If anyone still doubted the Dodgers’ decision to start Alex Verdugo’s career in the field instead of on the mound before 2015, his performance last season has likely changed their minds. With the departure of Jose Peraza, Verdugo now wears the mantle of best feel for hitting in the organization. Verdugo overcame a slow start in the colder early months of the Midwest League to bash his way to a California League championship. His ability to stick in center and hit for power will determine just how high his upside can be at the major league level.
Verdugo’s debut professional season suggested that he can hit for average, and 2015 left little doubt that it is so. Even during his early season struggles, making contact was never the issue, with Verdugo’s pitch recognition skills rivaling Austin Barnes’ for the best in the organization. As he matures as a hitter, Verdugo should learn what pitches to lay off and when to attack, and should see his walk rate rise as he refines his approach.
Verdugo has some of the best bat speed in the system, though this can be inconsistent. The obvious change from his high school days to 2015 is the fluidity in his swing. Verdugo has quieted his set up, with low hands and a slightly open stance, and employs a toe tap for timing. Verdugo’s swing is extremely short to the ball, and when right, he shows a high finish and extension, spraying line drives gap to gap.
Verdugo can get into trouble when he becomes too focused on making contact. As mentioned, the left-hander’s bat speed is inconsistent and at times he tends to drift onto his front foot and just throw his hands at the ball to take it the other way. In doing so, he often rolls over the ball on contact or flares the ball weakly into left field. When he keeps his weight back and drives through the ball, he gives himself a greater chance to tap into his average power.
Power is the biggest question mark of Verdugo’s offensive game. In batting practice, he shows the leverage and torque to drive balls into the right center gap, but has yet to exhibit consistent pull power. He’s not particularly big and has a fairly full frame, so he’s not expected to grow into much more raw power potential. Verdugo’s power will likely come from further refinement in his pitch recognition, not just what he can and can’t hit, but what he can jump on and drive down the right field line. At his best, Verdugo may be no more than a 15-20 home run hitter.
Defensively, Verdugo’s arm receives high marks for both strength and accuracy, not surprising from a player that was considered a top-three-round pick as a pitcher. He’s put up solid defensive numbers and has proved capable of handling center field thus far, but lacks the typical speed and athletic measurables of a center fielder. Because of his arm and outfield instincts, Verdugo has the chance to be a plus defensive right fielder. While not a burner, Verdugo is also an opportunistic base stealer that could reach 15-20 stolen base totals at his peak.
As exciting a hit tool as Verdugo possesses, we still have to temper our enthusiasm based on fit. His best case scenario for me is an an above average right fielder that can hit .290+ with 10-15 home runs and provide value defensively. I see several similarities between Verdugo and Braves’ right fielder Nick Markakis, who was also thought to be a better pitching prospect when drafted but the Orioles were wiser and developed a lineup stalwart that almost spent a decade in their lineup. However, Markakis was rarely the star, but a solid supporting cast member, and that’s where I see Verdugo’s ultimate ceiling.
Verdugo is still young enough to blow this projection out of the water. He’ll turn 20 during the season and that may come while at Double-A Tulsa, though I suspect he’ll return to the California League with Class-A Rancho Cucamonga to start the season. Verdugo’s name came up in trade talk rumors this off-season and he may yet be one of the better trade chips on the farm, especially if a team believes he has more power coming. However, despite the present congestion, the Dodgers have an aging outfield that will likely have Scott Van Slyke, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford on the wrong side of 30 when Verdugo is ready for the major leagues, with Yasiel Puig getting closer to free agency (eligible after 2019) at that point as well. The timing could align nicely for Verdugo to then claim right field as part of the next young talent core.