You know you are a big deal when you are college pitcher and you are being talked about in the live broadcast of the World Series. Carlos Rodon, the early front-runner to go first overall in next year’s amateur draft, got a shout out from the Fox booth in Game 1 of the Fall Classic. And while there is no such thing as a slam dunk in any Draft, especially under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, Rodon is just about as close as it gets.
Rodon’s trek to this point, however, hasn’t exactly been smooth, and never was it clear he’d ever become the potential ace he is now.
During his stint at Holly Springs High School in North Carolina, Rodon was hampered by a back injury that led to a lot of inconsistencies. He had trouble repeating his mechanics and his fastball velocity was all over the place. Despite this, he put up very good numbers in high school and won numerous accolades. Many teams however were still a little nervous about him, and he fell to the Brewers who decided to take a gamble on him in round 16. Rodon decided to honor his commitment to North Carolina State, where he joined top recruits in catcher Brett Austin and star shortstop Trea Turner to form a very lucrative class.
Rodon put on about 25 pounds of good weight before his freshman season and dominated from the moment he set foot in Raleigh. He immediately joined the Wolfpack’s starting rotation and in his freshman campaign he was undefeated in nine decisions and posted an ERA of 1.57. Arm stiffness plagued Rodon during the middle of his sophomore season, but once he got healthy he went on an absolute tear and led the Wolfpack to Omaha. His ERA increased to a mark of 2.99, but his peripheral stats were even better than they were the previous season. He paced the nation with 184 strikeouts and walked just 45 batters.
Rodon has a long stride, but he repeats his delivery well and generates a lot of his power with his strong lower half, operating in the 91-95 mph range and touching 98 when he is healthy. This velocity is especially impressive — and rare — for a southpaw. His calling-card is a wicked slider that has tremendous horizontal break that causes both lefties and righties to buckle at the knees, freeze and often swing and miss. He has another version, too, which is like a cutter, that he can throw for strikes. His changeup is well behind his other offerings, but he has reportedly made it the focus of his offseason, and if he can add a quality change to his arsenal he could be just about unhittable next season.
Barring a serious injury, it is hard to see any scenario in which Rodon is not the best player in country by year’s end. However, that is still no guarantee that he will go No. 1 overall. There is a very good chance that he will test the cap restrictions put in place by the CBA. The Houston Astros again own the top pick and may prefer to select a less expensive player, perhaps East Carolina right-hander Jeff Hoffman or one of the prep arms, in order to spread their allotted pool money to later rounds. After all, just two years ago they employed this strategy, known as panning, when they passed on Stanford ace Mark Appel, who ranked higher on their draft board, in favor of the less-expensive Carlos Correa. With the pool money they saved, they secured elite talents Lance McCullers Jr. and Rio Ruiz.
Perhaps more importantly however, are the justifiable concerns that Houston may have with Rodon’s heavy workload in college. Recently, the Astros has been very conservative in the way they develop pitchers, exemplified by the piggy-back system they have used with top prospects like right-handers Mike Foltynewicz and McCullers. Behind Rodon, N.C. State’s rotation lacked depth, and they milked just about every inning out of him they could. In one particular outing Rodon pitched 10 frames in an epic 18-inning battle against rival UNC in the ACC playoffs. That said, Rodon made it pretty hard for head coach Elliot Avent to take him out of the game, as he struck out 14 batters and yielded just one hit. Regardless, this may jeopardize his health and possibly even future earnings as a professional.
In fact, over the course of Rodon’s first four postseason starts he threw a total of 36 1/3 innings and averaged 121 pitches per start. To put this in perspective, Adam Wainwright, the well-established ace of the St. Louis Cardinals, averaged 99.5 pitches through his first four starts this postseason. The most controversial misuse of Rodon, however, came in an elimination game during the College World Series, where Rodon took the ball just three days after hurling a complete game. The plan backfired, as Rodon was exhausted by the fifth inning and NC State fell to North Carolina 7-0.
In the last few drafts, there really hasn’t been that player who was the easy consensus player atop most draft boards. The last player with such a tag was Bryce Harper in 2010, but to find a pitcher who achieved this status you would have to go back another year to Stephen Strasburg in 2009 and then David Price in 2007. Rodon appears to be that kind of player, and he’s carried that connotation since his freshman year.
Rodon isn’t a carbon copy of Strasburg or Price, or any other contemporary pitcher for that matter. His competitive streak and approach to pitching is more reminiscent of pitchers from past generations. It is almost impossible, though, to miss the similarities between the three in terms of their development and upside at the same stage of their careers.
To a certain extent, all of three lacked the consistency and maturity to make that jump, and they were all able to transform their bodies, which for Rodon and Price meant putting on weight, and for Strasburg it entailed a remake of his physicality. They each saw substantial spikes in their velocity in college and evolved into the top collegiate arm in the country during their sophomore and junior seasons. With three seemingly equal resumes, it is hard to determine exactly who the best was, or will be when all is said and done. But if Rodon can master his changeup, it will hard to make an argument against him.