Name: Juan Ciriaco
DOB: August 15, 1983
A slick fielder who struggled with the bat in Double-A, Juan Ciriaco got a taste of the Arizona Fall League after a down year in Mobile.
Things didn't go well for the shortstop/second baseman, as his struggles with the bat continued. He ended his tour in Arizona with a .197 average – 12 hits in 61 at bats with seven of those hits coming over his last five games.
He topped out in Double-A Mobile with a .255 average for the month of May but never came close to duplicating that success in subsequent months and ending the season with a .222 average.
Ciriaco was able to do well in the California League the year before and had gained confidence as the year progressed, using his speed and taking the ball the other way. He even hit nine homers.
But the issues this year with the bat led to decreased confidence and a constant struggle to get out of the funk.
"Ciriaco, even though the numbers don't show it, got better and the experience when it was all said and done he was a better ballplayer for it," 2006 Mobile manager Gary Jones said.
The problem for Ciriaco as he has moved up the ladder is tied to his weight and his strength. As the spin on the ball increases and the pitches have become more fine, Ciriaco is not getting good wood on the ball and does not have the power to muscle the ball through the infield for a single like so many of his counterparts. Thus, his swings are resulting in weak grounders to shortstop or pop-ups to first and second base.
"The big thing with Ciriaco is just a strength thing," 2006 Mobile hitting coach Arnie Beyeler agreed. "He is a skinnier kid and he needs to get stronger. When he gets stronger the bat is going to come. He puts the ball in play. He fields the ball well, he runs, he bunts, he can play the game but he just needs to physically mature and get stronger.
He also has a tendency to try and pull the ball when he would be wise to use the opposite field. Instead, Ciriaco swings too hard and the path of his bat through the zone becomes erratic. That led to 97 strikeouts in Double-A and poor pitch selection.
While his bat is a question, the Padres feel his defense is not. There are some mechanical problems that he will iron out with experience, such as slowing down his feet and not rushing his glove to hand exchange but he has above average range and a good cannon for an arm.
He split time between shortstop and second base this year – more to give Luis Cruz time at shortstop than anything else – and he does a nice job in turning the double play.
"I help him out and he helps me out," teammate Luis Cruz said. "We are always talking to each other so we are never out of position."
Ciriaco will, at times, rush his hands and feet, resulting in poor throws to first base. But, he has excellent range and when he keeps himself in rhythm and executes the fundamentals he is usually on point.
He is not, however, the same caliber defender as Jesus Lopez and will have to hit more to continue his progression.
Therein lies the problem. Ciriaco has never been a patient hitter and will chase balls that are outside the zone, especially balls that are headed for the dirt. He has drawn just 65 walks over the last two seasons, spanning 142 games. If he can learn to take a more pitches and look for balls he could drive his power numbers should elevate. Despite a thin, wiry frame, Ciriaco does have some pop, evidenced by his 49 doubles over the last two years.
The right-handed hitter is a decent bunter but not good enough to use those skills to reach base. His bunting is better suited for advancing the runner.
Getting on base is the prerequisite because he does offer up some speed and can steal a few bases with good first step quickness. He is also aggressive enough to take the extra base when prompted.
If he can continue to heighten his strike zone judgment and get on base, Ciriaco has a chance. Right now, that means gaining weight and, more importantly, muscle mass to elevate his game.
"He worked real hard on shortening his swing up and using his legs to hit," explained Beyeler. "He drove some balls but we knew coming in that he was going to probably struggle at the Double-A level. He is another younger kid that from a physical standpoint just needs to mature and get stronger and it will come. He made some improvements. His numbers weren't good but from our standpoint he had some quality at bats. He learned to get into the count, he bunts and plays the game and was really solid for us defensively and that is the reason he was there."
ETA: The addition of second base to his repertoire is a bonus and he will repeat Double-A in 2007. When he hit .281 in the California League it appeared he had turned a corner but he looked overmatched against the better pitching of Double-A. The bat coming around is a must for Ciriaco to be considered a prospect and while he is only 23 and has a year of experience under his belt against better competition, there are questions about how much weight he can gain to handle the rigors of the season and make solid contact with the ball.