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Bernie On The Scene: Another Juan Pierre?

Bernie Pleskoff

Bernie Pleskoff is a former professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners.

I usually reserve this space for multiple-tool players on the brink of a major league opportunity, major league stardom or both. This week I want to share my thoughts about a player with two playable tools and a chance for a minor, “supporting cast” role with the Padres.

Luis Durango is an exciting player. His speed can change a game in the late innings. He may eventually have a role similar to that of Peter Bourjos of the Los Angeles Angels. Get on base, steal and score. However, make no mistake. Bourjos plays much, much better defense and he is a better overall player than Durango.

That said, Durango makes things happen on the bases and he is very worth watching carefully. However, a better comparison may be to Juan Pierre. Can the diminutive center fielder prove the critics wrong and develop into the next Pierre? To do that, he’ll have to get a sustained playing opportunity. His recent recall from Triple-A Portland may be the chance he needs.

The Padres' magical season is the result of a combination of factors including superb pitching, excellent management, good defense, timely hitting and some breaks going their way. Throw in a dash of overcoming some major injuries and the result is a mix that has resulted in a winning formula. I don’t see the Padres folding their tent and leaving the parade before the playoffs turn them away. If in fact they are turned away.

It seems that everything the Padres have done this year has resulted in success. Mat Latos has very quietly had a Cy Young quality campaign. The starting rotation has been solid from Latos through Jon Garland, Clayton Richard, Kevin Correia and Wade LeBlanc. The defense has been very sharp and the hitting has been timely and consistent. The Padres own the division lead in the NL West and they aren’t about to give it up. Losing power hitting Kyle Blanks and starting pitcher Chris Young to injuries hasn’t stopped the team from playing winning baseball.

How then can a player with the limited skills Durango get his opportunity? It’s simple. Having speed on the roster is an important ingredient to sustained success in the National League West. The playoffs are on the horizon and Durango can play a very important role. More about that later.

Durango is called the “Panamaniac” because he was born in Panama and he is a running maniac on the bases. It's simply fun to watch him play. There are good reasons for the comparisons between Durango and Pierre. I see it in his defensive play, and I see it in his at-bats. I see it in his bunting ability. And I really see it on the base paths. Pierre has made as career of getting on base any way he can and stealing his way into scoring position. He’s the perfect prototype of “get him on, get him over, and get him in.” Durango can be that player.

Durango is a switch-hitting 5-foot-9, 160-pound lightning fast center fielder. He knows how to beat the ball into the ground and take off running. He makes the trip from home to first in less than 4.0 seconds, and I have usually clocked him at 3.8 seconds; sometimes even better. (Note: the major league average is 4.5 seconds.)

At the plate, Durango is a slap hitter with the ability to take the pitch to all fields. That’s what makes him valuable. He can generally get the bat on the ball. When he swings too hard and his swing gets long he realizes far less success. But his discipline and knowledge of his running ability target Durango’s focus at the plate. I have always liked what I have seen. He knows he can’t hit home runs and frankly, he doesn’t try.

Durango signed as a free agent with the Padres out of Panama in 2003. He won two minor league batting titles at lower levels. Counting this season, Durango will have played six seasons of professional baseball. In all, his line is .323/.414/.374 with an OPS of .788 covering 1,830 at-bats. He has stolen 147 bases while being thrown out 69 times.

In his career, Durango has three professional home runs. And that simple little statistic provides the one major issue that might block his continued presence on a big league club. Durango has absolutely no pop in his bat. He will have to slap a single, walk, get on because of an error or get hit with a pitch to be valuable to the Padres or another big league club. But if he can do that with consistency, center field can be his. He has to learn to take more pitches and coax more bases on balls. That is a deficiency in his game. He simply does not walk enough. In his career, he has walked only 273 times and struck out 249 times over 2179 plate appearances. The ratio is not good.

As a 24-year-old player, Durango still has time to hone his skills before he panics about his career longevity. In fact, during a brief stay at the big league level this season, Durango appeared in 10 games, received 19 at-bats and hit .335. He stole two bases without being caught. He got the attention of his manager, Bud Black. However, Durango was returned to Triple-A Portland when Mat Latos was called to the big leagues. On August 22, Durango was recalled to the big club. Durango can now show the Padres front office first hand what he means to their team.

I mentioned two skills for Durango. One is his speed, of course. The other skill is his ability to hit for average. I do think he will be able to put the bat on the ball, slap some big hits, bunt and/or move runners over with groundballs. As a switch-hitter, he can play against both righties and lefties and he won’t have to be lifted for a pinch-hitter when that ground ball or single are called for. However, there certainly may be times when a long fly ball or gap/home run are needed and Durango will be replaced in the lineup or remain on the bench. Again, his skills are limited. From what I have seen of Durango in plenty of spring training games, Luis is only an average defender. He gets to balls because of his speed. However, he has been known to take the surface roads rather than the freeway to get to them. He has to improve on his routes and paths to fly balls. In addition, I would term his arm strength a tweak below major league average. Limited defensive ability means limited playing time. But if he works hard on defense, he can improve his chances of playing. Again, certainly not unlike Juan Pierre.

In this space last year I profiled Padres first baseman Kyle Blanks. At the time I said I believed Blanks would move to left field as long as Adrian Gonzalez remained with the Padres. Blanks’ bat was too potent to waste at Triple-A or on the bench. Blanks did move to left. He got hurt this year and has been on the disabled list. A combination of players including Chris Denorfia, Scott Hairston, Matt Stairs, Tony Gwynn Jr., Will Venable and now Ryan Ludwick currently patrols the Padres' outfield. Blanks should return to his role when healthy. If Adrian Gonzalez leaves the Padres, Blanks should move to first base. That opens an outfield role for Durango or anyone else that steps forward. While Gwynn has similar skills to Durango (and a magic name) it isn’t set in stone that any of the aforementioned players is certain of work in 2011.

Durango must use his time now on the big league club to pave the way for next season. This really is his audition.

And what about moving Luis Durango to second? So far the Padres have resisted that temptation. But they are weak organizationally at 2B and they may visit the possibility of Durango giving it a go. But I doubt it. However, stranger things have happened. I believe if he makes the Padres roster on a long-term basis it will be as a center fielder.

Why write about Durango at this particular point in the season? Simple. I believe he can steal some big bases in the waning games. He could get an occasional start or pinch-hit/pinch-run, steal a base and score. He’s that much of a threat on the bases. While he may be a luxury to keep on the 25-man roster before September, he may be too good to waste as the Padres attempt to enter the playoffs with home field advantage. Close to 36 or so games with a running threat sitting on the bench may be too much to ignore. I'm glad he got the call to San Diego.

Fantasy owners looking for that last edge to push them over the top may want to target Durango for this pennant stretch run. The Padres will be in the hunt and they will look to score runs. And yes, if given the opportunity, Durango could be as effective as Pierre on the bases. “If given the opportunity” is the operative phrase. The Padres have the perfect environment for that chance to be provided. We should learn more about how the Padres will be using Durango in the coming days. If you need speed, make your move. Luis Durango will be making his. Count on it.