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. He was added to the Padres 40-man roster after the 2008 season.
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 in 2008 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. 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.
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.
The 2009 season brought Durango to Double-A. The outfielder played in 129 games with the Missions, hitting .281 with 78 runs scored. He also posted a 81-to-70 walk-to-strikeout ratio for a .390 on-base percentage – third best in the league. His 81 walks were second most in the circuit.
"Luis is very gifted speed wise," former San Antonio and current Portland hitting coach Orv Franchuk said. "He can do a lot of things. He's always got a smile on his face. He's a good kid." He had spurts where he was hot and cold throughout the year, hitting under .240 in two months and over .300 in two others while playing in 19 more games than he had in any previous season. He also recorded a league-high 19 sacrifice bunts.
Durango was promoted to San Diego late in the year, seeing action in nine games. He went 5-for-11 with a pair of walks and two stolen bases in his brief time there.
"It's great to see any of our young players go up to the big leagues, whether it's an international player, a drafted guy, or a guy we trade for, because that's our future, and to be successful in San Diego, we're going to have to rely on young players," director of player development and international scouting Randy Smith said.
The switch-hitter has a slap approach that is based on pounding the ball into the ground and using his speed to make plays. If the infield is back, Durango will drop down a bunt and is one of the best bunters in the entire minors.
"I had to remind him a lot, especially since his left-handed swing is not as good as his right-handed swing," Franchuk began. "He's a natural right-handed hitter, a much better hitter right-handed. Left-handed, I had him bunt most, I reminded him of butting the ball on a daily basis because his swing is okay, it wasn't a swing that was going to hit .300, so he could probably bunt .300 in the big leagues." When fielders are playing in, Durango has an Ichiro-like approach where he is almost leaving the batter's box on contact. He guides the ball to open spots on the field with impeccable bat control and will use half-swings to parts of the field that go uncovered.
Armed with a good batting eye, he looks for a quality pitch to make the contact he desires. He is a better high strike hitter, as he can't handle the lower strikes as well. He could be even better with his pitch selection. Because of his bat control, Durango will swing at pitches out of the zone with confidence. He missed more of those balls this year than in the past – as the pitching at this level was simply better than he had ever seen. He needs to continue refining the approach.
"If you can run like that, if you can get on base, he's just an exciting guy to watch," Smith said. "For a young guy who I think we signed for $10K it's just great to see his hard work getting him to the big leagues."
One of the issues that he faces is outfielder's playing him shallow without respect for Durango potentially hitting one over his head. They are attempting to eliminate the line drive single from his arsenal.
The Padres are looking for him to add strength to his frame to keep fielders honest. They would like to see the ability to hit one over the head of an outfielder to give him extra-base hit potential. Given his plus speed, outfielders would then need to guard against the triple and inside-the-park homer, opening up the field even more for Durango to wreak havoc.
"He has to get stronger again, even more strength," former San Antonio and current Portland manager Terry Kennedy said. "I think he finished around 165-pounds. He has to get stronger and continue to work on his left-handed stroke. He has a pretty firm right-handed stroke that can keep the defenses a little more honest, but left-handed he's got to, I wouldn't say drive the ball, but he has to be able to hit the ball with a little more authority so that the outfielders could be a little more honest.
"It's difficult to score a guy from second when he's hitting because they're so close. But, for me, that's one of the main things he has to do."
He has become more consistent with his switch-hitting ways. His left-hand side was lacking in previous seasons but was on par with his right-hand side this past year.
The speedy Panamanian also stole a career high 44 bases – second most in the Texas League – in 61 attempts, improving in that arena as the season progressed. He was 18 for his last 21 after getting caught 14 times in his first 40 attempts. His first-step has gotten much better, as has his ability to read a pitcher. Continued experience, some with trial and error, will breed even more confidence. His second half stats speak volumes regarding his development.
Durango has transformed a weak arm into an average one and is much better defensively than he ever was. He will still take poor routes but is better equipped to make up ground than in the past. Eliminating the false steps and fielding balls off the wall are next on the list of improvements, but the progress has been steady.
"His defense, because he runs so well and he's gifted in that part of his game, he has a tendency to not work very hard at a defense," Franchuk said. "He could be better with his routes, and he could be better with getting jumps and knowing the hitters and he wasn't real good with doing that." One area of concern to some insiders is his lack of interest in learning English. Despite being in the system for six years, Durango has not made strides in learning the language. That could be a detriment to him and his learning curve.
"He's not real team oriented, and players a lot of times aren't like that because they've had to fight and scratch and steal their way growing up," Franchuk said. "They never had anything and they were poor. So being team guys, they're not used to, as long as they get their two hits or three hits, they think that everything's good, and if the team loses, they don't understand that. He got a lot better with that. It will be interesting to see where his career goes because he definitely has the tools to be pretty successful." "Here's a kid that's had to overcome some things, and I think he's getting a little bit better every year," Smith said. "This year, he's among the league leaders in on-base percentage, runs scored, stolen bases, which is exactly what a leadoff hitter is supposed to do. I think he had his best year to this point in center field. His range factor was better, his fielding percentage was better, his stolen bases the second half of the year – I think he was 18-for-21.
"The things that he's had to improve on he's getting better at, slowly but surely. The outfield play and the base running was really the last couple of things he needed to finish off, and he got better. He's not a finished product yet, but he's getting there and who knows what he'd going to be. He could be a Ralph Gar type of guy, he could be a Brett Butler, a Juan Pierre, somebody like that, but who knows? I don't know."
Conclusion: Durango has improved in every facet of his game since entering the system. The yearly progress has also been evident. Asked to work on base running and defense, he made adjustments. If he can apply the same theory to swinging at more strikes and adding power to his frame, Durango could be a significant threat at the major league level in the Juan Pierre mode. His on-base skills and speed warrant an extended look.
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