Pasco, Wash. — Last season, the Padres sent an incredibly young squad to the Northwest League, following the model often employed by the Texas Rangers when A.J. Preller was with the organization. Six teenage positions players opened 2017 in Tri-City, with Justin Lopez and Luis Almanzar making their professional debuts at 17 in a league that often includes players five or more years older.
The youngest position players to appear in a game this year are both system veterans – 2015 international free agent signees Kelvin Alarcon and Reinaldo Ilarraza who both turned 19 before spring training was over. Righty Cole Bellinger is the only Dust Devil still 18.
With a much more traditional roster this season – eight collegiate draftees from this June appeared in the four games I saw and another 14 other players have previously logged time in the Northwest League or higher – the dynamic of the club is vastly different.
The position players were led by the Padres’ third and fourth picks from this year’s draft. Grant Little joined the club on July 1 and promptly banged up his thumb in the second game I saw and wound up shutting it down for almost a week after a few days of not being at his best. The 21-year-old Texan was off to a hot start, hitting in each of his first six games and riding a good fundamental base to a couple of easy stolen bases.
Little looked pretty gassed at the plate – though some of the speed swing issues I saw were certainly related to the thumb and being tired is certainly appropriate for a guy whose college regular season started in February and carried through to Omaha. He showed strong pitch recognition and only chased a few out of the zone, but the contact wasn’t very loud. He showed good range and strong reads playing center and generally flashed good baseball instincts in the very limited look.
While Little was still getting settled in, third-round pick Owen Miller was already toward the end of a 10-game hitting streak when I got to Eastern Washington. The third-rounder from Illinois State (no, really, the Padres were active in the Midwest in this year’s draft!) showed an advanced approach at the plate and made solid contact in all three games. He’s a bigger-bodied guy whose range and arm are adequate at shortstop for now, but with the guys above and below him in the system, could easily see a move over to second in his future.
Among the infielders, it was Olivier Basabe who surprised me the most. I got a brief look at him in the desert last summer, but the approach I saw with Tri-City was much more impressive. Rather than following the more famous Basabes and most international prospects who sign as teenagers, the 21-year-old came to the U.S. to go to school, first at long-time power Indian Hills Community College in Iowa, and then at Faulkner. The Padres drafted Basabe as a low-cost eighth-rounder and he filled a spot behind higher-profile infielders in the AZL last year. In this visit, his swing was much more explosive and he hit balls to all parts of the field with authority. He profiles in some ways like El Paso utility-man extraordinaire Diego Goris.
While Luis Asuncion‘s transition to first base is still a work in progress, it’s one that makes sense for both the player and the organization. At least an inch taller and about 20 pounds heavier than his listed size, the 21-year-old Dominican has good athleticism at his size and obviously presents a nice target for his infielders. At the plate, he obviously has some long levers but understands his swing well even in the midst of a brutal 0-for-24 slump when I saw him. His coaching staff is happy with the way he’s getting to his power more effectively this summer.
Another repeater with big upside and work to do is outfielder Tre Carter, who got out of wack when he opened the year in Fort Wayne and came back to open the Northwest League season. A gifted athlete who played both football and basketball in high school, Carter has been working on a minor swing adjustment to keep his barrel from dragging through the zone and still trying to keep from chasing out of his attack zone. He was hitless while I was in, but rather than getting stuck in the slump, he’s turned it around with a better approach in the games following.
Behind the Plate
Speaking of long levers, Blake Hunt is a big man for a catcher. While he moves well for his size and has really soft hands receiving, he still appears to be figuring out how to get his body positioned well when he needs to shift or drop down to block a ball. After a shoulder injury kept him from much defensive work last summer, he’s getting regular action behind the plate this summer and finding the feel back there. How he grows after he reaches his 20th birthday this fall will be an important part of his future at the position. At the plate, the Orange County native showed a good eye, several times taking tough pitches with two strikes on him. He’s not yet getting to power with his swing.
