Photo: Ramon Urias (Springfield Cardinals FANatic Photos)
San Diego Padres 20-year old shortstop Luis Urias emerged as a top prospect two years ago, earning the reputation as one of the minor leagues’ top hitters while showcasing a mastery of the strike zone and bat-to-ball skills which are unmatched.
Urias has drawn comparisons to Placido Polanco, another 5-foot-9 infielder who hit for a high-average over a 16-year big-league career.
“Old style that isn’t appreciated anymore,” one pro scout told the San Diego Tribune. “Gamer, overachiever. Smart, instinctive. Tools are not great but plays above them.”
Likely, Urias will make his big league debut for the Padres at some point this season.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals explored another market last season in their venture to find more future big league talent. They navigated south of the border and found a Mexican infielder with close ties to Luis – his older brother Ramon.
“This wasn’t a guy that we have been on the last four years because that would be a lie,” Cardinals Assistant GM and former Director of International Operations Moises Rodriguez said. “It was not one of those stories where we were following him and kept an eye on him then all of sudden we popped and signed him.
“He really didn’t come into our radar until the last two years and specifically until after he repeated 2015 in 2017.”
Becoming a prospect
A native of Magdalena de Kino, Mexico, Ramon Urias initially signed with the Texas Rangers as an international free agent on December 6, 2010, projecting as a prospect with an average future glove, above-average arm strength, and potential above-average speed. One concern was his bat, which was seen as quick but weak with a 45 placed on the hit tool and 40 on the power.
He spent his first two seasons in professional baseball with the Dominican Summer League Rangers, posting slash lines of .213/.338/.279 and .268/.346/.342 in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
In May 2013, Urias was loaned to Diablos Rojos del México.
“I don’t know (the reason behind it),” Urias said. “I don’t think they had enough room for me. My Mexican team did, so they decided to send me back to Mexico.”
Urias collected only 11 plate appearances in 2013, but put up solid numbers while appearing in 85 games in 2014. He held his own with a .757 OPS at the tender age of 20.
In his third season in the Mexican League, things began to get interesting.
Urias established the offensive side of his game in 2015 with a .907 OPS. He hit .351/.410/.496 while adding power to his profile (career-high 10 home runs), walking 7% of the time with an 11% strikeout rate in a very hitter-friendly league.
In fact, his Mexican team, which is located in Mexico City, plays at an elevation 2,000 feet higher than Coors Field in Denver. The competition is considered by Minor League Baseball to be Triple-A quality.
“I just kept working hard and was looking for an opportunity,” Urias said.
After an injury limited him to only 43 games in 2016, the 2017 campaign was his true breakout season.
Urias played in 106 games, came to bat 461 times, and put up a phenomenal .340/.433/.577 slash line, He incorporated even more power with 19 homers, taking advantage of the altitude by putting the ball in the air more frequently. He also had a robust 16.3% strikeout and 8.9% walk rate, a career-high.
“That’s when he sort of opened our eyes again at a fairly young age,” Rodriguez said. “We took notice and we scouted him. We knew defensively he would be able to stay in the middle of the diamond. The bat spoke for itself.
“Repeating what he did in 2015 last year sort of gave us a little more confidence on top of the normal scouting.”
Cardinals increase focus in Mexico
Urias was not the only Cardinals minor league free agent signing this past off-season from Mexico.
Right-handed relief prospect Jesus Cruz, who opened his first year stateside at High-A Palm Beach in 2018, was the other signing made by the organization in its increased focus in the country.
In the past, the international department’s focus has primarily been in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and the Caribbean.
Mexico is a place where the Cardinals have been looking at and paying more attention to and covering more in depth the last three-to-four years.
More players are likely to be added from the Mexican League in the next few months.
“First of all, Mexico is a very difficult country to penetrate in terms of baseball coverage, and setting up a local infrastructure to make sure you are evaluating all the players you want to evaluate,” Rodriguez said. “Number one it is big. There is different level leagues from youth leagues all the way to this league where we got Urias from.
