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Dodgers 2017 top prospects: No. 5, Alex Verdugo

Minor League Baseball: Arizona Fall League-Scottsdale Scorpions at Glendale Desert Dogs Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Though it wasn’t a loud season statistically, Alex Verdugo’s 2016 season was nonetheless impressive for a 20-year-old in Double-A ball. Verdugo proved that his hit tool was an elite carry tool that almost ensures his path to the major leagues. How much Verdugo can round out the rest of his offensive game might determine what role and amount of playing time he can expect in his prime.

There’s little doubt in my mind that Verdugo will at least hit for average at the major league level. I’ve seen few players where contact comes as easy to them as Verdugo. He has a lightning quick bat with almost no load, allowing him to allow pitches to travel deeper than his peers. While he employs a slight uppercut at finish most of the time, his swing will level out occasionally and lead to too many ground balls.

Verdugo shows more power potential and whole-body incorporation in his batting practice swings, which does give hope to more power down the road. His current game power is fringe average, however, because his contact-heavy approach is less conducive to pulling the ball, and he lacks the strength for all field power. Just bat speed alone should allow Verdugo to flirt with 15 to 20 home runs annually in his prime.

Verdugo’s prodigious bat speed and hand speed give him the physical tools to be more selective at the plate, and he started to develop this approach in 2016. Verdugo doubled his walk rate to 8.4 % while still keeping his strikeout rate at a low 12.6%. The next step for Verdugo will be more selectivity on pitches in the zone, where too often he offered at pitcher’s pitches leading to easier outs early in the count. A combination of early-pitch selectivity to target pitches to pull and a more consistent swing plane could lead to more usable game power.

Verdugo spent the bulk of his time in center field and he was one of Tulsa’s most comfortable looking outfielders. He can make quick reads and generally takes the right angle on balls in the gap. His range is better than his timed speed would indicate, but if he stays in center field he will likely be average to slightly above defensively.

Verdugo might fit best in right field. He has one of the strongest and most accurate arms in the system (most draft profiles figured Verdugo would be selected as a left-handed pitcher) and could be a real total plus defensively in a corner. The problem with right field will be the production demand on the bat, where his power profile might not be enough for the first-division prototype.

The biggest concern I have with Verdugo at this point is the effort level he displayed in Double-A. While players that can play with his skills often make the game look effortless, I felt that at times Verdugo played with too low an energy level. He was one of the tougher players to time from home to first for how infrequently he challenged infield grounders out of the box, and his outfield play occasionally bordered on too low risk.

I want to stress that I don’t critique effort as a means of eye wash and am not expecting players to play “the right way,” but I do believe that Verdugo did not always play at a level that would push himself to find his physical boundaries in this game. The contrast in styles was glaring when Andrew Toles was in Tulsa. While both are somewhat similar in terms of tools (biggest difference being Toles’ 70 grade speed), there was a notable difference in the intensity levels of the players that helped Toles stand out and subsequently jump to Triple-A and then the majors.

For the time being, I chalked this concern up to immaturity. Verdugo was one of the youngest players in the Texas League and he knew he was talented. It might take a more tasking promotion or additional adversity to push his development. Such a promotion likely comes with a move to Triple-A in 2017. The Dodgers have a collection of outfielders ready for Double A behind him and Verdugo’s hitting ability needs to be challenged by veteran pitching he likely will experience in Oklahoma City.

Verdugo’s path to Los Angeles is currently crowded out by a deep outfield flush with left-handed hitters. He’s not likely to be needed in 2017 and the Dodgers have time to sort out the roster situation if Verdugo’s talent demands it. I compared his upside last year to Nick Markakis and given what I saw in 2016, I still see a similar player. Verdugo can be a positive player on both sides of the game in right field, but will need more power to develop into a championship caliber contributor. He has time and tools on his side to answer this question, but whether he answers that with Los Angeles or elsewhere as one of the team’s top trade chips remains to be seen.

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