EL PASO, Texas — After Luis Urias played in the Northwest and Midwest Leagues in 2015 as an 18-year old, the Padres made a somewhat surprising decision to promote him to start the 2016 season in the California League.
Well, it was surprising to everyone but the Padres.
“He consistently barrels the ball, and he’s also put on some significant muscle,” said the Padres’ Director of Player Development Sam Geaney before the year. “He just does so many things well I had zero hesitation at putting him at any level.”
Geaney’s confidence wasn’t misplaced. Urias hit .330/.397/.440, walked (40) more than he struck out (36) and by all accounts played an excellent defensive second base in route to earning the California League Player of the Year.
In 2017 he began the year with the Double-A San Antonio Missions and hit .296/.398/.380, which was good enough for sixth in the Texas League in batting average and first in on-base percentage.
He was even better in the first two months of the season, hitting .342/.435/.475 on June 1 before fading. A combination of a nagging ankle injury and possibly fatigue from doing extra pre-game work to play shortstop and a long season from playing for Team Mexico in the World Baseball Classic made that slide less concerning long-term.
“[He brought a] very good zone awareness and the ability to put the bat on the ball. [Urias] had the best walk-to-strikeout split of any qualifying hitter in the league,” said Mike Saeger, the Missions’ play-by-play announcer.
“Later in the year, he did start chasing a lot more than he did early, and his strikeout rate over his last 82 plate appearances was about 18%, after hovering around 11% up to that point.”
This year, Urias is not tired and has been tearing up the PCL. The 20-year-old is hitting .313/.438/.465 with the Triple-A El Paso Chihuahuas, a step away from San Diego.
“So far the pitchers have more experience, and they know how to use and mix their secondary pitches better,” said Urias before a recent home game in El Paso on the differences between the levels.
“The velocity might be a little better in Double-A, but the command is better here. When they miss, it’s much closer than it was in San Antonio.”
After a minor hamstring pull kept him out of a few games in late April, Urias has moved his OPS up nearly two hundred points, making Padres fans wonder when he is going to make his major league debut.
“His plate discipline is amazing,” said his manager Rod Barajas when evaluating Urias’ game. “This is a guy that walks more than he strikes out for his career which you usually don’t see at this level.
“Defensively he has some room to grow. Turning the double-play, we would like to see him be a little more consistent and trusting what he sees a little more, which is part of your baseball instincts. Baserunning is another area where we would also like to see a little more aggressiveness. Not only in stealing bases but when to take the chance on going first to third.”
“There are a few things in his game that he is not terrible at, but to be a big leaguer that is not going to hit for a lot of power, it is important for him to get better at.”
Urias has improved this year defensively, most notably in his ability to become more comfortable at playing shortstop after splitting time there last year with the Missions and in the Arizona Fall League.
“I signed as a shortstop and kind of lost a little confidence because I hadn’t played there in a while. When I got a chance to play there again on a consistent basis, I got my confidence back.”
Urias signed with the Mexico City Red Devils when he was only 15, leaving his home to go to their Academy in Oaxaca and then to Monterrey. He played in la Liga Norte for the Diablos de Hermosillo, the minor league affiliate of Red Devils, before the Padres bought his contract at the end of 2013.
This season Urias is doing what Urias usually does, putting the barrel of the bat on the ball on a consistent basis.
“He has that ability to not only recognize what pitches are in the zone but to hit them as well,” said Lance Burkhart at the end of 2016, when he was his manager with the Lake Elsinore Storm and now is one of his coaches with El Paso. “It’s not a skill that is taught. It’s God-given.”
Urias, for the most part, exudes patience that his time will come and is seemingly not preoccupied with when he will be promoted; even comparing the Mexican food restaurants in El Paso to San Antonio.
“I found quite a few places in San Antonio that were pretty good. So far I’ve found one place I like a lot in El Paso, but it’s still early. Here the food feels more like home.”
The way Luis has been playing, he is probably going to have to stick with one or maybe two places in El Paso because he should be in San Diego by the summer.