A year after that international class first came stateside for the San Diego Padres, there was a reason to wonder if the Arizona League group, once again spread across two squads, would be quite as dynamic in 2018 as it was in 2017.
A confluence of new draftees, the second wave of the 2016 International Free Agent group, and a group of talented young returners made for an exciting mix on both sides of the game. Four of the top 15 AZL OPS qualifiers were Padres. On the mound, 60 pitchers in the league faced at least 100 batters and struck out 25% or more. Twelve of them worked on the east side of the Peoria Sports Complex.
Eligibility for the awards is simple. We consider a player at whatever level he made the most regular-season appearances. So, while Xavier Edwards was a key part of the AZL story this year, you’ll have to wait until we get to Tri-City to read up on his remarkable season. Ryan Weathers, however, you’ll see at this level because rules are rules, even if it’s just one-third of an inning.
Those of you who’ve followed the Padres system with us for a while will note some changes in our level-by-level summaries this year. With more writers, we won’t be doing duplicate entries when we’ve got the same picks. Instead, we’ll give you the vote totals and a bit more depth on the players we call out.
We distinguish between the player of the year and top prospect at each level. Player of the year is about whose production this season was most impressive. Top prospect takes into account a mix of this year’s production, opportunities to improve, and potential impact in the major leagues.
The Arizona League is the lowest level of the minor leagues in the states. Games are played on the backfields of big league spring training complexes in front of sparse crowds. The circuit is now up to 16 teams as the Indians, Cubs and Giants all chose to join the Padres in fielding two rosters for the 2018 season. With 35-player rosters, tight pitch counts as hurlers adjust to the professional routine, and a mix of newly-drafted high school and lower-division college players, international players making their U.S. debuts, and returners looking to prove their merits and get out of the desert, the AZL is unlike any other level of affiliated baseball.
2018 AZL Player of the Year
Tucupita Marcano .395/.497/.444 26BB/10K in 160 PA; 10SB/7CS (Unanimous)
Though he received a solid six-figure signing bonus, Marcano was somewhat anonymous among the many middle infielders the Padres signed in 2016. He spent 2017 in the Dominican Summer League, posting poor overall numbers that masked his innate bat-to-ball skills and command of the strike zone. This spring, he caught our attention early, and he was a favorite among the Padres’ on-field staff both for his abilities and demeanor on the field. His approach simply outclassed the pitching he faced in the AZL. He reached safely in 32 of his 35 games and posted a ridiculous .497 on-base percentage – the best of any qualifying hitter in the AZL since way back in 2008 when Jaff Decker reached in more than half his plate appearances. The left-handed hitter provided solid defense splitting time between second base and shortstop. His range may mean that shortstop isn’t in the cards at higher levels, but his arm is a strength. Just 18 years old through the entire season, the Venezuelan native doesn’t have a huge amount of power at this point, but he generates good exit velocities thanks to his bat speed. While he managed just a .048 isolated power mark in the desert, he added a homer and a pair of triples in his cameo with Tri-City at the end of the year.
Lee Solomon .298/.365/.517 38K/15BB in 167 PA (Barnett, Charity, Conniff, Davey)
Had things gone differently, Solomon would be living the life of a One-L at Ohio State University this fall. But having his name called on day three of the draft put a legal career on hold. If his debut in the AZL is a sign of what’s to come, he’ll log more time on the bench than in front of the Bench for the foreseeable future. Four-year college products are supposed to dominate the competition in the AZL, and that’s just what the Ohio native did. While logging time at first, second, third and the outfield, the 21-year-old hit seven homers – more than anyone else in a Padres uniform. His .517 slugging percentage was third in the league, but he wasn’t just a one-dimensional masher taking advantage of young pitchers either. He swiped six bases and got on at a strong .365 clip. He’ll likely open 2019 providing veteran leadership and cold-weather experience in Fort Wayne.
Agustin Ruiz .290/.384/.466 66K/27BB in 224 PA (Pond, Jay)
Ruiz missed time with injuries and struggled to produce when he was on the field in 2017, and things didn’t look much better in the early going of 2018. But the now-18-year-old outfielder from Tabasco, Mexico, put it together in a big way over the second half of the season and finished in the top 10 in both slugging and OPS for the year. Having added muscle mass, he was able to hit the ball with authority to all fields from the left side this year in a way he couldn’t previously. While his K rate trended down from 36% in 2017 to 30% this year, he’ll obviously need to continue to make improvements there, but his generally solid feel for the barrel should allow him to make improvements even while continuing to show solid patience at the plate. Ruiz logged some time in center this year but played primarily in right where he has above-average range and more than enough arm. If Ruiz continues to develop physically over the winter, he should be in the mix for an opening day assignment in full-season ball.
