Name: Luis Durango
DOB: April 23, 1986
Signed as an international free agent in September of 2003, Durango has done nothing but hit since entering the system.
The diminutive outfielder began his professional career in the Venezuelan Summer League. After hitting .227 in his first season, he came back to lead the league in hitting with a .342 mark while also posting a .473 on-base percentage.
A year later, the Padres brought him stateside. Durango repeated the feat from the previous year, winning the Arizona Rookie League batting crown with a .378 mark while posting a .470 on-base percentage.
Moving up to short-season Eugene in 2007, Durango would not be denied a three-peat. He earned Co-MVP honors in the Northwest League and post-season All-Star honors after batting a league leading .367. He also set a then franchise record with 110 hits (broken this year by Dan Robertson).
Full season ball was on the calendar for the '08 campaign. He began the year in Fort Wayne and got off to a slow start, hitting .239 over the first month of the year. As the season progressed, however, his numbers continually improved.
"He had a few batting titles under his belt, and I don't think he was really prepared for that type of pitching that he saw," Fort Wayne hitting coach Tom Tornicasa said. "For me, there's a big difference from Eugene to Fort Wayne. I think that's actually a bigger jump than say Fort Wayne to Elsinore. And I think he was a little bit surprised by it that a lot of these guys are getting to some of those balls that he was chopping and he was beating out maybe in Eugene and now he's getting thrown out at first.
"But he learned to drive the ball a little more instead of just being more of a slap guy like he was at the beginning of the year, especially right-handed he started showing a little more drive on the ball and was able to drive some gaps and do some things right-handed."
"I think all the hitters started out slow," Fort Wayne manager Doug Dascenzo said. "If you look at the month of April, they pretty much all started out slow. You've got a lot of these guys from South Carolina; you've got the Latin program guys there, Carvajal, Carrasco, Durango. It is freezing cold in April – it was just cold.
"Not only are these kids figuring out a new city, entering their first full season and then they've got to deal with another thing that they're not used to, and some of them never saw snow until we got to Beloit. There are a lot of things that are involved there. So, once the temperature got warmed up, got up there a little bit, we got into the middle of May, all these kids from the Dominican Republic, Durango from Panama, Chalk and Pelzer and all these guys from South Carolina, they started to heat up as well."
Durango ended the season hitting .305 across 93 games for the Wizards, batting .384 during the month of July.
The Panama native's 1.14 walk-to-strikeout ratio was third best in the Midwest League. He ended up with 49 walks compared to 43 strikeouts.
A much better hitter from the left side, Durango hit .344 versus right-handed pitching while batting .227 off southpaws. There has not, however, been talk of keeping him from switch-hitting to date.
Durango hit .431 with a .518 on-base percentage in the California League across 17 games. He notched a hit in 16 of those contests and reached base safely in all 17. In 15 games, he reached base at least twice.
"He's got the touch; he can hit," Lake Elsinore manager Carlos Lezcano said. "He'll put the bat on the ball, he stays within himself, doesn't over swing. He's a good drag bunter; he's got speed.
"I had him in '06, and he was kind of a slow learner in other aspects of the game like defense and base running. But, he's a kid that has that magic bat and that's going to take him places."
Some suggested the cold weather early on affected his play. That could be true, as many of the young players are not accustomed to playing in frigid temperatures – and it can be nasty in the Midwest during the month of April.
Pitchers also threw inside to him a lot more than in previous seasons as well. He wasn't able to get his hands inside the ball to drive it on the ground and take advantage of his plus speed.
A slap hitter that uses the ground to his advantage, Durango plies his trade well. He checks out the infield alignment before setting up to hit and is often successful hitting the ball where there are no fielders. He will take a hand off the bat in an Ichiro-style fashion as he pushes a ball to the opposite field. This tactic is more successful when he hits from the left side.
Balls hit to shortstop and third base are often close calls, as Durango has that kind of speed. He will make fielders rush in an attempt to make a play and beats out his fair share of infield hits on a weekly basis.
"Left-handed he got a little better, but I still think he needs to get a little bit stronger with the bat left-handed so he can actually drive the ball," Tornicasa said. "He did it, I think the game before, a couple of games before he went up to Elsinore. They were kind of cheating him in center, and left-handed he hit one dead center right on the warning track short hopped the wall. So, I don't know. Maybe there's something a little more in there than everyone thinks."
Durango is also a solid bunter. If the infield is playing back, he will use that cushion to drop down a drag bunt.
"He has tremendous hand-eye coordination, and when he swings the bat through the zone, he usually hits it," Padres vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson said. "He can hit a lot of different pitches through the middle on the ground, which is what we preach. If you are going to hit the ball on the ground, that is the place to hit it.
"Also, anytime a guy with his speed hits the ball the other way to the shortstop, it's going to be a bang-bang play at best; he has that type of speed. At the beginning of the year, he had some trouble in Fort Wayne with the inside fastball, which is what you want to do with a guy with that type of game, and, like every other challenge, he found a way to beat it."
While his walk-to-strikeout ratio suggests patience, Durango could afford to take more pitches. His excellent hand-eye coordination allows him to hit a lot of pitches that others would miss. He can reach down to slap a ball on the outer half and outside the zone as easily as one straight down the pipe. Thus far, a solid average has quelled concerns regarding his penchant for swinging at balls.
The Padres perennial search for a leadoff hitter may lead to Durango getting increased looks. Leading off an inning, he hit .388 with a .486 on-base percentage – numbers the Padres have rarely seen within the system or at the top.
Blazing speed also accompanies Durango, but the outfielder is still figuring out how to properly utilize it. He swiped 15 bags in 22 attempts across two leagues but that number could easily triple, if he can learn to read pitchers and get a better jumpstart.
Circuitous routes and reading the ball off the bat are things that need vast improvement. He has improved but still needs to get better looks off the bat and take more direct routes. He has terrific makeup speed but should be much better on the defensive side.
One thing that has improved through the years is his arm. He came into the system without one and has worked hard at making it playable in left and center field.
"You have to remember when we first signed this guy he couldn't throw a ball a hundred yards, so his arm has come a long way," Fuson agreed. "He can flat out fly, and with little guys like him, there is always a tendency to want to put them in center, but right now that may not be the best place for him. It doesn't mean we are not going to keep working with him out there, but to be an everyday center fielder you really have to take good routes, and he isn't there yet."
Conclusion: On the prospect map, Durango simply needs to keep doing what he has been doing at the dish and improve the peripheral parts of his game. Base running and defense are an integral part of the game and his speed makes it a necessity to make those parts of his game an advantage rather than a detriment.
If Durango can keep hitting and improve his art of thievery, there will be no stopping him. He has game-changing speed with an ability to put bat to ball. In today's game, he is a rare find. Double-A will be his biggest test. If he survives, he will quickly move to San Diego.
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