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 below because rules are rules, even if it’s just one-third of an inning.
For those of you who’ve followed the Padres system with us for a while, you’ll note some changes in our level-by-level summaries this year. With more writers, you won’t be seeing duplicate entries when we’ve got the same picks. Instead, we’ll give you 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, 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, that contain a mix of newly-drafted high school and lower-division college players, international players making their U.S. debuts, returners looking to escape the desert, and an array of injury rehabbers, the AZL is unlike any other level of affiliated baseball. Analysis of pitching performance is especially difficult in the complex league, where numbers mean little, inning and pitched counts are tightly limited, and the adjustment to a professional throwing schedule can obscure true talent levels.
2018 AZL Padres Pitcher of the Year
LHP Joey Cantillo 2.18 ERA, 58K/12BB in 45.1 IP (Unanimous)
The Padres gave Cantillo a bit over $300,000 in 2017, gambling on an interesting package of physical projection and present-day abilities in a then 17-year-old from Hawaii. One of the youngest players signed from his class, the lefty got just the smallest taste of professional game action last summer, working only eight innings.
This year, the organization opted to keep him back in the AZL while fellow 2017 high school picks reported to Tri-City because of concerns his approach and strike-throwing abilities might not be quite ready for the more advanced hitters. Cantillo quickly dispelled such worries. Working with a fastball that sits around 90 today, above-average change and a solid curve, the lefty overwhelmed rookie league opponents from day one. He made a statement by shutting out the other Padres squad on one hit over five innings in his season debut. Cantillo didn’t allow his first earned run of the year until three outings later and surrendered one run or fewer in eight of his 11 appearances in the desert. He worked at least four innings in all but two outings and held opponents to just a .198 average. By the end of the year, he leapfrogged his peers who started the season ahead of him to earn a promotion to Fort Wayne.
A day younger than 2018 first-rounder Ryan Weathers, Cantillo has a reputation as a workout warrior and still has plenty of room to add strength to his ideal pitcher’s frame. He won’t turn 19 until December but should be well positioned to claim a return ticket to the TinCaps to open the 2019 season.
2018 AZL Padres Top Pitching Prospect of the Year
LHP Ryan Weathers 8H, 8R (4ER) 9K/3BB in 9.1 innings of work over four starts
The Padres raised some eyebrows around the industry when they opted to draft Weathers over fellow high school lefty Matthew Liberatore with the seventh overall pick, but the second-generation hurler has plenty of building blocks for long-term success. It took a bit longer for Weathers to come to terms than other recent Padres first-rounders, so he didn’t make his professional debut until late July. Despite the limited exposure, the club opted to make him the rare high-school draftee to log time in full-season ball in his first professional campaign, promoting him to Fort Wayne for three abbreviated starts.
While his fastball was in the low-90s in Arizona, he showed more before the draft and should be expected to get back to it as he advances. He already has a strong feel for his curveball and, despite not needing it much on his way to earning Gatorade National Player of the Year honors while dominating Tennessee high school competition, shows an average change-up. While he’s not as athletic or advanced as MacKenzie Gore, he’ll likely follow his fellow lefty by opening his first full professional season in Fort Wayne next April.
Others of Note
There are few places where the Padres’ sheer depth in prospects is more evident than in the pitching ranks in Arizona. In years past, many of the guys in this section would have been in the mix for the system’s top 30 prospects; this year, few will be. And the talent has come from multiple sources.
Nick Thwaits was one of the last members of the 2018 draft class to sign, netting the equivalent of a fourth-round signing bonus to bypass Kent State. The 15th-rounder used multiple deliveries and a lively fastball to strike out 35 in 26 professional innings. The 19-year-old from Ohio, who flew under the radar as a high school senior, got rave reviews for his approach despite coming in with limited experience against top-tier competition. Despite his cold-weather origins and strong debut, he’ll likely stay in Peoria for extended spring training next year.
Despite not having big money to sign international free agents last summer, the Padres came away with a variety of interesting prospects. The club opted to bring Frank Lopez over for his professional debut even though he didn’t turn 17 until late April. He was certainly raw, walking 22 and hitting six in 28 innings of work, but also struck out 35. He’s significantly bigger than his listed size and the Venezuelan is one to watch as he further develops.
The organization also had success with some slightly older 2017 signees. Righties Efrain Contreras, and Jefferson Garcia both were eligible to sign in 2016 but only came to terms last July. Both opened this season in the Dominican and finished in Tri-City, but did the bulk of their work in Peoria. Contreras – another in the mold of short but not small pitchers the Padres have gravitated toward – has the bigger stuff right now. Garcia posted two different 10-strikeout games but also struggled in a few games. Luarbert Arias, who signed out of the Dominican at 16 years old, doesn’t have the same swing-and-miss stuff but showed an ability to spin the ball well.
The massive 2016 international class also continued to pay dividends. Manny Guzman looks like the guy central casting would send if you asked for a young pitcher. Tall, wide-framed and long-limbed, the 18-year-old worked more than any Padres pitcher in the AZL. He struck out a batter an inning while significantly dropping his WHIP. Classmate Michel Miliano has tantalizingly good stuff with an even more projectable frame but took a big step backward in terms of production in his second season in Peoria. The 18-year-old has yet to put the pieces together to unlock the velocity many think he should have but is an exciting arm who could, like Henry Henry before him, suddenly put it together and make a jump forward.
From the left side, Gabriel Morales struggles with command still but struck out 28 percent of the batters he faced. Opponents hit just .222 against the 19-year-old Venezuelan, whose approach may get him a look at full-season ball before some of the guys above. Noel Vela, four days younger and less physical than Cantillo, was drafted 12 rounds later out of deep South Texas. He developed physically and mentally between 2017 and this year and remains an incredibly raw talent worth keeping an eye on.
The path forward for an undrafted free agent signee is not easy, but the Padres got several strong performances from guys who earned the chance to contribute in Fort Wayne next summer. Trent Shelton signed as a 24-year-old lefty out of Cal Poly and proceeded to strike out 40 with only five walks in 32 innings. Righty Felix Minjarez had a slightly less eye-popping 39:11 ratio in 29 frames but held opponents to only five earned runs. 2017 signee Tom Colletti and giant six-foot-eight 2016 draftee Dalton Erb also overwhelmed AZL hitters as they looked to carve out a role.
One special exception to our service time rule is Carlos Belen. Though Belen the infielder logged 45 games in Fort Wayne, Belen the pitcher did the majority of his work in the complex. Now 22, the big-armed righty reaches the upper 90s easily and shows a good feel for a slider, and will get a chance to go back to the Summit City in a new capacity as a late-inning reliever next year and could thrive in the role.
You can also read our AZL position player wrap-up, and subscribers can read an interview with Sam Geaney tomorrow. We’ll have level-by level coverage over the coming weeks. If you’re not already a subscriber, join now for the top coverage of the Padres minor league system.