For a rebuild to be successful in today’s game, teams need more than top prospects. Finding an under-the-radar prospect or two that out-performs their original ranking is vital for a team looking to return to contention. We have seen several examples in recent years, from Jose Altuve to Jose Ramirez to Liam Hendriks.
Detroit Tigers prospect Dawel Lugo probably isn’t on that level. However, the 23-year-old infielder has already started to out-shine initial projections that he would just be a utility infielder at the major league level. Armed with above-average bat-to-ball skills and an innate ability to find the barrel, Lugo has the tools to be an everyday player in the future. His plate discipline and lack of defensive range are holding him back somewhat, though.
What should we expect from the (current) second baseman of the future?
Lugo was originally signed by the Toronto Blue Jays as an amateur free agent in 2011. He spent four years in their farm system before being traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for utility infielder Cliff Pennington. He had only just broken into A-ball at the time, but struggled to a .550 OPS in 67 games in High-A Dunedin. Something clicked in the Diamondbacks organization, though, because Lugo started to put up better numbers almost immediately after his arrival. He finished the 2015 season strong, then put up a .311/.339/.492 line with 17 home runs across two levels in 2016. This included his first action at Double-A, where he managed a solid .773 OPS. He took a slight step back in 2017, but still hit .277/.321/.424 in 557 plate appearances in Double-A. The Tigers acquired him in exchange for J.D. Martinez on July 18.
While it may not be his strongest tool based on grades, Lugo’s hit tool will be his ticket to the big leagues. He is an aggressive hitter who has quick wrists and excellent bat-to-ball skills that help him make consistent, solid contact. He uses all fields well, and can push the ball the other way when necessary. While he doesn’t walk much, he also doesn’t strike out very often. MLB Pipeline graded Lugo’s hit tool as league average (50), while TigsTown named him one of the best hitters in the Tigers’ minor league ranks.
He owns quick wrists and shows an innate ability to get the bat on the ball. Lugo is an aggressive hitter, so he doesn’t walk much, but those bat-to-ball skills also help him avoid a lot of strikeouts. He has a chance to be an average hitter if he can learn to lay off borderline pitches.
FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen had similar things to say about Lugo’s prowess as a hitter in a viewing last July.
His aggressive approach produces game power beneath what he shows in batting practice, but Lugo manages to put the ball in play consistently. Not all scouts like him at third base, citing lack of range, but he has the arm for it and his hands are okay. It’s certainly a corner profile, defensively, and seemingly one without prototypical game power, but Lugo certainly looks like he’s going to hit.
Lugo originally came up as a shortstop, but has since moved to both second and third base. While his range wasn’t quite good enough to stick at short, he has a plus arm that should play well anywhere on the infield. TigsTown labeled it the second-best infield arm in the entire system behind Sergio Alcantara, and multiple sources have slapped a 60-grade on it. It won’t be wasted at second base either; Lugo will be able to make throws from deep in the hole, as well as on tricky double play turns with a runner in his face.
Speaking of the move to second base, all accounts suggest Lugo is a natural at the keystone. While the same concerns about his range at short are still present at second base, he has displayed soft hands and natural footwork around the bag.
Though capable at shortstop and third base, the Tigers moved him to second base following his acquisition, and he showed a good first step, soft hands, and plenty of arm strength to make throws from the hole and on the pivot.
Given his solid instincts and strong arm, he should be an above-average defender at either second or third. If nothing else, it helps boost his profile as a utility player — but we’re hoping for more.
The biggest obstacle in Lugo’s path to everyday duty at the major league level is his poor plate discipline. He only walked in roughly six percent of his plate appearances last season, and that was the best mark of his minor league career. While his quick hands help him cover the plate well and avoid strikeouts, it has also made him far too aggressive of a hitter. Because he swings at everything, he isn’t able to fully tap into his plus raw power, limiting his upside on multiple fronts. If he learns to lay off a few of those bad pitches — Baseball Prospectus said he is improving on this front — it could mean big things for both his walks and his power numbers.
Lugo’s upside is also limited by his stocky build. He is listed at 6’0 and 190 pounds, but looks and plays a bit heavier. As a result, he is a below-average runner with limited range at both middle infield positions. Both MLB Pipeline and FanGraphs have graded Lugo below average (40) as a runner, with FanGraphs projecting even worse top-end speed (30-grade) going forward.
Projected team: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens
For most players with nearly 200 games at the Double-A level already under their belt, we’d be forecasting a quick trip to Triple-A before he heads to the major leagues. Lugo is in a different situation, though. Not only will the Tigers want to manipulate his service time if possible, but he’s also learning a new position on the fly. While early reports are promising, he’s still young and raw enough that consistent at-bats in Triple-A are more important for his development than an early promotion to the major leagues. The second base job will be his to lose once he gets here, but with Jose Iglesias and Dixon Machado playing up the middle for the time being, there’s no need to rush Lugo in 2018.