Tuesday, December 21, 2010

2011 Top Prospect List: #18 Juan Duran, of

Juan Duran
Height 6-5, Weight 190, B/T: R/R, DOB: 9/2/1991
2010 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: N/A

When the Big Red Machine was really rolling, it was driven in no small part by players acquired out of Latin America. The Machine had a real international flavor. The Reds signed Tony Perez and Dave Concepcion as international free agents, while Pedro Borbon and Cesar Geronimo were originally international free agents acquired by the Reds from other teams. Fortunately, the Reds have rededicated themselves to international free agents and the organization is all the better for it.

The Reds made a noteworthy splash in the international market three times in the past few years, marking the organization as one of the biggest players in the market. The biggest splash was clearly Aroldis Chapman, but before Chapman there was Yorman Rodriguez and Juan Duran. Yorman was more polished and has earned more hype, but Duran took a step forward in 2010 to reclaim his prospect status and earn the distinction of "one to watch."

Signing and International Free Agency

When the Reds brought him into the organization, Juan Duran was a 16-year old outfielder from the Dominican Republic. He had the blend of youth, size, and athletic skills that scouts dream on. The Reds found a loophole in the rules that allowed them to sign Duran earlier than was commonly believed by the competition. The Reds signed him for $2M and immediately assigned him to the Billings Mustangs of the Pioneer League, though that was merely a paper transaction, as they had no intention of having him play there that year.

At the time of the signing, reports on Duran were really positive:

One AL international scouting director called him "one of those guys who don't come around very often."

"He's got all the tools," he said. "He's a pretty good player, very advanced for his age. I think it was a good investment. He's a good athlete, he has above-average power right now and he has a chance for 80 power (on the 20-80 scouting scale). He demonstrated every ability that you like to see in a kid. He's a very outgoing kid, good swing. There's no doubt about his approach, bat speed and power . . . he has all the common denominators you like to see, good balance, rhythm and a pretty good idea of what to do at the plate."

The Duran signing was a shrewd one by the Reds and demonstrated the type of organizational intelligence that was lacking in previous years. If Duran can continue to develop and approach his ceiling, then the Reds will have been justifiably rewarded for outperforming the competition. In 2010, Duran took a step towards doing just that.

2010 Season

A cursory look at Duran's 2010 numbers won't blow your mind. He hit .244/.309/.393/.702 with 17 extra base hits (10 2bs, 1 3b, 6 HRs) and a 71/19 K/BB ratio in 201 ABs for the Billings Mustangs of the rookie Pioneer League. While he only hit 6 homers, a few of them were prodigious enough to open up some eyes around the league. In addition, digging a bit deeper and adding a dash of context makes things appear just a bit rosier.

Here is Duran's performance by month:

June: .108/.195/.216/.411 with 1 homer and a 15/4 K/BB ratio in 37 ABs
July: .294/.362/.435/.797 with 2 homers and a 27/9 K/BB ratio in 85 ABs
August: .263/.309/.447/.756 with 3 homers and a 26/5 K/BB ratio in 76 ABs

If you throw out a miserable June, then his production is pretty solid across the board, especially in light of the fact that he was only 18-years old during the 2010 season. He has a late season birthday of September 2nd, so his performance warrants a bump in value for age-vs.-level. Despite his youth and continuing adjustment to the American culture, he held his own against more advanced competition.

In June, he struck out in 41% and walked in 11% of his ABs. In July, those numbers improved to 32% strikeout rate and 11% walk rate. In August, 34% strikeout rate and a 7% walk rate. Generally speaking, if you are striking out more than once out of every 3 ABs, then you'll struggle to be productive, as there just aren't enough balls in play to bring about positive outcomes. Obviously, Duran still has a bit of work to do in that regard, but he took a step forward after an abysmal June.

