After splitting time between two levels last year, Richard Ureña seemed to be only a step away from the Major Leagues. Sent back to New Hampshire (where he spent August of last year) to begin this season, Ureña has struggled with the bat (more strikeouts than hits as of this writing), but with four straight two-hit games under his belt, he may finally have started to turn things around at the plate.
A Top 5 Blue Jays prospect, Ureña (say Oo-rain-ya) is widely seen as the heir apparent to Troy Tulowitzki, although at 21, he could use some more seasoning time in the minors before he's ready to replace Tulo. A strong series against the Pirates' Altoona affiliate brought his average above the Mendoza line, after dipping as low as .173 just a week ago.
Ureña has long been viewed as a glove-first player, but a breakout 15 Home Run season in 2015 turned some heads. There have always been concerns about his ability to draw walks and hit from the right side of the plate, but he has fared well in both of those areas this season - his 8.7% walk rate is above his career average, and he actually is hitting southpaws better (relatively speaking - he has all of 25 ABs against them so far). Ureña seems to be seeing more pitches per at bat this year, as his higher than usual 20.3% K rate, coupled with his increased walk rate seem to suggest. The issue has been the type of contact he has been generating, with most of it being of the ground ball variey. Ureña's 50% ground ball rate is above his career norms, and his 11.5% line drive contact is the lowest among qualifiers in the Eastern League.
Ureña hits from both sides, but he has shown markedly different mechanics and approach with each. From the left side (his natural one), he utlizes a leg kick, and has a long, looping swing that can leave him susceptible to off-speed pitches, and can result in weak contact. From the right side, Ureña uses only a toe tap and a much more compact swing, which allows him to drive the ball to the opposite field. His power is mostly from the left side, but his only long ball of the season has been from the right:
Ureña's patience appears to be paying off. He was 8-18 in the series against Altoona, and while there were only a pair of extra base hits, much of the contact he made over the four games was of the hard variety. Ureña's main value lies in his defence. While he has the fast-twitch skills, footwork, release, and arm strength of an elite-level defender, the concern has always been the errors he makes on routine plays. A rough televised spring training game notwithstanding, Ureña has cut down on the mental lapses, and has made only 3 errors to date after making 30 between High A and AA last year. Ureña glides across the infield to gobble up groundballs, and unloads the ball quickly to first with a strong, accurate arm.
This slow start should be viewed as more of a hiccup than a struggle against advanced pitching at a higher level. Urena appears to have made some adjustments, and they have resulted in harder contact. He profiles more as a bottom-third of the order bat, but he is working the count more (seeing 4.6 pitches per AB, about a half a pitch more than he saw last year), looking for his pitch. That patient approach appears to be paying off.