- Rating: 6.65
- Age: 28
- 2022 Stats: 510 PA, .269/.349/.391 = .739 OPS, 111 OPS+ and 3.2 bWAR
- 2022 Earnings: $730,900 (via Spotrac)
- 2023 Status: 1st Year Arb Eligible (Super 2)
One of my favorite baseball (if not all of sports) tropes is the, “Unheralded prospect reaches the majors and succeeds beyond expectations.” It is exactly the type of underdog, perseverant, hopeful story and dynamic that sports so uniquely deliver on a seemingly endless basis. Josh Rojas absolutely typifies that trope from his biography and background to his resurgent 2021 campaign for a woeful D-Backs club and finally a follow-up 2022 season where he demonstrated what he could contribute to a team looking to turn the corner back into contention.
However, despite the feel-good nature of his story, Rojas’ future with the D-Backs is not completely secure beyond 2023 and he may need to find another gear for his performance before we can all start penciling him into the next great D-Backs team. It’s not often that 26th round draftees make it to the major leagues and find success. In fact, Rojas already ranks as the most successful second baseman from the 26th round by bWAR. And since that round no longer exists, it’s likely that record will continue to hold for the foreseeable future.
Regardless, the Astros likely saw him as more of a flier when they drafted him out of the University of Hawaii in 2017 as he posted an impressive .294/.404/.541 slash line in his senior season. After signing for a (relatively) meager $125,000 following the draft, he failed to even check in within the Astros Top 30 prospects and was already 23 at the time of the draft that year. This advanced level of experience may have served him well however as the Astros took the unusual step of promoting him directly from single-A ball all the way to AAA after he showed some pop in the former as he racked up 25 extra base hits in just 52 games.
While he only appeared in four games at AAA Fresno, it’s clear the Astros were paying attention and willing to take an unconventional approach if they felt it was warranted. Even more importantly, the Astros quickly allowed him to demonstrate the kind of positional flexibility that has become one his hallmarks going forward as he logged time at every infield position besides first and limited time in the outfield. Following the 2017 season, the Astros opted for a more traditional player development path as they assigned Rojas to their high-A affiliate before he ended the 2018 season at AA while compiling a solid offensive showing with a .263/.351/.408 slash line.
As a result, Rojas was primed for success in the 2019 season and boy did he deliver as he romped his way through AA competition and earned a promotion where he simply continued to mash. It seemed as if Rojas was on the precipice of getting a call up to the majors until……July 31, 2019 when Mike Hazen shipped Zack Greinke and cash to the Astros for Corbin Martin (their number 5 prospect at the time), J.B. Bukauskas (number 6), Seth Beer (number 10), and Rojas who still hadn’t cracked the Top 30. At the time, our own SnakePit writers were relatively pleased with the Deadline moves, but Rojas’ name didn’t even come up in the conversation at the time.
Meanwhile, Sports Illustrated only mentioned him in passing: describing him as a, “...high-contact lefthanded hitter…” while still giving a glowing analysis for both sides of the trade. Despite the lack of fanfare surrounding his acquisition, his game moved to another level in Reno and the D-Backs quickly promoted him just two weeks after the trade. Unfortunately, he failed to make much of a statement in his first Big GulpTM of coffee as he scuffled to a .217/.312/.312 slash line in 41 games. He was however able to hold his own in the field by Outs Above Average and there were some signs that he may have been somewhat unlucky based on the splits between his expected and actual offensive statistics if you looked hard enough (.240 xBA versus .217 actual).
Of course, as we are continually reminded, COVID stunted the development of numerous young ballplayers and even when Rojas was able to make it onto the field through some back inflammation, he struggled to stay above the Mendoza line and his power completely sputtered. All in all, the 2020 season can be chalked up to a lost one for the young Goodyear native and expectations were proportionally adjusted heading into the 2021 campaign. Instead, after a middling April, he turned himself into a .300 hitter for most of the season before faltering in the second half of August, but took a substantial step back in the field as he especially struggled at the shortstop position.
In his defense (pun intended), he was asked to play nearly the entire infield aside from first and two out of three outfield positions so some of that struggle may have come from a lack of consistency. Of course, following a breakout season like 2021 was for Rojas, it’s natural to question if the success is sustainable or simply one of the wonderful quirks of baseball.I think we can definitively say at this point that 2021 was not an aberration as Rojas’ follow-up performance exceeded the prior year while highlighting other concerning issues. First and foremost, he brought a substantial level of value to the team as he slotted in as the fifth best D-Back in 2022 by bWAR.
He was able to maintain the contact-first approach that brought him through the minors while also improving his plate discipline enough to rank very well on several important offensive categories as seen below. Of course, he continued to struggle to produce much power despite an improved launch angle approach and still ranks as league-average in HardHit% in spite of that improved approach at the plate. It’s also difficult to ignore his continued struggles in the field even as the team narrowed his defensive assignments to just second and third - and that’s including the above-average arm strength he has begun to display.
To say the least, 2023 is shaping up as a possible inflexion point for the D-Backs franchise as exciting talent continues to bubble up from the farm system that consistently ranks well up and down. The infield, especially regarding where Rojas plays is no exception and is beginning to get more crowded the more it’s examined. For the time being, Rojas projects out as the Opening Day third baseman, but with fourteenth-ranked prospect Blaze Alexander knocking on the door for a 2023 debut and twelfth-ranked A.J. Vukovich not far behind Blaze, it’s fair to ask what the long-term vision is for Rojas.
In my opinion, I don’t see him as the long-term solution unless he were able to resolve his fielding issues, but with the team continuing to get younger and an understandable focus being placed on defensive cleanliness, Rojas could find himself on the outside looking in very soon. Ideally of course, Hazen could find a trade partner that might be willing to provide a lighter version of the recent Daulton Varsho trade given Rojas’ relative youth, team control, and positional flexibility, but that’s difficult to envision without some improvement from Rojas himself.
Regardless, these types of questions and decisions rarely allow for clear-cut answers, but it’s exciting to be having them as the D-Backs continue to push themselves toward turning the corner of contention.