2018 AZL Top Prospect
Had Xavier Edwards qualified here rather than Tri-City, this would have been a very difficult decision. In his absence, it becomes an obvious choice. Marcano’s approach is already elite and he has the opportunity to provide value in all aspects of the game. He has top-of-the-order skills, slashing line drives around the field and commanding the strike zone well already. He should open 2019 in Fort Wayne and play the year alongside Edwards as a dynamic middle infield combo.
Others of Note:
Marcano and Ruiz weren’t the only 2016 J2 players to make waves in Peoria this summer. Catcher Alison Quintero bounced back from an injury-marred debut to hit .288/.352/.356, showing an advanced approach at the plate and a stellar ability to control the running game from behind it. A strong-bodied hitter, he’ll turn 19 next April and could well be in the mix to share time with Blake Hunt in Fort Wayne. If he doesn’t open in full-season ball, it would likely be because Nick Gatewood is getting the reps behind the plate. Among the best overall hitters in the desert, the Padres’ 11th-rounder out of Georgia State had 24 hits among his league-leading 62 go for extra bases, showing a quick bat from the left side. His bat may be enough to carry him even if he moves out from behind the dish to play first base or even corner outfield.
Sean Guilbe, one of two day-three selections to get a big bonus to bypass college, showed both his impressive upside and need for refinement. The 18-year-old Pennsylvanian posted an impressive .830 OPS thanks to an isolated power mark north of .200 and walked in nearly a quarter of his plate appearances. He also struck out at a 35 percent clip and hit an inordinate number of pop flies, holding his average to .218. As a cold-weather product, it’s certainly reasonable for his on-field skills to trail his raw abilities, which are significant, but they could easily keep him on a slower development path in extended spring training to open next season.
Jawuan Harris may have three years on Guilbe, but he also came into the system raw. Having lettered as both a wide receiver and defensive back for Rutgers, the speedy two-sport athlete determined that his best option was on the diamond. He struggled initially, but over the final month, he reached base at a .424 clip. His overall numbers – including a 70% success rate on the bases – weren’t stellar, but there’s plenty of upside there and a job in Fort Wayne is likely his to lose next spring.
While Harris is a developed athlete, his centerfield match on the other squad is just beginning to grow into what he could be. Angel Solarte turned 17 days before the 2018 season began and barely scrapes the 155 pounds he’s listed at. But the Venezuelan righty has a solid approach that will translate as he fills out and he could be a multi-dimensional weapon in the future. Gilberto Vizcarra, a native of Mexicali, is two years older, but even smaller than Solarte at this point. That hasn’t kept him from emerging as one of the better-receiving catchers in the system. Despite hitting just .148 on the year, he had quality underlying numbers that portend good things once he grows. He’ll have a chance to regroup in the desert again next summer.
When it comes to pure athleticism, few anywhere in the sport can rival Jordy Barley. An explosive athlete with premium whippy strength and elite speed, the 18-year-old shortstop is the kind of player who can stop conversations with his batting practice. But two years into his stateside career, he owns a .220/.281/.379 line and his production took a step in the wrong direction this year. While his walk and strikeout rates edged in the right direction in 2018, he simply hasn’t yet figured out to harness his prodigious abilities. Should that happen, his ceiling is as high as anyone in the AZL. He will be among the biggest wildcards when it comes to roster assignments next April.
After getting plenty of love in our AZL player of the year voting last year. Mason House wound up back in Peoria after a brutal stint in Tri-City. Once he got there, the outfielder, who turned 20 after the end of the season, continued to struggle for feel at the plate, striking out in over 38 percent of his plate appearances. Though he too-frequently swings through pitches in the zone, when he does make contact, it is with authority. He’ll need to continue to work to make that a more common occurrence and will likely wind up taking another crack at Tri-City in 2019.
It took Elvis Sabala three years in the DSL to punch his first ticket to Peoria, but the corner infielder walked nearly as often as he struck out and collected an 803 OPS in two AZL stints wrapped around a brief promotion to Tri-City. Yerri Landinez and Jarryd Dale, meanwhile, both spent their first professional summers in the AZL as 17-year-olds. Both struggled significantly in limited exposure, but have some upside.
Tomorrow we take a look at the top pitchers for the Padres in the AZL for 2018.