WASHINGTON – For anyone following the San Diego Padres, the emphasis this season, as it was last year, is not on major league results now, but what could develop for the future.
The off-season signing of free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer was as much about how he could help develop and lead the young players of the future as his abilities on the field.
So, fans waiting for a return to the postseason since 2006 – let alone a first World Series championship – as the franchise approaches its 50th anniversary next year are left with one question: when is the winning going to start?
“I would look at like we are reading a novel with 20 chapters in it,” said Jeff Dotseth, co-host of the popular Dave and Jeff podcast after one of his recent trips to see the Padres’ High-A affiliate the Lake Elsinore Storm.
“Right now, we are about in Chapter 7.”
In 2018 the Padres have begun to see some of the first draft prospects of the A.J. Preller era make their major league debuts; notably left-handed pitchers Joey Lucchesi and Eric Lauer who were selected in 2016, Preller’s first full year in charge.
“They are the only two pitchers from their draft class starting in the big leagues,” Padres manager Andy Green said after the team’s last game against the Washington Nationals. [Note: Shane Bieber has since been promoted and will make his debut for the Indians Friday.]
“I thought what you saw from Eric the other night was as good as we have seen him pitch all year. The fastball was touching 93 and 94, the slider was 84-85 and the curve was in the 70s. It’s a wide range and I think that is what is necessary for him to have success.”
After the failed attempt to win now in 2015, Preller began to methodically tear down the Padres’ minor league system and insert prospects that were younger with much higher upside than had been in the Jed Hoyer and Josh Byrnes regimes. A big distinction between Preller and his predecessors was that the rebuild was not only through the draft but with significant signings in the international market and through trades.
Currently, the Padres’ best talent is both good and young. Second baseman Luis Urias, 20, in Triple-A El Paso, shortstop Fernando Tatis, Jr., 19, in Double-A San Antonio, pitchers Adrian Morejon, 19, in Lake Elsinore and MacKenzie Gore, 19, in Low-A Fort Wayne.
Although the Padres have drafted well since 2015, particularly with Lucchesi and Lauer, catcher Austin Allen in San Antonio and center fielder Buddy Reed and third baseman Hudson Potts in Lake Elsinore, two-thirds of the top prospects have been acquired through trades or international signings.
“You can’t just draft and expect to develop a quality system,” said Jim Callis of MLB Pipeline. “When you look at teams like the Braves, Yankees and White Sox – all top systems like the Padres – they got talent through the draft, trades and the international market.”
ESPN, MLB Pipeline, Fangraphs, and Baseball America all rank the Padres system among the top five in the game, noting both the upper-end talent and the incredible depth of candidates still at the lower levels.
So, Preller has accomplished the first prong of his three-part plan; build a great farm system. Now comes the hard part – transitioning minor league talent into major league talent.
“The biggest adjustment was just the information overload,” said Lauer on his adjustment to the big leagues. “There is a lot more information on every batter. Getting comfortable and trying not to do more to get guys out that I have been doing my whole career.
“I still have to use all my pitches and locate them. Going away from a certain pitch or throwing all one pitch to a guy isn’t really going to work for me.”
“Historically Eric’s fastball has sat between 90-93 [mph],” Green said about Lauer’s velocity. “It’s a solid fastball but it’s not enough on his own just to get by. The development of his slider and cutter have really helped him. When you drop his curveball down to 77 that makes the 92 fastball look even better.”
“He came up so fast that we always had both him and Lucchesi in a six-man rotation to give them a bit of extra rest, but the last couple times he started to firm up the front side and the ball is coming out hotter and he is looking like the Eric Lauer we saw in the minors.”
Former Padres General Manager, now Cubs General Manager, Jed Hoyer has frequently stated that a significant part of development takes place on the major league level. The question is how long a leash to give you certain players. Which players will be part of the championship run that Preller and company have talked about?
Building a top minor league system is hard. And while the big league club has been bad the past few years, fans seem to be behind this rebuilding project more than others in the past.
The difficult part is figuring out whose production in the minors will translate best, and more importantly which players will deliver San Diego’s first World Series championship.