Name: Jesus Lopez
DOB: September 12, 1987
Heralded for his ability to play shortstop, Lopez made significant strides at the plate this year.
"Our gameplan with Jesus at the beginning of the year was to have him pull the ball more and drive it into left-centerfield more," former Fort Wayne and current AZL Padres hitting coach Bob Skube said. "Through those strides in his hitting plan he accomplished a lot.
"He probably, for me, was my prize pupil of the whole year. You can talk about Cedric (Hunter) and Tom King and the other guys – but that guy learned more about hitting than anyone on the team. He was the most disciplined guy at the plate. He recognized his pitch – and knew what pitch he wanted and jumped all over it when he got it.
"If he could have 30 percent of his hard contacts fall in, he would have hit .275 or .280. I have never seen a guy line out as much as he did in the last two and a half months of the season. There was a streak of 25 games where he had two or three hard contacts every game. It was incredible."
Coming into the year, Lopez had a tough time taking the ball the other way and would often roll over on breaking pitches, topping them off to the left side of the infield for easy outs.
Things began to change during Instructs last year. Instead of asking Lopez to continually go the other way, the Padres simplified the approach by putting the focus on hitting the ball to the middle of the diamond.
Without the pressure to try and hit the ball the other way – often causing Lopez to be late reacting or reaching out too early, Lopez became more comfortable.
The icing on the cake came in the form of an ultimatum. Choke up on the bat or you will be out of baseball was the message a that Bill Bryk delivered to Lopez.
"I told him, ‘If you don't choke up, you are never going to play in the big leagues,'" Padres former minor league field coordinator and current MLB scout Bill Bryk began. "‘You might be the best defensive shortstop in the entire system, including Khalil Greene, but if you don't hit your weight you are never going to play.'
"He ended up turning it around and having a great second half, hitting about .240. He was much more patient and shortened up – a lot more contact."
The notion that he could get by on fielding alone finally settled in for the young Mexican shortstop.
On June 14, Lopez was batting just .209 and destined for the no-hit, slick fielding category. He wound up going 73-for-268 the rest of the way, a solid .273 average in a very tough pitcher's league. That included a late season bout of tiredness that shaved 16 points off his final average of .232.
While the end line stats look dubious, the promise was in hitting the ball harder, continuing to make solid contact, and keeping the same approach on a daily basis.
"He showed surprising power in extended last year," Padres director of international scouting Randy Smith said. "It was a pretty big jump for him to go from the Dominican to Eugene to Fort Wayne last year. When he stays in the middle of the field, he is a tough out. He battles at the plate."
After drawing 63 walks in his first three professional seasons, Lopez was issued a free pass 43 times this season with Low-A Fort Wayne. And he struck out 59 times, taking to the Padres patiently, aggressive approach.
"I think he needs to keep doing what he did this year," Fort Wayne manager Doug Dascenzo said. "I think he showed us that he started to learn a lot about the strike zone. His discipline was 100 percent better than it was a year ago."
By seeing more pitches, Lopez cut down on a lot of the mental mistakes that plagued him in the past. Instead of chasing the breaking balls away and making easy outs, he was working the count in his favor and trying to drive the ball. It led to the 20-year-old setting a career-high in extra base hits with 20. He also led the Wizards in productive outs, notching eight sacrifice flies during the season.
"His situational hitting was pretty good," Dascenzo added. "He needs to continue – sometimes he overswings a little bit. For a guy who is a bat control type of guy – situational type who moves the runners and hits-and-runs, along with his great defensive ability, he has a chance to play at the major league level if he shows day-to-day consistency with his bat.
"He is still growing up a little bit and gets frustrated at times. He needs to control that as well.
"These kids are young kids and will show their frustration at times. But that just shows you how much they love the game and how passionate they are. We don't want to give that up for anything."
Credit his work ethic and ability to listen to advice for the dividends. He has also gotten stronger in the last year and looks more like a baseball player than a peewee leaguer.
Lopez is a prospect that has good bat control from a level swing. He was called upon many times to execute a sacrifice bunt and hit-and-run, leading the team in sacrifice bunts with seven.
Defensively, if Lopez can get to the ball he will make the play. He has fluid hips and moves well laterally. While his range is somewhat limited due to lack of foot speed, Lopez has the softest hands in the system and a strong, accurate arm.
He sets his feet well for the throw and turns the double play with ease. Possessing solid balance, he sets his feet before the throw and positions himself with a line towards the bag he throws to.
"He has great hands, although the foot speed is a little below average," Smith said. "But, if he touches it, you are out. He has the arm strength and I think the bat is coming. It should be an interesting year for him."
Lopez is a below average runner and grounded into a team-high 10 double plays. He won't be a threat to steal bases but is an instinctual runner.
"He got his average up to almost .250 but tailed off and ended up at around .240," said Skube. "It was impressive. With his ability to play defense, if that guy can hit .270 at Double-A or Triple-A, he has a chance to be put on the roster. His defensive ability is phenomenal."
ETA: Lopez is leaps and bounds ahead of the competition defensively but the hitting is still an issue that needs to be addressed. He has made significant strides in the past year and will need to continue that upward trend to be a major leaguer. With his defensive skills, however, Lopez could play multiple positions and do each well.
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