Divisiveness is a key feature of prospect evaluations. Perhaps no one in the Detroit Tigers’ system has exemplified that as much as Dawel Lugo. His selection to play in the 2018 Futures Game illustrated that some still believe Lugo is a quality infield prospect with a bright future in Detroit. Others believe there are holes in his game that players simply don’t grow out of, and he will ultimately top out with the unfortunate label of being a “4A player”.
At Bless You Boys, our meager optimism waned during a bleak 2018 campaign, but Lugo still checks in at #15 on our Top 30 Prospect List. While his chances of reaching his ceiling as a decent regular now appear pretty bleak, expect the Tigers to give him every opportunity to produce some value at the major league level.
July 18, 2017. That’s the day the Tigers dealt JD Martinez to Arizona for three infield prospects — an 18-year old speedy lottery ticket in Jose King, a 21-year old glove-first shortstop in Sergio Alcantara, and a 22-year old former shortstop with blossoming power in Dawel Lugo.
Lugo, from Bani, Dominican Republic, had originally signed with the Toronto Blue Jays as a 16-year old in 2011. He played exclusively shortstop in his first four professional seasons, and while the arm played just fine, he didn’t display the necessary range to stick around at short in the upper levels of the minors.
After being dealt to Arizona in a post-waiver deadline trade for Cliff Pennington in 2015, Lugo played out the season at short but was converted to a third baseman the following spring. He had a bit of a breakout season in 2016, when he mashed 13 taters for Visalia in the high-A California League, and four more upon being promoted to Double-A Mobile, finishing with an .831 OPS across both levels. By 2017, Lugo was ranked the #8 prospect in a fairly barren Diamondbacks’ system when he was ultimately the headliner in that heartbreaking deal with Arizona.
Lugo puts the ball in play exceptionally well. He has premium hand-eye coordination which enables him to make frequent solid contact. Through over 3,000 professional plate appearances, Lugo sports a terrific strikeout percentage of just 13.8%. That attribute carried him to this point, helping to overcome major swing and approach issues.
He also possesses above average raw power. When he squares the ball up, Dawel hits it with authority. We talk frequently about hitters with bat speed concerns and lots of “swing-and-miss” in their profiles. Neither is an issue for Lugo. He hits the baseball and he hits it hard. Here’s a look at his first Major League homer, off Brewers reliever Josh Hader.
Dawel Lugo, the @Tigers' No. 15 prospect, came up clutch with this game-tying two-run homer. Watch live: https://t.co/5rRxnT1Osi pic.twitter.com/0EIa0K61eR— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) September 29, 2018
While Dawel didn’t have enough range to stick at shortstop, his arm and glove play pretty well at second base. He looks very fluid, especially moving to his glove side, and the arm is well above average at the keystone. Regardless of whether he becomes a permanent second baseman or ultimately shifts to third, Lugo has the arm strength and defensive acumen to handle either—and potentially become a useful utility type if he can iron some things out with his offensive approach.
We preach about not scouting the stat lines around here at Bless You Boys. However, when you take one look at Lugo’s numbers, there is one number that leaps off the page — 110. In 3,037 minor league plate appearances, Lugo has drawn just 110 walks. That’s a 3.6% rate. According to FanGraphs, 7.0% is below average; 5.5% is considered poor; 4% is downright awful. Dawel Lugo, in a large sample size spanning seven seasons of professional baseball, has just a 3.6% walk rate.
As hitters with a deeply problematic approach start facing more advanced pitching, they just get absolutely sequenced to death. If a pitcher knows that a guy will extend the zone, no matter the count, the hitter ultimately ends up hitting the pitcher’s pitch and never sees anything really worth swinging at. Here’s an example of the type of swings we saw out of Lugo quite a bit during his September stint in Detroit.
This ball takes a crazy hop through the infield, but the @Tigers will take it as No. 15 prospect Dawel Lugo picked up the RBI single. Watch live: https://t.co/esJT0VxfSu pic.twitter.com/SGGMCzRDxw— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) September 12, 2018
That’s exactly why Lugo’s raw power isn’t reflected in his numbers. After hitting 17 long balls in 2016 and 13 in 2017, Dawel cleared the fences just four times this past season with Toledo and Detroit combined. Lugo’s quick hands enabled him to occasionally smoke a line drive down the left-field line for a double, but he wasn’t able to access the raw power with swings that produce any type of loft. Mechanical issues in his swing and major problems with his approach, make it hard to expect things to improve without a serious overhaul.
Projected Team: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens
It appeared as if the Tigers might hand over the starting second base role to Lugo without much competition in 2019, or at least in some type of platoon situation with Niko Goodrum. Off-season signings of Brandon Dixon and Gordon Beckham, however, indicate that the Tigers have come to their senses and will likely ship the now 24-year old Lugo back to Toledo to work on his approach. Plate discipline and patience don’t often make dramatic strides when a player reaches this stage of development, so don’t expect Lugo to turn into Joey Votto any time soon.
That said, he does have some attributes that resemble a Major League baseball player from time to time. If he can eliminate years of bad habits in the batter’s box, which seems to be a dwindling possibility, Lugo’s ceiling is that of an everyday second baseman and top of the order threat. Otherwise, he is headed down a similar path to that of teammate and fellow Dominican native, Ronny Rodriguez. Rodriguez has suffered from the same crippling lack of patience at the plate, himself posting a 4.1% walk rate in 3,300+ plate appearances. The result is a talented Triple-A player who is just hoping to catch on in a utility role somewhere. Lugo seems very likely to follow in those footsteps.
The Tigers will probably give Lugo plenty of opportunities this year. However, by season’s end, there may be a lot more competition in the middle infield department. If it’s going to happen for Lugo, it needs to happen now. We will just have to wait and see if there’s any helium left in that balloon.