A weekend trip to New York to play with the brightest stars in minor league baseball is likely a welcome change of pace for Orioles minor leaguer Eduardo Rodriguez, who will play for the World team in Sunday's All-Star Futures Game.
But it's the routine he'll be taking a break from that has helped elevate Rodriguez from a skinny mixture of promise and arm speed to the organization's top pitching prospect not named Bundy or Gausman.
Ryan Minor, who managed Rodriguez at High-A Frederick before his promotion last month to Double-A Bowie, said one of the biggest improvements he saw in the 21-year-old left-hander was his preparation between starts.
"[Young pitchers] don't understand how valuable it is to prepare yourself in between, not only physically but mentally, to understand the teams you're facing and to read hitters swings and things like that," Minor said. "For Eddie, I've seen a big difference from last year to this year between his starts."
Rodriguez, a Venezuelan who signed in early 2010 for $175,000, shot onto the prospect radar in 2012 in his first full season with Low-A Delmarva. As a 19-year-old in the South Atlantic League, Rodriguez posted a 3.70 ERA in 22 starts, leading to Baseball America naming him the Orioles' No. 5 prospect heading into this year.
That success carried over to Frederick this season, where in 14 starts Rodriguez brought his ERA down nearly a full run to 2.85 and increased his strikeout rate from 6.14 per nine innings to 6.96.
Minor, who also managed Rodriguez with Delmarva last season, said Rodriguez's improvement could also be traced to his situational pitching this season. Minor said that in 2012, Rodriguez was victimized late in games by big innings, as evidenced by his 5.59 ERA after the third inning (compared to a 2.53 ERA in the first three innings).
This year, Rodriguez has limited damage as he advanced late into games, which Minor said again stemmed from his preparation.
"He's a little bit stronger physically to handle the situations, but I think mentally he's matured and physically he's gotten a little bit bigger," Minor said. "It's just an overall improvement. He's just a guy that will improve every year, every step of the way."
Rodriguez is one of three Orioles minor leaguers chosen to participate in Sunday's Futures Game at Citi Field. Triple-A Norfolk outfielder Henry Urrutia will also play for the World team, while Frederick first baseman Christian Walker will represent the United States.
Scouts admire Rodriguez's loose arm and easy mechanics, traits made all the more impressive by the fact that he was naturally right-handed as a child. Rodriguez said he broke his right arm at age 7 and, instead of letting it heal, he simply started throwing with his left hand.
"I don't know, it's good for me," he said with a smile.
Rodriguez shows good command and control of his arsenal, which includes a heavy, above-average fastball that sits between 90-94 mph. He relies heavily on his fastball, though not for a lack of secondary pitches. By locating his fastball on the corners and keeping it down in the zone, Rodriguez is able to use his mid-80s changeup and slider more effectively.
The changeup shows good fade to the left, while the slider is inconsistent but is sharp with good shape when thrown in the zone.
In his Double-A debut on July 2, Rodriguez used much of the same approach he did at the previous level, with some success. Rodriguez allowed five runs on seven hits in five innings, but he pitched around nerves and inconsistent fastball command to impress Bowie pitching coach Blaine Beatty with his potential.
After watching Rodriguez for two starts, Beatty identified his changeup, which Rodriguez throws as hard as 88 mph at times, as a pitch that needs improvement. A changeup that hard can allow slower bats to make contact with the pitch, and Beatty said creating separation from his fastball velocity and locating the pitch down in the zone are key to its success.
Otherwise, Beatty sees a bright future for Rodriguez.
"When you look comparatively at overall stuff, he's already high on the charts just being on the left side," Beatty said. "A guy that has that kind of fastball, you've just got to let it go."
All-Star Futures Game
What: For the 15th year, baseball's top minor leaguers will gather for a showcase during All-Star weekend.
When: Sunday, 2 p.m.
Where: Citi Field
Series: The U.S. has won 8 of the previous 14 games, including each of the past three.
Notebles: Former participants include Dylan Bundy (2012), Manny Machado (2011, 2012), Jonathan Schoop (2011), Zach Britton (2010), Chris Tillman (2009), Brian Matusz (2009), Taylor Teagarden (2008) and J.J. Hardy (2003).