2021 or Bust: Luis Urias

From obscurity to top prospect, back to obscurity?

There is a point in a prospect’s career where the hype fades and they can get caught in a purgatory of not playing against the elite competition to improve, but also not doing enough to justify giving them a spot to play more elite competition. Very few prospects have the talent to force a franchise to bring them up and give them a spot. So many factors come into play when deciding whether to bring up a prospect. The most important one is the timing. Is there an opening for them on the depth chart? Were there free-agent signings? Did the team just draft someone with a similar skill set? Have they been healthy enough? Have they been brought up and sent down so much that your confidence is shot? Are they in an organization that pushes and challenges prospects? Or are they in an organization that sits on talent until it absolutely has to promote it?

Any one of these is reason enough to slow a prospect’s development or career. If a prospect experiences more than one of the questions above, he might not ever get a real chance despite having all-star talent. That’s how you get late-bloomers like Max Muncy, Jacob deGrom, Mitch Haniger, Josh Donaldson, and so on.

 

2021 or Bust
Brendan Rodgers (1/12/21) Victor Robles (1/19/21) Brendan McKay (1/5/21) Andrew Benintendi (1/26/21)
Kyle Wright (2/2/21) Luis Urias (2/9/21) David Dahl Brent Honeywell
Royce Lewis Zack & Nick Burdi Austin Meadows Franklin Barreto
Nick Senzel Readers’ Choice

 

For most of the players on the list above, while 2021 is their make-or-break year, if they break, they likely won’t be out of the league. They’ll all likely get another chance somewhere. In the case of this one player, however, if he does not prove himself we may never see him in a major league uniform again.

 

History

 

Coming out of Mexico, Luis Urias signed with the San Diego Padres in 2013—that vaunted class that included Eloy Jimenez, Gleyber Torres, and Rafael Devers. In one of the most consequential international prospect pools in league history, Urias was an afterthought. He was offered a $100,000 signing bonus (he only got to keep $25,000 because Mexican league teams used to be able to pocket 75% of the players’ bonus), meaning that he was considered organizational depth and not likely to make the major leagues in his career. In that respect, Urias has already exceeded all expectations. We’re going to move on from there though.

Why wasn’t Urias thought of highly? He was, more or less, a player without tools. There isn’t much of a chance for power and he’s not terribly fast. He’s also an average fielder. Nothing really stood out, until he hit .310 and walked more than he struck out in the Arizona (Rookie) League in 2014 at 17 years old. That trend continued nearly three full seasons in the minors. Urias’ MiLB batting average was .308 over 540 games and his BB:K ratio was 11:13. He was an efficient hitter with a better-than-average eye and a disciplined swing.

 

Hype

 

In the span of four years, Urias went from a complete unknown to a top-20 prospect in all of baseball. All of his value was dependent on two things: his position (middle infield) and his contact. In 2018, Urias struggled during a 12-game cup of coffee with the Friars at the end of the season. That small stretch dampened the hype on his stock for a short period of time. Then the power surge of 2019 happened. Not just the power surge for Urias, but for the whole MLB and Triple-A due to a juiced ball. A lot of guys saw career highs in home runs, and Urias was no different. In just 120 Triple-A games, Urias slammed 19 homers. To put this in perspective, he had hit just 19 dingers in roughly 500 games before that.

Despite the juiced ball, it was hard not to wonder if Urias simply changed his launch angle. Given his ability to put the bat on the ball, any added power would be a boon to his value.

 

What Went Wrong

 

To put it simply: Urias is—and isn’t—what we thought he was. Simple enough?

We’ve seen it happen before. Guys who seemingly had no power to all of a sudden hit 25 homers just by changing their launch angle. Usually, these guys are contact-oriented, which makes sense. The thought process is: The better the ability you have to put the bat on the ball, the more likely you’ll be able to make adjustments as to where you’ll put the bat on the ball. In that sense, Urias seems like a perfect candidate to come forward with otherwise unseen power.

The Padres obviously believed this in 2018 when they tried to make Urias someone he wasn’t: Jose Ramirez. He never had the speed, but the Friars tried to generate more power by changing his swing so he sat more upright and used a leg kick. This was pretty much abandoned as it simply did not have the desired effect. It worked in the minor leagues, and his launch angle showed progress, (going from 1 to 10 degrees) but the changes actually had the reverse overall effect in the majors, slightly lowering his contact rate, rising his SwStr%, and all the while not changing his exit velocity.

It seems that after getting traded to the Brewers, Urias has reverted mostly back to his former swing. And with it are the results we are used to seeing from him. His barrel rate is incredibly low (3.3%), his exit velocity is slightly below league average (87 MPH), and so is his hard-hit percentage (29%). What’s troubling, however, is his K-rate is rising, which is odd because his Swinging Strike % is falling due to presumably reverting back to a more contact-oriented approach. Still, his contact rate is rising and he’s swinging at fewer pitches than before. If you work out all of those variables, you can conclude that Urias is becoming more discriminating of a hitter—maybe too discriminating. He’s getting caught looking a lot, and when he’s putting the ball in play, it’s on the ground and rarely hard contact. This simply isn’t a recipe for success.

Before he said hello to the juiced ball of Triple-A in 2019, the book on him was that he simply did not produce enough hard contact to become much more than a borderline middle-infielder starter. And since he isn’t very fast, he’s likely a No. 2 hitter or a No. 7 hitter at the apex of his development, depending on a manager’s preference and how that potentially exceptional hit tool panned out. I think we’re back to this. He didn’t hit a single homer in 41 games last year. Nothing has gone “wrong” Urias, instead, we are just re-re-adjusting our expectations back to what they were before using a juiced ball and a swing change.

 

Why 2021?

 

The answer to this question has everything to do with profile. As of right now, Urias’s MLB profile is that of a good defender with little speed and less power. What’s more, there isn’t really a history of more power on the way to justify second or third chances. The minor leagues are loaded with guys who meet all of these criteria—and many of them are better fielders.

That said, the Brewers traded for him and plan to start him at third in 2021. This is probably his last chance.

 

Verdict

 

I have my doubts that Urias will be the starter by the end of 2021, which is a shame because I root for all height-challenged, contact-oriented players. There are simply too many trends and holes in his performance to expect otherwise. At the very least, he’s going to have to show he can hit for average and curb (or reverse) the rising K-rate. The Brewers are in win-now mode, while they have Christian Yelich in his prime. They won’t want a black hole occupying the hot corner—especially when prospects who could do just as well and maybe better (Brice Turang). If 2021 doesn’t work out, the range of outcomes for him is signing a minor league contract or becoming a fringe utility guy on a non-contender.

Photo by Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@relderntisuj on Twitter)

Travis Sherer

All Seattle Mariners fans have learned the future is all we have because the present is always too painful. I am Western Washington University alum, a local sportswriter, an official NCAA basketball statistician, a freelance radio and television production statistician, and a minor league standup comedian. Follow me @ShererTravis on Twitter.

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