The Fort Wayne TinCaps have been among the youngest teams in the Midwest League each of the last three seasons. But this year, they are historically young. The San Diego Padres will send 12 teenagers north to open the year, including 17-year-old Justin Lopez. Top pitching prospect MacKenzie Gore will begin the year in Fort Wayne, though many who saw him this spring don’t think he’ll be there very long.

The offense will be led by stellar infielders Esteury Ruiz and Gabriel Arias, a pair of offense-first catchers, and the quartet of outfielders the Padres sent out.

Three Strikes with Sam Geaney, Padres Director of Player Development

Last year you held back some of your younger pitchers – Mason Thompson, Reggie Lawson, and Adrian Morejon – at the beginning of the year to preserve their innings.  What went into sending MacKenzie Gore out with the opening squad?

Sam Geaney: As we do with all of our players we try to take an individual approach to each. MacKenzie had a good base of innings built up from last year between high school and the AZL that we believe indicates he’s ready as compared to the pitchers you mentioned, who were either injured or coming off of injuries.

Additionally, he has four very good pitches, put on about ten good pounds in the offseason, and we think he has the mental makeup at his age to deal with the competition at this level. If everything comes together we think his ability may allow him to move at an expedited rate.

This could be one of the more talented outfields that you have ever sent out.  Where will everyone play?

Sam Geaney: I think we are going to see both Jeisson [Rosario, 18] and Tre [Carter, 21] get time in center.  I would also expect to see Tirso [Ornelas,18] get an occasional rep there too.  We were very happy with the overall defense that Jack [Suwinski, 19] showed last year too.

All of them are very young and we need to be judicious about their playing time to protect them.  Really, we plan to play them all over and it’s going to be a bit of a challenge for Anthony [Contreras, the TinCaps’ manager] to get them all the at-bats they need. But, we did it last year.

We are big fans of Tirso Ornelas.  What has been his biggest improvement in the past year?

Sam Geaney: We really love how much he has improved athletically from when we first signed him in 2016. He has always been able to swing the bat and has a very good idea of the strike zone; but when you start to combine an increased athleticism, it really starts to get exciting.

He arrived as a slightly below-average athlete and now he runs better and his arm has picked up.  It’s a really a testament to his work ethic on how much he has improved.

2018 Projected Fort Wayne TinCaps Lineup

1B       Carlos Belen                          RF       Jack Suwinski*

2B       Esteury Ruiz                          CF       Tre Carter*

3B       Justin Lopez*                         LF        Tirso Ornelas

SS       Gabriel Arias                         OF       Jeisson Rosario*

C         Luis Campusano/Juan Fernandez
*left-handed or switch-hitters.

LHSP           MacKenzie Gore                 RP/RHP          Jordan Guerrero

RHSP          Mason Thompson               RP/RHP          Jose Galindo

LHSP           Nick Margevicius               RP/LHP          Fred Schlichtholz

LHSP           Osvaldo Hernandez

LHSP           Aaron Leasher

LHSP           Tom Cosgrove

 MadFriarsTop 20 Prospects with the Fort Wayne TinCaps:

MacKenzie Gore (#2), Esteury Ruiz (#16) and Gabriel Arias (#17).

Catch a Rising Star:  If you have been reading MadFriars, then you know about MacKenzie Gore.  The 19-year-old’s fastball sits in the mid-90s and he can dial it up from there. The third overall pick in last year’s draft also possesses an elite changeup to go along with a very good curve and slider.  He won’t be in Low-A for long.

Pitching Staff

Starters: The TinCaps will go with a six-man staff early on featuring five lefties.  After Gore, Mason Thompson, 20, who was with the TinCaps last year but struggled with injuries is the next prospect to keep an eye on.  At six-foot-seven, Thompson’s best pitch is his changeup, but the Padres believe there is more velocity in the tank than what we have seen. Nick Margevicius, 21, a seventh-round pick out of Rider University last year, performed well in both the AZL and with the Dust Devils. The six-foot-five lefty was 3-0 with a 1.24 ERA with 32 strikeouts against four walks in 29 innings between the two levels.  Osvaldo Hernandez was one of the heralded group of Cubans San Diego signed last year and looked much better this spring than he did last year in Tri-City as the Padres got him to focus on throwing his fastball more and his secondary pitches less.  Aaron Leasher, 21, and Tom Cosgrove, 21, were taken in the sixth and twelfth round of the 2017 draft. Cosgrove, from Staten Island by way of Manhattan College, may be a bit of a sleeper with a fastball that can arrive in the mid-90s.

