Summary: A year after the Chihuahuas won the PCL championship, the 2017 edition of the club fell just short of a repeat. But while the 2016 club was built around a lineup stocked with top prospects, last year’s roster was heavy on minor league free agents, waiver wire claims, and long-time minor league veterans.
Level: The Pacific Coast League has existed in various forms since 1903 – just two year less than the American League. It took its current 16-team format in 1998. Thanks to elevation, low humidity and blustery winds in different venues across the league, the circuit is renowned as a hitter’s paradise. El Paso’s Southwest University Park fits comfortably in that profile.
Triple-A is unique across the minors because a significant percentage of the players there arrived by moving down in the organization. Some players still are focused on early stages of development, some are trying to regain lost glory, and some are simply in a holding pattern waiting for changes on the big league roster.
Player of the Year: OF Franchy Cordero .326/.369/.603
Long the poster boy for the difference between tools and skills, Cordero turned a corner in 2016 and kept it up so impressively in the early going that he got a promotion to the big league club. But an unsustainable strikeout rate led to his demotion a month later. Rather than sulk, the talented Dominican unloaded on the PCL upon his return, ultimately posting a .603 slugging percentage and a league-best 18 triples.
In his third season playing the outfield, the then-22-year-old took significant strides with his route-running and reaction off the bat, but he still has work to do to get the most out of his speed. At the plate, his ability to recognize breaking pitches more consistently – especially from southpaws – will likely determine whether he can become an everyday contributor or top out as a platoon option.
Pitcher of the Year: RHRP Adam Cimber 2.92 ERA 52K/8BB in 64.2 IP
The slight sidearmer didn’t make a roster and was at risk of being released at the end of spring training. But at 26 years old, when he joined El Paso, he made the most of the opportunity, leveraging a more aggressive approach against lefties to post a 2.92 ERA. He showed his customary command, walking barely more than one per nine innings.
Thanks to his unique look and impressive performance for the Chihuahuas, the 2013 ninth round pick performed enough to move from being an afterthought in the organization to earning an invitation to big league camp.
Two Outside the MadFriars Top 20
How Acquired: Minor League Free Agent December 12, 2016 .
296/.369/.528 20 HR, 83K/43BB 445 PAs
2017 Highlights: When he arrived in Peoria last spring as a minor league free agent, there were no guarantees for the one-time top-100 prospect. But the Guadalajara, Mexico native claimed a spot in El Paso and never looked back. He had a torrid June in which he collected 10 homers on his way to a career-high season total of 20.
Negatives: Never renowned for his speed, the broken leg that cost him his entire 2016 season cost him some. There also remains some question whether the power-spike will be sustainable outside the hitter-friendly PCL.
Projection: At 26-years old and limited to corner infield spots (at least if you like defense), Villanueva has a narrow window to lay claim to a big league spot. But he’s exactly the sort of player who should get a look as the Padres turn the corner in their rebuild effort.
MadFriars’ Assessment: While it’s been more than half a decade since he ranked as Baseball America’s #100 prospect and five since he was the supposed headliner of the Cubs-Rangers Ryan Dempster trade, Villanueva has a pedigree and has always had a highly-regarded hit tool. Having hit his way back onto a 40-man roster in 2017, he’s played his way onto the big league roster for 2018.
How Acquired: 2014 Draft (14th Round)
OVERALL: 3.18 ERA, 116K/30BB in 144.1 innings El Paso: 3.31 ERA, 27K/9BB in 32.2 innings
2017 Highlights: After putting up strong numbers and earning an All-Star nod for the Storm in 2016, Huffman didn’t get promoted to open the 2017 campaign. But the Defiance, Virginia, native just kept performing to earn promotions, first to San Antonio and ultimately to El Paso. He gave up one run or fewer in five of his seven Triple-A outings.
Negatives: Huffman has no one pitch you’d flag as being above average, and he’s never struck out many, but Huffman has yet to run into any hitters who can do much damage against him.
Projection: Huffman spots up all of his pitches to all quadrants of the strike zone, a recipe he’s used to post a career 3.45 ERA. It’s hard to see him holding down a big league starting job long-term, but it’s certainly gotten to the point that betting against his success seems like a poor choice.
MadFriars’ Assessment: Huffman might not open the 2018 campaign in El Paso, but at some point, he’ll be back in the rotation somewhere. As long as he keeps getting results, there will continue to be the next opportunity.