among Pittsburgh Pirates fans, as the rival St. Louis Cardinals are starting their top prospect, Jordan Walker, in the big leagues, and the infamous New York Yankees are giving Anthony Volpe an Opening Day roster spot. Meanwhile, the Pirates optioned their top prospect, Endy Rodriguez. While fans are rightfully upset, it may be the smart move, regardless of service time.
I want to get a few things straight first: this is not anti-Endy propaganda or service time manipulation propaganda. I have been on the Endy hype train the day since the Pirates acquired him, even going so far as to write that he could become one of the Pirates' best prospects only days after his acquisition. Also, I'm not too fond of service time manipulation. It's not fun for players or fans, and I would be 100% more excited for Opening Day if Rodriguez were on the Major League roster heading into the year.
Now with that out of the way, it's not as if Rodriguez's performance is the reason he is being held back. At the end of the 2022 campaign, Rodriguez finished out the year with a .323/.407/.590 triple-slash. His 11.3% walk rate and 19% strikeout rate made it the fourth season in a row he had a BB% above 10% and a strikeout rate below 20%. Rodriguez, who wasn't known as much of a power hitter when the Pirates acquired him in 2020-2021, he's developed this tool into a deadly weapon, blasting 25 home runs with a .266 ISO. All told, Rodriguez ended the year with a .434 wOBA and 166 wRC+.
It might seem hard to believe, but those numbers lowball Rodriguez's overall season. The switch-hitting backstop was ice cold in April, but by May, he kicked it into high gear. From that point forward, Rodriguez was a .339/.429/.632 batter with a .458 wOBA, and 182 wRC+. He had an improved 12.6% walk rate and a minuscule 16.8% strikeout rate. Rodriguez's second-half numbers were even crazier, as he hit .392/.470/.758 with a .516 wOBA and 221 wRC+.
But of the 531 plate appearances he took in 2022, only 161 came at Double-A and Triple-A. No doubt that Rodriguez was phenomenal in that small sample size, batting .371/.441/.693 with a 200 wRC+. The jump from High-A to Double-A is larger than the jump from Double-A to the big leagues, but compared to other top-of-the-line prospects like Anthony Volpe and Jordan Walker, Rodriguez has the least experience in the upper levels of the minor leagues by a large margin. Walker collected 536 plate appearances for the Cardinals' Double-A affiliate last season. Volpe had 596 trips to the dish for the Yankees' Double-A and Triple-A affiliates last year. Even last season, when Bobby Witt Jr. started the year in the big leagues, he had over 250 plate appearances at Double-A and Triple-A. Rookie Of The Year winners Julio Rodriguez and Michael Harris II each had around 200 plate appearances for their respective team's Double-A affiliates before skipping Triple-A and making the big leagues.
Asking Rodriguez to go from the low minors with a very short stint in the upper minors and take up a regular role in the big leagues with expectations that he would continue to produce at a high level is an unreasonable task. In the last decade, the only rookies to spend fewer than 170 plate appearances in the upper-minor leagues and produce an OPS+ of 100 or greater in the big leagues through at least 300 plate appearances (minus international guys such as Shohei Ohtani or Jose Abreu) in their rookie season are Jeremy Pena (2022), Jonathan India (2021), Juan Soto (2018), and Yasiel Puig (2013). Even though it's happening more often, there are still very few guys who are being promoted quickly and producing right away.
It's a fair criticism to make that Rodriguez is the best catcher on the 40-man roster, as it is true. Sure, Austin Hedges and Jason Delay may be superior defenders, but it's not as if Rodriguez is a slouch with the glove. Hedges may be the worst regular offensive catcher in baseball history. Since integration, two of Hedges' seasons (2021 and 2022) are at the bottom 20 of the single-season wRC+ leaderboard for catchers (min. 300 PAs).
But as we have seen catcher is a position you can get away with no offense at. Hedges played 105 games for a Cleveland Guardians team that won 92 games. The World Series-winning Houston Astros' catchers combined for a 59 wRC+, the fourth worst in baseball last year. The 2021 World Series winner, the Atlanta Braves, had the second-worst catcher wRC+ in 2021. That doesn't mean that the Pirates have a good catching tandem or will win a lot of games because of it, but it just goes to show that Hedges/Delay is an acceptable duo until Rodriguez is ready.
Now that doesn't mean that Endy Rodriguez must have 500+ plate appearances in the upper levels of the minor leagues before making his debut. However, 200 trips to the dish between Dobule-A and Triple-A seems to be the bare minimum, and Endy is still around 40 away from that. Yes, there's no doubt service time has to do with the Pirates' decision, but there are still very few players who almost skip Double-A and Triple-A before reaching the big leagues. There are even fewer that do it and become productive big league regulars.
None of this is to excuse service time manipulation. But Rodriguez being handed the keys to a Major League starting job already would be quick for the young backstop. Sure, he's going into his age-23 campaign, but he's still barely faced upper-level pitching. Give him until early/mid-May, and he'll be completely ready for the big league starting job. A month might not seem long, but sometimes it can make a developmental difference.