Pen:   For some reason, regardless of who is in charge, the Padres have always been able to send out quality bullpens, and this year’s class is not an exception.  Six-foot-eight lefty Ben Sheckler, 22, was the MadFriars Pitcher of the Year in Tri-City and will get another shot at the Midwest League after struggling last year.  Coronado High’s Fred Schlichtholz, 22, is a multi-inning reliever who struck out 23 in 22 innings with the Dust Devils – and yes, is another left-hander.  The best name in minor league baseball, Henry Henry, 19, will begin the year in the bullpen but the righty could move into the rotation later in the year as openings appear.  The back of the bullpen should be anchored by massive Jordan Guerrero, 21, all six-foot-five and 260 pounds of him, and El Paso’s own Jose Galindo, 22, who pitched well at both Tri-City and Fort Wayne last year.

Position Players

Catching:  Luis Campusano, 19, who was the Padres second-round draft pick last year, will get the majority of the repetitions and see some time at first base.  Campusano’s bat is further along than his glove right now, but he showed significant improvement defensively heading into the draft.  Juan Fernandez, 19, a late signee in the 2015 international class, will split duties and also see time at first. Jalen Washington, at 23 the “dean” of the position players, could see time anywhere on the field, as he did at Ohio State where he played shortstop and caught.

Infield: Esteury Ruiz, 19, led the AZL in batting average, finished third in slugging percentage, stole 26 bases in 32 attempts and was first in the league with 10 triples in route to being our player of the year in that league. For a player who might be 150 pounds after a few trips through the buffet line, he packs a surprising punch. Gabriel Arias, 18, has the potential to be the complete package at shortstop. After so-so numbers during his aggressive assignments in the AZL and Fort Wayne last year, he had a stronger showing in Australia this winter. Justin Lopez, at 17, the youngest of the bunch going to the Summit City, already has some of the best hands in the system. A rangy six-foot-three, he had a brief cup of coffee in the Midwest League last year. He should split time between third and shortstop with Arias this summer.

Carlos Belen, 22, will move to first base after being at third since he signed with the organization in 2012.  Any evaluator within the organization will rave about Belen’s tools but a career .232/.306/.416 slash line shows the production has yet to equal the potential. Reinaldo Illaraza, 19, returns to Fort Wayne and should see time at second, shortstop and third.

Fort Wayne TinCaps outfielder Jack Suwinski

Jack Suwinski lays out for a ball in the outfield (Jeff Nycz)

Outfield: This is one of, if not the, most athletic outfields the Padres have ever sent out to an affiliate. Last year, Suwinski played a capable center field and a very good corner outfield for the TinCaps in 2017, yet now he may be the weakest defender of the four.  Both Carter and Rosario are plus defenders in center and, as Sam Geaney noted, Ornelas also has the athletic ability to play in center as well.

Carter implemented the swing changes he was working on last year in Tri-City and was one of the more impressive players the Padres had in camp. Both Rosario (.404) and Ornelas (.399) posted solid on-base percentages in the AZL last year and each came back into camp stronger than the year before. Suwinski kept his head above water for a full year last season with the TinCaps but will need to do a better job being more aggressive in hitter’s counts. Even though he’s repeating, he is still young for the league.

On the Spot: The Padres gave Mason Thompson $1.75 million in the 2016 draft. This year, they expect to start seeing a return on their investment. The big Texan had Tommy John surgery after his sophomore year and only pitched an inning his senior year before throwing 12 innings in 2016 and 27 last year with the TinCaps. A healthy year behind him and coming off of a solid spring, we could see big things from him.  

Under the radar:  At 17, Tirso Ornelas posted a .276/.399./408 slash line in the AZL.  The organization believes the six-foot-four Tijuana native has only touched the surface of his potential and a full season in the Midwest League could demonstrate what else is possible.

Posted by John Conniff

John grew up in Poway and has written for MadFriars since 2004. He has written articles for Baseball America, FoxSports San Diego, the El Paso Times, San Antonio Express-News, Amarillo Globe-News, Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette and Pacific Daily News in addition to appearing on numerous radio programs and podcasts. He can also break down the best places to eat for all five of the affiliates. There is no best place to eat in Peoria, Arizona.

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