Name: Luis Durango
DOB: April 23, 1986
"For me, he is a prospect," Padres director of international scouting Randy Smith said. "His defense has to become more consistent and his base running ability has to improve before we determine what kind of prospect he is going to be."
"Another batting title," Padres vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson began. "He is a pain in the butt. He has done a good job using his hands and his eyes and his personal skill about contact and letting his speed play. He plays the game with his hair on fire.
"If a guy like this continues to graduate, he has to get a lot better with all the instinct ends of the game. His baserunning, his routes, his reads, his understanding of how the game is played as far as what bases to throw to. All those things that don't show up on the boxscore but are very valuable to us.
"For him to do it for the third year in a row when you count the DSL is great to have."
For the third consecutive season, Durango took home a batting title, winning the Northwest League crown by posting a .367 average. He set a Eugene Emeralds franchise record for hits with 110 and fell three shy of the league record.
"He ended up with 110 hits – a record," Eugene manager Greg Riddoch said. "He got tired but he got a lot more experience. He is way below average defensively in the outfield, but the way I look at it is he is better than he was when he was in extended Spring Training. He continues to improve a little bit at a time."
Reaching base more than two times per game, on average, Durango tied for the league lead with eight triples, landed third in on-base percentage, and third in runs scored.
"Durango was something special," former Eugene hitting coach and current AZL Padres manager Jose Flores. "He was the life – the pulse of our team.
"He may have won the batting title in Arizona but the people get better as you move up. The transition I saw was he went out there and played the game from day one. He was a totally different guy than I saw in Spring Training and extended to finish out the season in Eugene and be the sparkplug that he was.
"Without him, I don't think we would have been successful early on. He grew immensely. I didn't have to work a lot with him. It was more of a repeat yourself deal. You can't coach a guy hitting .370. His English, his understanding, getting comfortable with the league – that is where I helped him the most, giving him more information on how to go about the game, how to run every play out, take every day and every at bat differently."
All this came on the heels of an Arizona Rookie League batting crown and Venezuelan Summer League batting title in 2005.
It has been a successful run at the dish for the centerfielder.
For all of his hitting talents, Durango has been sub par in two important categories – running the bases and defensively. As a centerfielder with leadoff abilities, those two failings are huge.
While he was timed as the fastest player in the Padres system running the 60-yard dash prior to the 2007 season, running it in 6.22 seconds, he has not translated that speed onto the base paths.
Through 217 career minor league games, Durango has swiped 63 bags – and he has been caught 36 times. This past season in Eugene, Durango netted 17 stolen bases in 27 attempts. Sixty-three percent is not going to cut it for a player capable of stealing 50 bases or more over a full season – provided he gets the nuances down.
While he has the best top end speed in the system, Durango struggles with the first step. He does not have that explosive burst to set the tone and takes an extra step in his turn towards second base. While he jets out of the gate on contact from the batter's box, knowing when his bat hits the ball it is time to go, the Panamanian prospect has not put all the intangibles together when leading off first.
Reading a pitcher's move and reacting accordingly have been sticking points in his base running aptitude. He has not figured out the intricacies.
"He is not a good baserunner," Padres former minor league field coordinator and current MLB scout Bill Bryk said flatly.
While he can churn out triples at a steady clip, Durango also suffers from mental lapses, running on fly balls with a single out or standing his ground on contact with two outs. Keeping his head in the game on the bases will be a point of emphasis.
In the outfield, Durango has had trouble reading balls off the bat and getting good jumps. While his speed offers makeup capability, he has not traditionally run good routes to the ball.
"It is easy to say no," Smith said of Durango being a prospect. "I have watched this guy from day one – the improvement he has made with his throwing, the improvement with his hitting – this guy keeps getting a little bit better each year.
"Hopefully, his defense improves this year. I think (Tom) Gamboa did a nice job with him in the Instructional League."
His arm is also below average, and he lacks a firm understanding of where to throw the ball in certain situations. Part of it has been a mental process and the other half is understanding the fundamentals associated with playing centerfield.
Tom Gamboa, now the Padres minor league field coordinator, worked specifically on outfield defense with Durango during the Padres fall Instructional League. Hitting 150 balls to Durango each day proved to be worthwhile, as several insiders noted that he improved dramatically – one going so far as to say he now deemed him a prospect where he did not view him as such in the past.
"If I would have saw what I saw in the Instructional League – Tom Gamboa should be commended for Durango – Durango played solid centerfield in the Instructional League," Bryk said. "I told Grady that we have to keep putting him out there because you never know when it might click in. He was much improved in the outfield. If he can take that into next season, he is a prospect for me. I didn't have him as a prospect just because of his defense and not so much his baserunning. It was awful. If I had to write my report over based on what I saw in the Instructional League, he would be a prospect."
At the plate, Durango is a slap hitter that has impressive bat control. Oftentimes, Durango will read the infield defense and work to hit it where they aren't. If the infield is drawn in, he will attempt to slap it over their heads with an almost half swing approach that produces sharp liners over the drawn in third baseman's head.
An excellent bunter, Durango is half out of the box when he hits left-handed when laying down a bunt. He prefers to attack the left side of the field with his hits, forcing the fielders to make a play quickly.
"It has been almost unbelievable at times," Eugene teammate Andrew Parrino said. "The guys come in and he hits it over their head. The guys stay back and he puts it in front of them. Especially in this game, speed kills and he is the best at it."
"He is fun to watch," Eugene teammate Danny Payne said. "The kid can play the game and is fun to watch for sure."
While he draws nearly as many walks as strikeouts, Durango will commit to pitches outside the zone when he wants to make a play. If he feels he has the upper hand and a chance to drop the ball over a drawn in third baseman, the outfielder will offer at balls that should be allowed to pass. His bat control gives him that kind of confidence – and sometimes it can be a detriment when he is hitting himself into outs.
"Durango is not selective," Riddoch agreed. "He hit good balls, bad balls, one-hoppers."
Still, it is hard to argue with his success. The Padres had once tried to get him to swing through each pitch, but the results were not there, and they allowed him to continue his approach – realizing it worked quite well.
"He got into Instructional League late and mentioned something to me that caught my ear when he said, ‘I can't believe the kind of season I had.'
"I said, ‘You know what? You opened up a lot of people's eyes. No one thought it was going to be like that.'"
The fear has been that his learning ability is lacking, but insiders are beginning to come around since he continues to see success.
The one break he is finally in line to receive is specific coaching on the base paths from one of the best – Doug Dascenzo in Fort Wayne.
"I don't say anyone is going to be a big leaguer, but I do say they deserve to be at the next level and we will see what happens," Riddoch said. "If they continue to get better than that is their fault and good for them."
"He went down to Columbia, won another batting title, stole 30-some bases, which is obviously an improvement," Smith said of Durango's winter. "It is not here but still nice to see. It is a matter of running enough and getting thrown out enough to figure it out.
"Who knows what this guy is going to be. He knows his game. He handles the bat. He gets on base at an unbelievable clip. His batting average has been phenomenal.
"He keeps doing it every year. Who is to say he can't keep doing it?"
ETA: Durango's future success is tied to his ability to improve defensively and on the base paths. He has made strides in center but will have to carry it over to the season for the doubters to be satisfied. On the bases, a concerted effort must be made to improve. He has game-changing speed but does not know how to use it. If he can improve on both, Durango becomes a prospect in everyone's eyes.
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