With the youngest roster in the Midwest league for a second straight year, the TinCaps endured plenty of growing pains early, finishing with a paltry 32-37 record. Yet, the team rallied in the second half of the season behind a bevy of talented pitching prospects to finish just one game out of the playoffs.
A frigid April exacerbated the acclimation period for many of the players and likely played a role in the early season struggles, but the presence of premier prospects like MacKenzie Gore, Tirso Ornelas, Luis Patino, and others made for an intriguing season regardless of the record.
Eligibility for the awards is simple. We consider a player at whatever level he made the most regular-season appearances. So, while Owen Miller was great for Fort Wayne, we already wrote him up with Tri-City. Conversely, Nick Margevicius will pop up tomorrow even though he also had promising results once he was promoted to Lake Elsinore.
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.
Low-A is the bottom rung of full-season ball, so it can be difficult to gauge how meaningful a prospect’s performance is in the grand scheme of things. Some pundits focus primarily on the ability and potential demonstrated while others shift their gaze to the consistency of a performance.
I lean toward a more a middle-of-the-road evaluation, relying on a couple questions to filter through it: 1) how old is a prospect compared to the competition; 2) how raw or developed is the prospect heading into full-season ball; and 3) is he making the necessary adjustments in terms of mechanics and approach?
2018 Fort Wayne TinCaps Position Player of the Year
2B/3B Esteury Ruiz .252/.324/.403, 38BB/141K in 493 PA (Barnett, Conniff, Davey, Jay, Pond)
Ruiz, 19, joined the organization at the 2017 trade deadline in the Trevor Cahill deal with the Kansas City Royals. In his debut with the AZL Padres, he slashed a spectacular .419/.440/.779 over 21 games, garnering MadFriars’ 2017 AZL Player of the Year honors and gaining visibility in prospect circles. In full-season ball this year, his strikeout rate spiked to over 28% and his batting average dropped to almost .250, but Ruiz flashed an array of skills. He swiped a Midwest League-best 49 bags in just 60 attempts. Additionally, a commitment to strengthen his lower body this offseason paid immediate dividends as Ruiz swatted 12 home runs.
Even more impressive than either of those numbers is Ruiz’s seemingly innate ability to put the barrel on the ball; there may not be a more tantalizing swing among Padres’ prospects in the lower minors.
Others receiving votes
Jeisson Rosario .271/.368/.353, 108K/66BB in 521 PA (Charity)
While some of the vaunted J2 signings for the Padres struggled to adjust to Low-A pitching, Jeisson Rosario exuded confidence and proficiency from the get-go, carrying a stellar .308 average and .477 on-base percentage through the first month of the season. He also displayed an advanced ability to use the entire field by going opposite field as often as he hit to the pull side. Perhaps, the biggest knock and division surrounding Rosario is whether he’ll ever develop average power. With just four home runs in his minor league career, it is easy to see where the skepticism comes from. However, he won’t turn 19 until next season and flashed some intriguing gap power at times, so there is reason for optimism.
It would be remiss to not mention Rosario’s premium athleticism. He has the potential to be both an above average centerfielder and a force on the basepaths. He is a strong bet to not only kick off the 2019 season in Lake Elsinore but to spend the duration of the season there as the organization continues to be patient in his development.
Top Prospect: Fort Wayne TinCaps
OF Tirso Ornelas .252/.341/.392 68K/40BB in 355 plate appearances (Charity, Davey, Jay, Pond)
Ornelas, 18, signed with the Padres in 2016 from the same Mexican club that produced Luis Urias. While Ornelas may not have the same elite hitting ability as Urias, his powerful swing and six-foot-four frame has left plenty of evaluators salivating over the home run potential. In 86 games, Ornelas cranked 21 extra-base hits while exhibiting a patient and disciplined approach. His 11.3 percent walk rate and 19.2 percent strikeout rate further underline this and would look even better if an injury-plagued July with 16 strikeouts and only three walks weren’t skewing the final results.
Though Ornelas was given some brief run in center field and has improved his body significantly since signing, there is some concern Ornelas could eventually outgrow even a corner outfield slot, leaving him destined for first base. Additionally, his swing is too long at times, but the ingredients are there to develop into an intriguing offensive threat.
Others receiving votes
2B/3B Esteury Ruiz .252/.324/.403, 38BB/141K in 493 PA (Barnett)
Plenty of electronic ink has been spilled comping Ruiz to Alfonso Soriano. While that may seem like the ramblings of a charlatan, Ruiz possesses the tools to be a Soriano-like player. Like the six-foot-one, 190 pound Soriano, Ruiz takes an aggressive approach on the base paths and at the plate with the combination of speed and power that could transform him into a potential 20 home run and 30 stolen base player at second base early in his career. The bat will likely need to carry the glove.
SS Gabriel Arias .240/.302/.352, 41BB/149K in 455 PA (Conniff)
Entering the 2018 season, Gabriel Arias was our 17th overall prospect largely because of his elite defense and arm at shortstop. Arias did not disappoint in the field, making highlight-reel plays time and time again. Yet, the questions around Arias’ bat continued to linger, especially after a .217/.285/.286 line with 67 strikeouts in the first half. Just as he understandably began to drop down prospect lists, adjustments to his swing led to a robust .286/.353/.562 slash line in August, restoring some shine to his prospect profile.
If Arias can sustain even an average ability to hit, there is little question that he has the defensive chops to one day be a big league shortstop.
Others of Note
It’s kind of hard for a teenage former second-round catcher putting up better-than-league-average offense to be overlooked, but Luis Campusano was under-the-radar this year. He rarely struck out, but his solid raw power didn’t translate into games as he adjusted to the grueling workload of catching. Campusano showed plenty of solid building blocks defensively before a concussion sidelined him at the end of July. The Georgia native was full-go in instructs and should be ready for the Cal League next April.
The day after he turned 20 on July 29, Jack Suwinski was lugging around a .202/.274/.326 line, though his underlying numbers weren’t quite so dire. He then posted an OPS well over 1.000 over the final month of the season, reasserting himself as a corner outfield option to watch. He finished the year with the same strikeout rate as Rosario and the best-isolated power rate on the squad.
On paper, there are plenty of strikes against Robbie Podorsky. He’s undersized, old, has little pedigree, and missed the last month with a back issue. On the field, however, he is electric. The 23-year-old outfielder didn’t join the club until mid-May but posted a ridiculous .366/.420/.463 line with 23 stolen bases in 28 attempts in just 57 games. His speed is game-changing, he puts the ball in play 90 percent of the time, and his energy level is off the charts. If you find joy in watching baseball, you’ll love Podorsky.
The youngest of the many teenagers to start the year in Fort Wayne, Justin Lopez didn’t turn 18 until May. He struck out more often than he reached base and somehow managed not to steal a base, but the switch-hitter plenty of physical tools to dream on. A broken thumb ended his season in early July, so a return to the TinCaps would make sense in 2019.
If 2017 was bad (and it was), the 2018 campaign was an unmitigated disaster for Luis Almanzar. The recipient of the club’s largest-ever signing bonus for a 16-year-old international free agent went backward on conditioning and performance. After waiting out the first six weeks of the season in extended spring training, Almanzar hit just .176/.257/.249 before he was demoted back to the AZL in early August. While the raw ability and big investment will continue to afford him opportunities, the corner infielder simply must find a way to turn things around.