Name: <Luis Durango
DOB: April 23, 1986
A Dominican import that made his debut stateside with the Arizona Rookie League Padres, Durango smartly used his above average speed to not only get on base but also unleash mayhem on the basepaths.
In 59 games for the Venezuelan Summer League Padres in 2005, the speedy outfielder hit .342 with 37 walks compared to 25 strikeouts – a rarity for a Latin American prospect.
"Luis has been very interesting," Padres' international scout Felix Francisco said. "He has come a long way. He used to be a second baseman with not very good hands. We moved him to the outfield.
"He needs to continue working on his ability to hit line drives more than chopping the ball but that is working out for him right now because he is an excellent runner. He is among the top two or three runners in our system. So he is doing what he is supposed to do, hitting the ball on the ground, getting on base and hopefully he will continue to do what he has been doing."
He reached base safely in each of his final 17 games and was on base in 52 contests over the course of the season. Durango also hit .413 off left-handed pitching as a natural right-handed hitter who only recently began to hit from the left side.
"He can flat out fly," said 2006 AZL Padres manager Carlos Lezcano. "He is 3.7 to first base. He is a very good bunter and he can just fly. They played him almost infield in when he was hitting."
He also stole 19 bases that year while getting caught 13 times. While Durango has the speed, base stealing is new to him and getting good jumps off pitcher reads is something he has yet to master.
The outfielder ended the 2006 season with an Arizona Rookie League leading .378 average and drew 23 walks compared to just 16 whiffs in 39 games for a AZL leading .470 on base percentage. He had 16 multi-hit games on the year and hit an impressive .405 with runners in scoring position.
A smart hitter who uses the opposite field to his advantage, Durango had a knack for being able to slap the ball the other way – often over a drawn in third baseman's head – by using a check swing swat approach aimed for that particular spot.
He used the tool with amazing efficiency to reach base, and if the third baseman sat back, Durango dropped a bunt – and he is perhaps the best bunter in the system.
"Luis Durango – he is as quick as lightning," teammate Jeremy Hunt said. "He almost reminds me of a softball player when he hits lefty – the way he actually runs in the batter's box and slaps at the ball. It is weird how quick he is and just slaps balls that you would think are routine outs and he beats them out."
His approach at the dish is one of the main reasons that he netted just six extra base hits out of his 54 hits. His position, however, is the table setter and he did plenty of that.
Over the course of the year, Durango reached base 2.02 times per game on average. Imagine hitting behind him – twice per game you have a chance at doing some damage. Those odds are pretty good.
"Luis is a special player," AZL hitting coach Manny Crespo said. "I have never seen anything as fast as Luis. Luis also understands his abilities.
"At the beginning of the league, Luis was slapping the ball and beating them out. Towards the end of the year, he learned how to really bunt the ball and now that the infield was in he learned he could hit the ball past these guys. I think Luis did a lot of learning this year. He is going to be a special player with the speed he has."
Added to the nightmare that he is when he leaves the box, Durango also has strong strike zone judgment and will gladly take a free base when offered. He is a contact hitter that chokes up on the bat and rarely strikes out, making him a perfect candidate for the hit-and-run and an assortment of other small ball techniques.
Durango added 17 steals in 23 attempts but he should continue to make progress in that area as he learns the nuances of pitchers and makes the right reads in his thievery. He has the initial first step quickness that is often the difference maker but lacks the ability to make consistent reads off the pitcher – oftentimes getting a late break towards second base.
"He is another kid that is real fast but needs to work on stealing bases, like all young kids – routes in the outfield," Lezcano said. "His arm has gotten better from what I have heard when we first signed him until now."
A converted infielder, Durango is still working on the nuances of the outfield. He does not have a strong arm and is not yet savvy on reading the ball off the bat but has the makeup speed to correct his mistakes.
"Defensively, he is still a work in progress," Padres' minor league field coordinator Bill Bryk said. "If you would have saw where he came from, he couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time. He couldn't throw a ball on a fly from the outfield. He has really worked on improving his overall game."
He profiles as a centerfielder yet must continue to make strides by consistently working on his game in batting practice and taking those learned skills to the field each night.
"He is pretty good," Francisco said of his outfield play. "He still has work to do but will get more playing time in centerfield where he should play. This year, he had more time in the corners because of the players we had."
"With the kind of work ethic he has I am sure he is going to be a decent centerfielder. I don't think he is going to be a superstar but he is going to be ok."
While his success has been at the lower levels, Durango's advanced eye and ability to put the ball in play to make use of his speed are coveted assets.
The Padres would like to see a few slap hits and a more conventional approach at times. They have tried to temper his slap-approach at the plate, believing he will be best served at swinging the stick more consistently, as the difficulty degree increases within the minors.
"This kid you just continue to let him play," Bryk said. "Who knows, because speed doesn't slow. You can't steal first but there is no getting around what this kid has done.
"If you watch him in batting practice it is ugly. If you watch him in a game he can make some hard contact and surprise you. Continue to let him play."
Athleticism at third base, ultimately, will make it tough for him to get away with that type of game on a consistent basis – especially if he uses it as much as he did in Arizona. Most of that has been foiled because of his success and until it fails it may be hard to train Durango to do differently.
ETA: He has a head start because of a solid approach at the plate and his ability to put the wood on the ball with two strikes. Still, the Panama native will have to fight through the masses of power hitters revolutionizing the outfield by becoming a better defender and all-around player. Now 21, Durango will begin to get the exposure to better pitchers who will look to fool him. How he stands up to the challenge will determine his career success.
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