In terms of pure receiving skills, Chandler Seagle was a joy to watch. A 30th-round pick out of Appalachian State last year, he showed great feet and action behind the plate, flashed a sub-2.0 pop-time and a 2.04 that was even more impressive because he had to reach across his body to grab it. Perhaps most impressive was his work to manage his staff. After a four-pitch walk, Joe Galindo threw a get-me-over fastball that floated up. Seagle immediately went out to the mound to reset his righty, and Galindo came back with his best fastball of the night to get back on track.
On the Mound
The starting staff in Pasco doesn’t have the same high-octane stuff as last year’s group, but there are still a variety of interesting arms in the mix. Adrian Martinez has some of the best pure stuff among the group, but he got shelled in the outing I attended, so it was hard to get much read on anything with him showing so little feel.
Angel Acevedo and Cole Bellinger are at opposite ends of the physical development curve but show some of the same pitching traits. Acevedo, 19, has a thick build and high effort delivery, while Bellinger is 13 months younger and has a slight frame with limited muscle mass which he maximizes with strong mechanics. Neither is going to wow with their velocity – Bellinger barely scraped 90 – but they each showed advanced pitchability, working all three of their offerings effectively to multiple locations any time in the count. The club opted to push both righties ahead of a few harder-throwing options who stayed back in the AZL to see how they managed to work against hitters with a better approach. So far, they’re responding well to the challenge and both could improve with increased physical development.
Ramon Perez is a relatively unique look. He turned 19 just a few days before I arrived in Washington, but is already close to maxed out physically. He signed at the same time as more heralded countryman Michel Baez in December 2016 – though he was the only of six Cuban signees to take a bonus under a million dollars. He worked with a bit more velocity than the righties, but was successful more because of good sink and run on the fastball than speed. I saw him fill up the strike zone on a night he not only set a career high with eight strikeouts but didn’t issue a walk for the first time in 16 appearances in the U.S. Having overmatched the AZL last summer, Perez will likely need to prove himself level-by-level. But more outings like the one I saw will certainly make that easier.
The highest-profile starter was hoping not to be in the Northwest League at all. Big righty Henry Henry, who won’t turn 20 until this winter, opened the year in Fort Wayne, where he improbably managed to walk 12 and post a 19.89 ERA in just 6.1 innings of work over five outings. The Dominican righty went back to the desert to regroup and focus on his mechanics before joining the Dust Devils for the second consecutive year. The general sense I got was that he’s doing a better job receiving and acting on coaching than he could last year, but there’s still a pretty big gap between his abilities and on-field execution thanks to some continued struggles with consistent mechanics.
Even arriving in town after Andres Muñoz and Carter Capps – who weren’t there because it was an appropriate level of competition – had already been promoted, the back end of the bullpen was clearly a strength. A caught one inning of work by Dylan Coleman before he moved up to Fort Wayne. The fourth-round pick certainly looks the part, and even though he was only working in the 92-94 range in my quick view, he’s been higher than that both before and after. He profiles as a starter and will almost certainly roll back over to that role to open 2019 when he’s not carrying a 100-plus inning workload from Missouri State around with him.
Big Jordan Guerrero, who is surely all of his listed 296 pounds, got bumped back from Fort Wayne because of an apparent minor conduct issue. While neither he nor the organization d about it in detail, he’s clearly owned it and took the approach that it is on him to pitch his way back out of Washington. He still hasn’t allowed an earned run and he’s pumping upper-90s fastball with a bit better control than we’ve seen in the past, so it’s probably a matter of time before he moves back up.
A pair of 2016 draftees are also making a mark at the back of the pen. El Paso native Joe Galindo has smoothed out his delivery a bit, brought his arm slot higher and found the zone more consistently. He turned in two scoreless, one-inning outings, getting up to 94 in his second appearances. Meanwhile, lefty Dan Dallas completely dominated. The Buffalo native is now up to 235 pounds and is leveraging the weight and a remarkable brisk tempo to dominate Northwest League opponents. He struck out six in three perfect innings. At other times in the organization’s history, he would probably be in line to slot back into a rotation, but with the depth and his current amount of success, he will probably need something to break his way to get that opportunity now.