Recently I was able to get a look at the Lakewood Blueclaws when they visited the Kannapolis Intimidators. The player I was most excited about seeing was Blueclaws outfielder Jose Pujols. Pujols is a long (6’4”) lean (185 pound) homerun hitting machine. I was in attendance on Aug. 12, when the 20 year old took Luis Martinez deep for his 22nd home run, putting him in a three way tie for the franchise single season home run record. Pujols has 21 games remaining on the docket to improve on his history making season.
Signed as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2012 for $540,000 Pujols gives scouts reasons to salivate as he elicits comparisons to Giancarlo Stanton due to his prodigious power. At the precocious age of 15 Jose won the Dominican Prospect League home run derby. Although he received notoriety for his lightning quick bat speed and light tower power, Pujols had not shown in game power until this season. In 2014 he notched 5 home runs in 57 games split between the New York Penn and Gulf Coast League. In 2015 he had only 4 in 66 games while repeating in the short season NPL. This year, his fourth season in the professional ranks, brought the young outfielder to a crossroads and he appears to be living up to his billing.
Twenty-two round trippers is an impressive feat for a 20 year old getting his first taste of full season ball, particularly when considering the home run inhibiting environment in which the Blueclaws play their home games. First Energy Park is traditionally one of the most pitcher friendly stadiums in the SAL. The fact that Pujols has managed to tie the franchise single season home run record with 21 games left is quite a remarkable achievement. Particularly when considering that his 22 long balls are more than any SAL player hit league during the entire 2015 season.
When looking at Pujols on the field, his build reminds me of former Met great Darryl Strawberry. His large lanky frame leaves plenty of room for development, as he isn’t even close to maxed out. His swing was said to feature an extreme uppercut, but I didn’t notice it to be nearly as profound as I had anticipated. I can only assume he has been working with his coaches to shorten his swing and tone down the uppercut. With his long stride he lopes through the outfield. His movements remind me of those one would witness in a yearling colt from great progeny. His routes are somewhat awkward but you can recognize the potential. I would suggest his defense is a work in progress.
After seeing Pujols in two weekend games, it is my belief he is making strides as a hitter. The strikeouts come in bunches and will likely always be an issue, but the elite power should be able to offset them. Keep in mind Lewis Brinson struck out 191 times when trying full season ball for the first time and Joey Gallo whiffed 165 times during his first full season. So with continued improvement I don’t see the strikeouts diminishing his status as a prospect.
On Sunday Aug. 14, Pujols went 3-3 with 2 walks. None of his at bats featured less than four pitches, which I believe is a product an improved approach, and pitchers fearing his potential to light up the score board. His manager even gave him the green light to swing on 3-0 which further illustrated confidence in Pujols ability to make things happen. On Friday, I was lucky enough to be present for the record tying shot which happened to be to the opposite field. Opposite field power is not generally a trait exhibited in very young hitters. In his last 14 games Pujols seems to have really tamed some of the swing and miss (7 K and 5 BB). Given the small sample size, one can question whether it’s a trend of improvement or an anomaly. In addition to the power, his outfield throwing arm was on display when he caught a fly ball and picked off a runner leaving first base on a hit and run.
Follow up: Pujols struggled mightily in 2017 at Hi-A Clearwater (.194 AVG .247 OBP). He rebounded strongly in 2018 when repeating a Hi-A. Pujols hit his way to a .301 AVG and .364 OBP while notching 18 bombs which earned him a late season promotion to AA Reading where he held his own, hitting .270 with a .365 OBP while adding 4 more home runs in 26 games. He is very likely to return to AA in 2019 where he will still be approximately one year and four months younger than the par age for the level. The strikeouts are likely to be an issue that will plague him for his entire career, but the power is impressive.