The Detroit Tigers are notorious for dipping into the Venezuelan baseball scene to find sneaky good international talent. They don’t go after big salary, big hype prospects, instead preferring to work under the radar on low-budget signings. In 2012, the Tigers were able to land Jose Azocar, then just 16 years old, for $110,000, a very low amount as far as international free agent signings go.
Azocar is a speedy center fielder who came stateside in 2015 after spending both 2013 and 2014 in the Venezuelan Summer Leagues. He is quite raw, though, and will be a project going forward. However, he earned this rankings after showing glimpses of the exciting player he can be in 2016.
Spending all of 2016 with Single-A West Michigan, Azocar split time between center and right field before teammate Derek Hill suffered a season-ending elbow injury. Azocar got off to a blistering start, hitting .314/.346/.383 with 64 strikeouts and 13 walks in his first 73 games. Things went south on him in the second half, though. He struggled to a .241/.277/.277 finish — an abysmal .554 OPS — and struck out 56 times to just 12 walks over the final 56 games.
It’s easy to see what caught the eye of Tigers scouts a few years ago. Azocar has a very quick bat and makes solid contact with his swing. Although his approach is a bit unrefined, his ability to put bat to ball leads to some rather encouraging projections on his ceiling. With better pitch recognition skills and a more refined hitting approach, his quick bat and contact could play very well with his speed to be a menace on the basepaths from the top of the order. TigsTown outlined Azocar’s raw potential when they named him their No. 10 Tigers prospect heading into this season.
He can catch up to good fastballs thanks to excellent bat speed, but his ability to adjust to spin and soft stuff remains suspect. If Azocar can refine his ability to recognize pitches and avoid chasing out of the strike zone, he could be a dynamic up-the-middle player.
Azocar’s plus speed is an asset not only the bases, but also in the field. He is a rangy defender with an arm already better than major league average that projects to be plus. Throw his excellent glove into the mix and you have the makings of a lethal defender in the outfield. He lost time in center to teammate Derek Hill, seeing action in right field instead. Azocar is capable of sticking in center long term, though. This is good for his ceiling, because even after some physical growth he will probably never be able to develop enough raw power to hold down a corner outfield spot.
2080 Baseball’s Emily Waldon said something similar in her evaluation of Azocar last year here at BYB.
Defensively, Azocar has the ability to hold down any side of the field with eye catching range and speed, allowing him to cover a lot of ground with little effort. Despite an underwhelming build, projection remains high for Azocar, leaving a healthy amount of time to fine tune an already impressive skill set... While the term "toolsy" tends to be applied a bit too liberally within the league, the combination of plus speed and arm strength are working in tandem to build a quick case for Azocar.
In 2015 he played in shortseason Gulf Coast League and the the New York Penn League where he posted a .300/.326/.396 line. 2016 saw him spend the whole season in West Michigan wehere he hit .281/.315/.335. The numbers reflect that he has a ways to go still, as outside of his empty batting average, they aren’t particularly eye catching. While tools are well and good, they are fairly meaningless if they are not able to be translated into numbers.
Given how raw Azocar is at this stage, there are some mixed feelings among scouts about how well he will develop. FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen was one of the skeptics.
The physical tools for a contact/defense, low-end regular are here but getting there will likely require significant adjustment. He’s far more likely to become a speed/defense bench outfielder
He also has power that could justly be described as anemic. In 2016, his first full season of professional ball, he was only able to post an .054 ISO. Calling that figure “lacking” would be as generous as giving filet mignon to my dog. His fairly unsustainable .366 BABIP hints that his .288 batting average was fueled by the ability to beat out opposing defenders with his speed and a bit of luck. While he does have the bat-to-ball skills to eventually make a decent hitter, he may be due for a dose of regression next season.
There is a silver lining on the power front, though. Azocar is currently listed at 5’11 and a thin 165 pounds, but is still only 20 years old. While he has no power to speak of at the moment, some physical development could help in that department eventually.
Jacob’s Scouting Report:
Projected Team: Single-A West Michigan Whitecaps
While there is an argument to be made that Azocar should begin the year with Lakeland, the Tigers’ High-A affiliate, it is more likely that he will open the year with the Whitecaps. He lost time in center field to fellow speedster Derek Hill in 2016, and could use some extra time in the Single-A center field, vacated by Hill due to Tommy John surgery. More importantly, Azocar’s bat is probably not ready to face High-A pitching and will be better served spending more time with the Whitecaps.