Former Astros prospect Josh Rojas back in familiar prove-it role for Mariners

HOUSTON — Josh Rojas relishes anonymity. He spent four seasons at the University of Hawaii before the Houston Astros drafted him during a round that no longer exists. The 26th-rounder from a remote college never appeared on any prospect lists and preferred it that way. Pressure never propelled him. Proving people wrong did.

Baseball rarely allows such a sheltered path to prominence. Talent attracts attention, a fact Rojas learned firsthand four years ago, when he emerged as a surprising headliner of Houston’s blockbuster trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks for Zack Greinke. It thrust him into a spotlight he struggled to embrace.

Now, after being acquired for another high-profile pitcher, that spotlight is upon him again. On July 31, Arizona traded Rojas and outfielder Dominic Canzone to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for closer Paul Sewald, placing Rojas in a familiar predicament he now feels far more prepared to navigate.

“When I got drafted, there was no pressure. It was just kind of like ‘Hey, throw him out there and see if he can play.’ I always liked that. I always liked people not knowing who I was and then trying to show them that I’m better than them,” Rojas said before Seattle’s 2-0 win at Minute Maid Park on Friday.

“When you get thrown into these trades, it’s kind of the opposite. It’s kind of like ‘All right, well, we just traded for this guy. Let’s see what he’s got.’ That’s always a tough place for me.”

Rojas epitomizes the enormous expectations heaped on prospects shipped at the trade deadline. That the three players traded alongside him all scuffled only heightened them. Rojas made his major-league debut 10 days after the Diamondbacks acquired him and after playing just 61 games above Double A.

The promotion fulfilled Rojas’ lifelong dream, but made him, in some ways, the face of Arizona’s entire haul for Greinke. Pitcher Corbin Martin, perhaps the most highly-touted prospect in the package Houston parted with, underwent Tommy John surgery prior to the trade.

Neither J.B. Bukauskas nor Seth Beer appeared in a major-league game in 2019, either. Diamondbacks fans desperate for optimism after unloading Greinke fixated on Rojas, a left-handed hitting utilityman still trying to establish himself.

“My whole career before that, there was no hype,” Rojas said. “I was kind of just the underdog just trying to make a name for myself. Then when you get attached to a trade like that, you’re trying to live up (to it) and show that you didn’t give away a pitcher for free. It was definitely tough at first.”

According to Baseball-Reference, Rojas accrued 3.4 wins above replacement across his 381-game tenure with the Diamondbacks. Playing primarily second and third base, he finished as an above-average hitter in both 2021 (103 OPS+) and 2022 (111 OPS+), but spiraled offensively this season. The Diamondbacks optioned him to Triple-A Reno in June amid his struggles. While there, Rojas suffered a back injury that derailed any momentum he hoped to create. He slashed .228/.292/.296 in 59 major-league games with Arizona and, as Aug. 1 loomed, could feel his tenure nearing its end.

The emergence of both Evan Longoria and Emmanuel Rivera at third base, coupled with infield prospects Blaze Alexander and Jordan Lawlar looming, made Rojas expendable. He said on Friday he entered the deadline “halfway expecting” to be moved, a far cry from how he felt in 2019.

“In the Greinke trade, I had no idea that it was possible that I would get traded,” Rojas said. “I was watching the deadline just to see who else in our clubhouse was going to go. There’s a lot of good names in there in (Triple-A). I was kind of excited to see who was going to get traded. And then when it was me, I was just completely shocked. I had no idea.”

None of the other three prospects dealt —  Bukauskas, Martin or Beer — have posted a positive major-league bWAR since the trade. Bukauskas is a reliever in the Milwaukee Brewers minor-league system. Beer, at age 26, is playing at Arizona’s Double-A affiliate while Martin is battling another injury in a career full of them.

Perhaps it’s fitting that Rojas passed those three more touted prospects and turned himself into an asset. The 29-year-old built his career’s foundation on staying unnoticed and savoring the sight of those he proved wrong.

To take the next step, Rojas must embrace the expectations he’s created, a task he could not master in Arizona.

“I was nobody still. I was just in Triple-A grinding. And then I get traded and called up 10 days later. It’s like ‘All right, here’s the guy we just traded for,’” Rojas said.

“I felt like there was a lot of pressure on me. This time I’ve accrued a little time. I’ve showed that I could play over the last three or four years. So it was a little bit easier of a transition to be here.”

When Seattle is at full strength, Rojas is not an everyday player. He can platoon with either José Caballero or Dylan Moore at second base and provide manager Scott Servais a left-handed bat off the bench. J.P. Crawford’s concussion-related absence has increased Rojas’ playing time, especially while Caballero covers for Crawford at shortstop. Rojas started at second base on Friday and finished the game by turning an unassisted 6-3 double play with the tying runs aboard.

Rojas has traditionally played all over the diamond, but has appeared as a second baseman with Seattle. (Steven Bisig / USA TODAY)

“I’ve been impressed with Josh,” Servais said. “He has a good understanding of the game. His baseball IQ is very high. I think he’s made some really good adjustments offensively. He’s got more rhythm in the box now. He spent some time with our hitting guys and there’s a couple things they’ve found to help him click, so to speak. I like what I’ve seen so far. Positional versatility is something he does bring to us, but I like what he’s done so far. He’s really picked it up with the bat after a couple adjustments he’s made and he’s really moving in the right direction.”

Rojas started on Friday for the 10th time since Seattle acquired him. A run-scoring single during the Mariners’ 9-2 win against the Baltimore Orioles on Aug. 11 allowed him a moment to exhale, an introduction of sorts to his new teammates and, perhaps, some relaxation of any pressure. Finishing Friday’s game with that double play must’ve furthered it.

“You’re coming in here and trying to prove that you didn’t give away your closer for free,” Rojas said. “One thing I did learn (in Arizona) is that you just got to play the game and the guys will get to know you. You get to know the guys and the staff and really just try to show that you’re working hard and prove that you care about what you’re doing.”

(Top photo of Rojas: Alika Jenner / Getty Images)

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