Dodgers Prospect Primer: Verdugo ready

Ruiz, Gonsolin, Santana all steadily rising through LA's system

Alex Verdugo has 24 hits -- including two home runs -- in 100 Major League at-bats, and he's also walked 10 times. (Freek Bouw/MiLB.com)

By Chris Bumbaca / MiLB.com | March 25, 2019 10:30 AM

Some players are on the verge of stardom, others are entering a crucial phase of their development and still others are getting their first tastes of full-season ball. With the 2019 season approaching, MiLB.com takes a look at the most intriguing prospects from each MLB organization.

Major League-ready: Alex Verdugo, OF

Verdugo has already tasted the Major Leagues, making it to Los Angeles in each of the last two seasons. He's yet to have an extended stay and play consistently, though. Those things are well within the realm of possibility for the Dodgers' top prospect in 2019.

There's a reason the 22-year-old outfielder has been a MiLB.com Organizational All-Star four of the last five years. A hitting machine with Triple-A Oklahoma City for the previous two seasons, he batted .329/.391/.472 with 10 home runs and 44 RBIs over 91 Pacific Coast League games in 2018.

Verdugo's 65-grade hit tool makes him one of the most fine-tuned hitters still maintaining prospect status, while the No. 35 overall prospect's 70-grade arm is a weapon other teams must account for when he's on defense. 

The Dodgers handled a crowded outfield situation by dealing Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig to Cincinnati in December, thus creating an even clearer path for the Tucson, Arizona, native to contribute this year. Earlier this month, manager Dave Roberts even said he expected Verdugo to have a spot on the Opening Day roster.

"I think one of Alex's biggest strengths is his at-bat quality and his ability to grind out an AB against any type of pitching," former Dodgers director of player development and newly-promoted assistant general manager/vice president Brandon Gomes said. "What he did really well last year, as he continues to get more reps under him and get stronger, is play the balance of when to take a shot and try to impact the baseball and when to downshift and shoot a ball the other way, depending on count [or] situation." 

Video: OKC's Verdugo makes great play

Shining star: Keibert Ruiz, C 

Right behind Verdugo on MLB.com's Top 100 list is Ruiz, who has skyrocketed from being an unheralded international signee to the game's No. 3 catching prospect before his 21st birthday. 

Initially inked because of his defensive prowess -- Los Angeles' No. 3 prospect owns a 50-grade arm and a 55-grade mitt -- the Venezuela native has impressed consistently at the dish. After batting .316 in 2017, he hit .268 with a .728 OPS for Double-A Tulsa last year, clubbing 12 long balls and driving in 47 runs. Ruiz also makes contact; he struck out 33 times over 377 plate appearances in 2018. 

The 6-foot backstop also does it from both sides of the plate and has risen to every challenge he's faced. In Arizona Fall League play last year, he batted .286. Gomes expects him to start the season with Tulsa, but he could be on the move quickly. 

"I'm not sure you could ever expect anybody to do [what he's done at his age]," the assistant GM said. "Obviously, we were hoping that he was going to be a high-quality player. The bat-to-ball, the advanced knack for finding a barrel and just getting hits is pretty impressive."

Gomes pointed to Ruiz's improvements with the bat as last season progressed. In August, the switch-hitter batted .341 and slugged .484 with three homers and 17 RBIs, then helped lead the Drillers to the Texas League title. He went deep twice in the playoffs, drove in eight runs and went 12-for-36 in eight postseason games. 

"To be that young and to have that skill set behind the plate and in the box is special," Gomes said. 

Video: Ruiz's go-ahead dinger for the Drillers

Loudest tool: Tony Gonsolin

Perhaps no Dodgers pitcher improved his status over the course of 2018 more than Gonsolin. The right-hander has undergone a substantial velocity uptick over the past two years, as the fifth-ranked Dodgers prospect features a fastball that can hit the upper 90s after sitting in the 88-92 mph range earlier in his career. 

The 60-grade four-seamer is complemented well enough by a 60-grade curveball. Toss in a 70-grade splitter -- the loudest tool in the organization -- and hitters find themselves at a severe disadvantage against the 2016 ninth-rounder. The pitch, which Gomes said Gonsolin developed completely on his own, initially looks like it's going to cross the strike zone but dives at the plate at the last moment.