Taller hitters are more prone to strikeouts for two distinct reasons. First, as a taller hitter, they have larger strike zones, so there is a much greater area to protect at the plate. Second, they have longer limbs, which makes for longer levers in their swing. Longer levers take a bit longer to get moving and can make them susceptible to being tied up on pitches on the inner half, as it's simply more difficult for taller hitters to pull their arms in and stay inside the ball.

A larger sample size will reveal a great deal about Duran. His 2010 performance was rife with unusual splits, but the sample size was just too small to draw definitive conclusions. His OPS was .476 against lefties and .745 against righties. His OPS during the day was .923 and .672 at night. Clearly, we need statistics from a full season league before we'll have any useful splits, but it's probably not a stretch to think that Duran is struggling against lefthanders and under the lights. He's still a raw prospect, so he may be adjusting to various elements of American professional baseball.

Despite some highs and lows and some unusual splits, it's hard not to see a bit of progression out of Duran in 2010. In addition to his production, the manner in which he produced it is also worthy of mention.

Swing Mechanics

As a hitter, Duran will continue to be defined by his height. Not only will he have more strike zone to protect, but he'll also have to work harder to keep all the moving parts in sync. Tall hitters like Richie Sexson, Adam Dunn, Dave Kingman, and Frank Howard have all had their struggles with their contact rate and strikeouts. However, Duran has the makings of a solid swing on which to begin building his offensive game.

Duran's pre-pitch position is strong and fundamentally sound. He stands with a significantly wider than shoulder-width stance and uses a high back elbow. His stance is also slightly open, which may be designed to ensure that he doesn't get tied up by pitches in on his hands. Taller hitters have longer arms, which can make them susceptible to pitches on the inner half. By opening up his stance, Duran makes the inner half easier to protect, but may also limit his ability to cover the outer half. Obviously, he'll need to be able to cover both sides of the plate at the MLB level.

One potential problem with the wider stance is that it may impair lower body action in the swing. Generally speaking, the hips are what generate the power in the baseball swing. And, to properly generate power, a hitter must cock the hips. This is done through the stride, which shifts the weight to the back foot long enough for the hitter to rotate his hips inward ever so slightly. This movement creates tension and builds up potential energy. By cocking the hips, the hitter loads up before firing the hips to generate power in the swing.

When you have a hitter who utilizes a wide-spread stance like Duran, it may become more difficult to cock the hips. Obviously, some of the best hitters in history (i.e. Joe DiMaggio, Albert Pujols, etc) have utilized such an approach with little difficulty. And, fortunately, Duran has shown little difficulty generating power to this point. In fact, power remains one of his calling cards as a prospect, as he can crush the ball when he gets a hold of it.

To cock his hips, Duran draws his stride foot back before moving forward beyond it's original position. Additionally, his stride doesn't operate to close his stance up, but rather stays on the original line of the stance. Once his stride foot plants, Duran fires the hips and starts the swing. He gets good extension on his swing, which follows an uppercut swing path. Due to his longer arms, Duran's swing has a tendency to get long, which may be exploited by more advanced opposing pitchers. As he climbs the ladder, he may be forced to shorten up his swing to improve his contact rate.

Once the bat leaves the hitting zone, Duran finishes with an unusual abbreviated follow-through. He typically finishes with one-hand on the bat, but that hand stays up around helmet height. Oddly enough, when he lofts the ball, he sometimes finishes with both hands above shoulder level. In essence, he doesn't rotate his left arm to let the bat finish down around the ground in Will Clark fashion, rather he keeps it up high like Fred McGriff.

There is one additional aspect of Duran's swing that bears watching as a potential red flag. Perhaps due to his height and his lack of comfort therewith, Duran has a tendency to finish his swing with his body leaning significantly in one direction or the other. That speaks to a swing that's occasionally out of balance, as ideally a hitter shouldn't be falling in one direction or another on the swing. If you have to reach for a pitch, then you may be in such a position out of necessity, but Duran seems to find this position too often.

