Rule 5 pick Rodriguez eyes spot with Bucs

Rule 5 pick Rodriguez eyes spot with Bucs

Rule 5 pick Rodriguez eyes spot with Bucs
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Josh Rodriguez doesn't have to look far to see what can become of a Rule 5 Draft pick.

Across the clubhouse stands Evan Meek, who has been one of the Draft's better steals in recent years. Plucked from the Rays' system in December 2007, Meek earned a spot on the Pirates' Opening Day roster the following spring. A trade kept Meek in the organization when he didn't stick in the Majors, and the right-hander is now in position to be the team's primary set-up man.

There's also Donnie Veal, whose locker is near Rodriguez's. Selected in the 2008 Rule 5 Draft, Veal survived a year in the big leagues to secure his place in the organization. An arm injury cost the left-hander most of the 2010 season, but the Pirates feel there is still a chance for Veal to contribute to the Major League club again after he is fully recovered.

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Such stories aren't necessarily the norm -- the majority of Rule 5 picks end up being returned. But the Pirates have proved that there can be successful exceptions. Rodriguez is trying everything he can to be one of them.

The Pirates claimed Rodriguez from Cleveland with the first overall pick in December's Rule 5 Draft. The need for a backup middle infielder led Pittsburgh to the 26-year-old Houston native, who played 300 games at short and another 117 at second in five Minor League seasons.

That middle-infield spot is still up for grabs and appears set to go to one of three players: Rodriguez, Pedro Ciriaco or Corey Wimberly.

"For them to take me with the first overall pick was something special for me," Rodriguez said. "It made me realize that someone was interested in me and willing to give me a shot. As a Rule 5 guy, you want to come in and impress the club, but you don't want to do too much. You want to just stick to your game and show them that you can be consistent."

Not trying too hard to impress has been easier said than done for Rodriguez, who knows he has never been closer to realizing his dream of being a Major Leaguer. The tendency to want to do too much has been evident in Grapefruit League play already, both on the offense and defense ends.

"You see a young man that is going through what the other young men have gone through in the Rule 5," general manager Neal Huntington said. "Instead of playing aggressively, [he's] playing defensively. We've got to get Josh to go out and realize that he has nothing to lose and let it all hang out here in Spring Training."

The Pirates remain intrigued with Rodriguez's offense potential, still believing that he can eventually develop into more than just a backup player. The biggest question now, though, is whether Rodriguez is polished enough on defense for the club to be comfortable plugging him in for either Neil Walker or Ronny Cedeno this season.

If the Pirates emphasize defense in their decision, the roster spot will likely be handed to Ciriaco. Should manager Clint Hurdle want more speed on his bench, Wimberly would get the nod. Rodriguez could well have the best long-term potential of the three. What has to be determined is whether he'd be ready to step in and contribute immediately.

As the Pirates learned with John Raynor last year, hiding a position player on the roster is near impossible for an entire season.

"I catch myself trying too hard sometimes, trying to make the team," Rodriguez said. "But I have to take a step back and remember that the pressure shouldn't be on me, and that I should stick to my game plan and remember what needs to be accomplished. If things are meant to work out, they'll work out."

Rodriguez's climb through Cleveland's system hit a bump in 2009, when he was limited to just 33 games because of a hamstring strain. He bounced back to bat .297 with 30 doubles and 13 homers in 107 games last season. Eighty-six of those games came at the Triple-A level.

Even still, the Indians opted not to put Rodriguez on their 40-man roster after the season. That left him exposed in the Rule 5 Draft.

"For me to come back in 2010 and put up a solid season, I was very proud of that," Rodriguez said. "I spent five years in the Minor Leagues working on things, trying to get my game where I wanted it to be. I believe I'm on the brink of breaking the seal up there. I've prepared myself well in the Minor Leagues to make the next step."

Though the majority of Rodriguez's spring work will come at second and short, the Pirates have also talked about having him spend a little time over at third base and in the outfield. The decision on whether to bring Rodriguez to Chicago for Opening Day is one that will likely go down until the final days of camp.

If Rodriguez is not placed on the roster, he will have to be offered back to Cleveland.

"Best-case scenario, he makes the club," Huntington said. "Worst-case scenario is he goes back to Cleveland, and that's not a bad situation. He was in an organization that liked him. I don't want to say, 'No harm, no foul,' because these are people that have emotions. But if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.