“You’re dealing with local teams that reserve and control the players, so when you are negotiating you are dealing with that factor. All that takes time to set up. We’ve been doing so the last five years little by little.
“If you look at our signings, we have been signing a couple more Mexican players every year. I would say it is a country we are very comfortable covering and confident when we acquire somebody we have done all of our homework to do so.”
Returning to affiliated ball
Coming off a Mexican League All-Star season, Urias signed with the Cardinals in January and returns to affiliated ball for the first time since 2012.
“I have been working hard for this the last couple of years and finally I got the opportunity,” Urias said in English with teammate Chris Chinea standing nearby for help. “I am pretty happy for that. Those numbers I put up in Mexico don’t matter now. I just want to be good here and show I can hit and play good baseball. I’m happy for this season.”
With all of the experience he was able to garner, Urias received one of the most-aggressive assignments for a first-year prospect. He was on Double-A Springfield’s Opening Day roster before an injury to Luke Voit created an opening for him at Triple-A Memphis.
Once Voit came back from an oblique injury on April 19, Urias returned to Springfield, where it appears he will spend the vast majority of his first season in the States.
“The most obvious thing for us was he performed at a really high-level the two years he’s been healthy out of the last three years (in Mexico),” Rodriguez said. “In 2016, he didn’t get a full complement of at-bats. And in 2017, he performed really well at a fairly young age in a league where there is a lot of veterans and pitchers with experience that know what they’re doing.
“The fact that he could play the middle of the infield was attractive. Offensively, he stood out. We thought it could be somebody that could play right at the upper levels at Double-A or Triple-A, specifically in the middle of the field and hold his own with his bat.”
Missing a week after taking 90 plus mph fastball off his helmet on April 24, Urias returned to game action on Thursday night for Springfield.
In a small number of at-bats for the S-Cards, he has flashed his potential already with a four-hit game and his first Double-A home run.
“It is pretty much the same,” Urias replied when asked how the pitching from Mexico compares to the U.S. “There is a couple more miles per hour, but their stuff is good. I’m just learning. I just go out to the field and play hard. I think I can hit and play the game hard.
“(I’m focused) on learning to hit the fastball, the hard fastball. You don’t see 96, 97, 98 too often in Mexico. I just got to learn that and I think I will be good.”
Defensively, Urias, who played mostly shortstop in Mexico, will see time at short, third base, and second for Springfield with a four-man rotation that includes Edmundo Sosa, Tommy Edman, and Darren Seferina.
“I feel most comfortable at shortstop because I played that position most of the time in Mexico. I like playing all three, so I will be good with that.”
Springfield manager Johnny Rodriguez likes what he has seen in Urias despite having a limited look to date.
“He is a smart player,” Rodriguez said. “When you play four years in the Mexican League, you learn. When I got hurt and then I was not drafted, I had to go to South America and play. I played in Venezuela, but I will tell you one thing – when I came back to the States – I thought I was smarter.
“I saw so much breaking balls and they pitched so much behind, so you can always hit a fastball. When they start throwing some stuff at him, he just says, ‘I don’t want that.’ They will come back with a fastball. Then, ‘boom!’ He goes well the other way.
“He is a heady player. His best position is second, but he really can play all three. That is another good sign by the organization to have a player like that. He is very smart.”
Pushing to reach the show
At the start of the season, there was a buzz among scouts that Ramon Urias could be a sleeper in the Cardinals system.
Some even think Ramon could be a better hitter than his younger brother.
“We are close,” Ramon Urias said of Luis. “We are always proud and happy of what we do. We are always going to be proud of each other. We are happy with each other and what we do in our careers.
“We always talk. We are very close.”
Like any minor league prospect, however, his primary goal is to reach the big leagues.
The older brother said it would be even more special when they make their Major League debuts someday.
“That would be awesome,” Ramon said. “For now, we just have to keep working hard and wait for that opportunity.”
For now, Urias will try to carry over his success from Mexico all while approaching his ultimate goal.
“Well, (I want to) put up good numbers, stay healthy, and get closer to (the big leagues) more each day,” Urias said.
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