It may simply be the result of a lack of experience and poor pitch recognition. He simply may not have seen enough pitches to avoid being fooled and put off balance. Hopefully, additional experience will help him improve the balance in his swing. Below is a comparison of Duran with two of the best right handed hitters in Major League history, who not surprisingly demonstrate better balance in their swings:

Overall, I like Duran's swing mechanics, but he's still raw and needs to refine the rough edges on his game. He'll have to learn how to effectively counteract the drawbacks of his size, namely to protect the zone and be quick to the ball when necessary. Still, he's on the right track and his power potential remains prodigious.

While Duran will have to deal with the drawbacks of height, he does possess solid speed and moves well for a taller player. The Reds used him primarily in right field last year, but he also spent a few games in left. He is a solid defensive outfielder with solid range. When Duran runs, he utilizes a long, loping stride that doesn't make it look like he's moving all that fast, but he actually chews up the ground pretty well. Obviously, at his size, he'll never be a big threat on the bases like Yorman Rodriguez, but he is equally unlikely to be a significant liability.

Final Thoughts

Almost by definition, Duran is a high risk/high reward prospect. When you are signed to a professional contract almost before you can legally drive a car, then chances are there is significant projection involved. And, the farther you have to project out into the future, the greater the downside risk. However, Duran's raw athleticism and impressive tools are enough to land him at #18 on the list.

Despite the overflowing toolbox, Duran remains raw and unpolished. Time is definitely on his side, which should enable him to develop the skills necessary to utilize his tools. He has a long way to go, but his ceiling is substantial. If he can reach it, then he could be an impact player at the Major League level.


  1. im not sure how i feel about Duron, i go back and forth with him alot. you nailed him right on the head however, great scouting on your part. Have you seen him play in person lark?

    kinda off topic... but im hearing the reds might sign brandon webb. He wants to be close to home, and he might be had for cheap. What do you think about this lark? im all for it if its a minor league deal with spring invite or if it means we make a trade for justin upton and hes replacing one of our young pitchers

  2. Smitty,

    Yeah, I know the feeling on Duran, but I'm liking him right now. I think he's got more offensive upside than the vast majority of the guys in our system. Of course, he's also got more downside risk. Still, I think he's starting to figure it out and I like his swing and love his power potential.

    I'll be curious to see where he starts in 2011 and how he performs. I think he definitely needs some full season ball, so low-A Dayton would be preferred. If he builds off his 2010 season, then he could have something of a breakthrough year in 2011.

    As for Webb, I just don't see the need for him. If we could sign him for a low base salary or even a minor league deal, then it *might* be worth it. Still, last I heard he was topping out in the low 80s and trying to learn to pitch from a new arm slot. Seems like a poor bet, especially since he'd likely have to return to his Cy Young caliber form just to crack our rotation.

    I just don't see him as being a good bet or filling a need. Not to mention, I suspect other teams will pay him enough to toss the risk/reward balance out of whack. Webb is a guy who made sense under Bowden, but we really don't need the reclamation projects anymore.

    If Webb wants to sign a minor league contract and be flexible as to his role with the Reds, then I could certainly see it. But, as it stands, I'm not convinced he is even ready to be an asset at the MLB level. If he wants to pitch close to home bad enough, then maybe it gets done. But, I don't see him as being a good bet to rebound and not worth much more than a flier at this point.

    Thanks for the comment!


  3. i agree about webb, i just feel like with all the interest lately that perhaps the scouts see something. I wouldnt offer anything more than a minor league deal but i would certainly give him a shot.

  4. Smitty,

    Yeah, a minor league deal would be ideal, but the interest is just too high for that to be enough. He'll get more money and a 25-man roster spot from some team. At this point, I feel like he's much closer to being totally done than he is to returning to his old form.

    I think we have more pressing needs than trying to revive Webb's career. If he wants to go pitch for Louisville for a couple of months, then I'm all for it. At that point, we could reassess whether he's a legitimate option at the MLB level.

    Anyway, my $.02.