Tweet from @Dodgers: Making 'em look silly. pic.twitter.com/OVP6eWGP7b

That devastating offering helped him pace the Dodgers system in wins (10), ERA (2.60) and punchouts (155) in 2018, when he tossed a combined 128 innings between Class A Advanced Rancho Cucamonga and Tulsa. A two-way prospect out of St. Mary's, the 24-year-old participated in his first Major League Spring Training this year. Even more surprising, he worked out of the bullpen in 2017.

"[Last] offseason we're sitting there going, 'Why do we have a guy with four plus pitches who hits 100 as a two-inning reliever?'" Gomes remembered. " ... That's the beauty of our scouts finding elite athletes."

Starting excited Gonsolin, and if he keeps dominating hitters, it won't be long before he's showing the game's best what that splitter looks like in the Majors.

Back and healthy: Dennis Santana, RHP 

A right rotator cuff strain cost Santana a chunk of last season. The injury came at an unfortunate time -- he'd just made his second start at Triple-A and had fanned 11 over six scoreless innings during his PCL debut.

A converted shortstop, the righty employs a 65-grade fastball and 55-grade slider to keep hitters off-balance. His fastball velocity hovers around the mid-90s, and the pitch has lethal sink.

"Dennis is feeling great," Gomes said. "He spent the offseason in Arizona grinding with our performance staff, put a lot of importance on, basically, his physicality. You watch him pitch, you watch his delivery, he still has the explosiveness, but there's a significant amount of stability in the lower half that maybe we didn't quite see in the past. He's really been locked in and focused and ready to contribute in any way."

Video: Dodgers' Santana fans his 11th batter

Breakout prospect: Cristian Santana, 1B/3B

Santana enjoyed a successful 2017 campaign, his first season playing under lights. Between Rookie-Advanced Ogden and Class A Great Lakes, the 22-year-old batted .363/.390/.563 with 10 homers and 41 RBIs.

He was promoted to Rancho Cucamonga to begin 2018, and Santana initially struggled, hitting .250 with a .674 OPS during the first half of the season, although the power numbers and run production were still there (10 homers and 44 RBIs through 66 games). The native of San Cristobal, Dominican Republic, turned it on during the second half, batting .296/.324/.496 with 14 dingers and 65 RBIs.

Video: Santana slams homer for Quakes

Santana's late-summer performance also included a .356/.382/.624 line over the final six weeks of the season. His 24 homers and 109 RBIs both led the league, and he won playoff MVP honors after slugging the Quakes to the California League title.

If Santana continues that level of production, he'll quickly rise from his current No. 27 ranking on the Dodgers' list and will be a name for all Los Angeles fans to keep an eye on.

"Cristian put in a tremendous amount of work all year," Gomes said. "We had tried a few different things with his stance. The tools had never been in question -- it's big-time power and he actually has pretty good bat-to-ball, even though the strikeouts aren't extremely low. It's just one of those things where he's still young, getting reps. [He] found a routine in the cage that helped lock him in before the game."

Offseason MiLB include

More to keep an eye on: Edwin Rios is a versatile option waiting in the Minors. The 24-year-old can cover both corner infield spots and some outfield, and he was solid for Oklahoma City last year, hitting .304/.355/.482 with 10 long balls and 55 RBIs in 88 games. The Puerto Rico native did, however, strike out 110 times over 309 at-bats. ... Ruiz may have more hype than fellow catching prospect Will Smith, but the Dodgers' No. 6 prospect has already reached Triple-A, although he struggled at the level. Smith has outstanding athleticism behind the plate, runs well for a catcher and can also be used at third base. ... Jeren Kendall was the Dodgers' first-round pick in 2017, but he didn't hit much with the Quakes in 2018. The 16th-ranked LA prospect has plenty of tools (70-grade speed, 55-grade arm, 60-grade field), but will have to produce more at the plate to make an impact.

Most home runs in the system: DJ Peters

Most stolen bases: Kendall 

Most strikeouts: Dustin May

Current prospect to get most Major League playing time: Verdugo 

Non-Top 100 prospect to end 2019 in the Top 100: Gonsolin

Chris Bumbaca is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @BOOMbaca. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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