Minor league camp got its first full off-day in about a decade on Thursday. Friday offered an opportunity to make up for some lost time.
From the first bullpen group – which included MacKenzie Gore, Michel Baez, Luis Patino, Logan Allen, Reggie Lawson and more – at 8:30 a.m., to the final out of the big league game which was recorded on a grounder to Ruddy Giron at second about 10:00 p.m., there was a lot to see as the Padres get ready for the start of the minor league season on April 5.
With Tyson Ross and Robbie Erlin making starts in the minor league games on the back fields in Peoria, I followed the single-A groups to Maryvale to watch them against the Brewers.
Righties Pedro Avila, Kyle Lloyd and big reliever Dauris Valdez worked through a relatively quick contest on Paul Molitor Field (the only thing about the Maryvale complex that has any redeeming value is that the fields are named for Brewers Hall of Fame players), while Adrian Martinez led off a parade of five pitchers in a slow-moving, scheduled 10-inning contest across the way.
Avila, now 21 years old, used 48 pitches to stretch out to 4 innings. His big curveball remains his best weapon, showing good deep plane. However, he still gets too over-reliant on it at times. Even with his fastball sitting at 91-92 Friday rather than the bigger numbers we saw last season, he’ll need to rely on spotting it up more frequently to repeat his numbers from Fort Wayne, rather than the results he posted in Elsinore to open 2017.
Lloyd goes from having made a big league start last summer to fighting for a roster spot in El Paso this spring. Pitchers selected in the 29th-round aren’t usually able to say either of those things five years later. But the 27-year-old righty has used his fantastic split-fingered pitch to keep his career going. As the flyball/launch-angle revolution continues across baseball, that pitch – like the rising fastballs from submariner pitchers – has become even more of a weapon. Don’t be surprised if you start seeing more pitchers experiment with the offering in coming years.
Valdez, who was already 20 when he signed out of the Dominican in early 2016, looks the part of a closer. He’s a monster physically, easily carrying at least 20 more pounds on his 6-foot-8 frame than he’s listed at. Valdez threw 11 pitches to get through his inning. All were fastballs. All were at or above 96. All but one were strikes. While he got some starting opportunities last summer, he appears on track to move quickly in a late-inning bullpen role starting in Fort Wayne this season.
Martinez is a Mexicali native acquired from the Diablos Rojos in the MPL before the 2015 season. He worked a few innings in the DSL, but lost all of 2016 to Tommy John surgery. In limited exposure in the AZL last summer, he had good results, posting a 37 strikeouts and only nine walks in 30 innings. He showed a fastball that sat 92-93, a short curve and a change that was probably too firm at 84-85. He’s a thick build guy who, at 21 years old, is probably ready to head out to Fort Wayne this year.
Hansel Rodriguez, who was stellar for a two-month stretch at the back of the TinCaps bullpen last year, and Austin Smith, each had rough outings. Rodriguez, who was touching 97 by last July, hit 93 only once. He was a bit late getting started this spring, so it’s nothing to worry about yet, but the 21-year-old righty acquired straight-up to dump Melvin Upton’s contract, led off with five straight balls and never looked sharp Friday.
Smith, the first player ever drafted by AJ Preller, continues to struggle. After getting hit hard in his repeat in the Fort Wayne rotation last spring, he moved to the bullpen, and then stepped backward to Tri-City, where results weren’t much better. He wasn’t able to get through his inning of work, ultimately giving way after 24 pitches.
Hitters, hitters everywhere
While the Padres’ high ranking in national publications is largely built in the players who have already been in full-season ball, the next wave to arrive – especially on the position side – could take the organization to a new level.
The Brewers had a number of their big-league arms get in tune-up innings in preparation against hitters who largely have yet to play anywhere but Arizona. And while Corey Knebel was a pretty brutal match-up, the teenagers more than acquitted themselves.
The Fort Wayne roster is likely to be historically young. Justin Lopez, Gabriel Arias, and Tirso Ornelas, all born in 2000, seem locks to open in the Summit City. Luis Almanzar and the Rosarios – Jeisson and Eguy (no relation) – will play all year as 18-year-olds.
Ornelas, who later in the day had a single in the big league game, had a great at-bat against Chase Anderson, who will be on a slightly bigger stage on opening day at Petco Park next Thursday. Almanzar dropped a hit into center field that he legged into a double.
Mason House, who struck out in 38 percent of his AZL plate appearances after the Padres tapped him in the third round of last year’s draft and is probably staying in Peoria this spring, had a great at-bat against Josh Hader, who will start game two of the opening series. Esteury Ruiz, the relative old man of the TinCaps infield at 19, hit the ball hard.
The NEXT next wave of infielders
With the depth of the 2016 international free agent class, it would be easy to lose track of some of the players who didn’t come stateside last season. Tucupita Marcano is doing his best to make sure he’s remembered. A left-handed hitter from Venezuela, the 18-year-old started at third, but shifted over to shortstop later in the game. He showed good lateral movement defensively and, having filled out from his original signing weight, hit the ball with authority. Marcano several times went the other way with pitches, most impressively to lace a triple down the third base line. He’ll make his stateside debut this year.
With all the middle infielders in the system, there is a dearth of young first base options. While college draftees Nick Feight and Justin Paulsen are in the mix for Fort Wayne, don’t be surprised if at least a dozen players log some innings there this season. Catchers Luis Campusano and Juan Fernandez both worked there Friday, as did Kelvin Alarcon. Campusano, the club’s second-round pick in last year’s draft, drilled a double in his first at-bat and laced a single up the middle off Anderson. It’s likely Fort Wayne will carry a third catcher to support the young, offense-first duo to help them manage a talented pitching staff.