Tijuana native Tirso Ornelas was one of the top prospects in Fort Wayne this year. Photo: Jeff Nycz

TinCaps broadcaster John Nolan had a front row seat for Fort Wayne, calling games on radio and on television. The Syracuse grad also does sideline reporting for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the NBA G League. Here are Nolan’s thoughts on what he saw in the Summit City in 2018. 

MadFriars: Jack Suwinski struggled for much of the year but really finished strong. Was his surge just about a really young player getting enough at-bats to display his talents? 

John Nolan: I think Jack’s surge was a combination of multiple factors, including hard work, adjustments, and some better fortune than he had been experiencing. Jack slashed .372/.431/.587 over his final 32 games of the year, starting Aug. 1. His 1.017 OPS during this stretch was second highest in the Midwest League. It coincided with not just his 20th birthday on July 29, but also an adjustment he made at the plate, tinkering with the timing of his leg kick. 

Going back to the early part of the season when Jack didn’t have the results he wanted, manager Anthony Contreras said he thought Jack had untapped power. Sure, enough that came to play, as he jumped from 13 extra-base hits in the first half to 20 in the second half, including seven homers (five of which came in August). It was nice to see as Jack is a steadfast worker who was routinely one of the first to the field putting in early work in the cage. Part of it, too, was numbers playing out. 

For much of the season, Jack had one of the lowest BABIPs in the league while (mid-season it was in the .250s) but finished around average at .301. Since Jack spent all of 2017 in Fort Wayne as well, it skewed the fact that he was still young for the level where the average age is 21. 

Tirso Ornelas is a prospect that Padres fans are excited about due to local ties to Tijuana and his talents. Is he a guy that you can see hitting for big power as he moves forward? 

John Nolan: I don’t know how we’re defining big power in this case, but it seems easy to forecast that Tirso will hit home runs at a higher rate going forward than he did in the Midwest League as an 18-year-old. He could very well still be growing and is certainly still filling out his frame. I know that strength and conditioning is a point of emphasis for him. 

While it was unfortunate to see his season cut short in July by a bone bruise in his right hand that occurred on a swing, when he was on the DL, he wasn’t merely sitting around. It seemed like every time I saw him he was working out with a weighted vest on. Tirso had the prettiest swing on this year’s team. I’m with Padres fans in being excited about his future. The power will get more headlines, but his patient approach (0.59 BB/K was top 14 in the league and 3rd among teenagers), work ethic, and steadiness are key ingredients, too. 

One memory that stands out with Tirso was when he had a 27-game on-base streak from May 24-June 27 (one of the four longest on-base streaks in the league this year). The game the streak ended, his last time up, he hit a sacrifice fly, because that was what the situation called for in a one-run game. I’m not sure all guys have a selfless approach like that in such a spot.

Gabriel Arias was one of the best defensive players in the Midwest League. Photo: Fort Wayne TinCaps

Gabriel Arias made great plays in the field and showed promise with the bat late in the season. Do you think he can hit enough to get to the big leagues? 

John Nolan: I’m probably not qualified to make such a projection, but I believe Gabriel will be a big leaguer. Over his final 40 games of the season, he slashed .289/.361/.510 with a league-high 14 doubles, two triples, and five homers. 

Beyond the numbers, hitting coach Jonathan Mathews said he thought Gabe was showing a more mature approach at the plate and started to show the ability to turn on the ball with more regularity. Even when his batting average was down, he was still among the team leaders in hard hits. There’s no question about his physical gifts. As a reminder, he doesn’t turn 19 until the end of February. Meanwhile, over the last five years in Fort Wayne, we’ve seen the likes of Trea Turner, Luis Urías, and Fernando Tatis Jr. play shortstop. No one made more eye-popping plays than Gabe. He made the extraordinary appear ordinary.

Jeisson Rosario made many plays in center field look very easy. Photo: Jeff Nycz

Jeisson Rosario has long been a favorite of mine. What type of approach did he have at the plate and do you think he can be a plus defender in center. 

John Nolan: Jeisson’s approach was pretty much unbelievable for an 18-year-old in the Midwest League. His .371 OBP was seventh highest in the league, his 12% BB% was eighth best, and his 0.61 BB/K rate was also top 10. If anything, he was perhaps too selective with two-strikes (at least for Class A umpiring) as he swung and missed at only an 8% clip (ninth lowest) but took his fair share of called third strikes. Again, we’re talking about one of the youngest players in the circuit. (With data available back to 2006, Tatis is the only 18-year-old with a higher walk rate in the MWL at 14%; 18-year-olds who cracked 10% include Jake Bauers in 2014, Francisco Lindor in 2012, and Justin Upton in ’06.) That patient approach was evident all year. 

Meanwhile, it was also encouraging to see Jeisson jump from seven extra-base hits in the first half to 18 in the second half that included a pair of homers. Defensively, I think he’s already a plus defender in center. Similar to Arias at short, Jei was often unreal. At one point this year an opposing team’s broadcaster asked me if a running catch Jei made in right-center field to save a win was his best play of the year, and I wasn’t sure if it was even in his top five, which included making SportsCenter with a diving grab running in. 

LHP Nick Margevicius was impressive in the first half before getting the bump to Lake Elsinore. His walk numbers were incredibly low, and he struck out a good amount of batters. Is he a guy that should be on the prospect radar for Padres’ fans? 

John Nolan: As a 22-year-old from Northeast Ohio who went to a mid-major program in New Jersey, Nick will never be as hyped as some of the teenagers in the system who can light up radar guns. But, yes, Nick should be on the prospect radar for Padres fans. He already is for Midwest League managers, who voted that Nick had the Best Control in the Midwest League this year. For MWL pitchers who worked 70-plus innings, only Luis Patiño had a lower FIP than Nick’s 2.53. His K/BB ratio (9.67) also was second best as he finished with the second lowest BB/9 (1.06) and ranked in the top 10 for K/9 (10.26), too. 

Nick majored in finance at Rider University and can solve a Rubik’s cube in less than a minute. He’s as cerebral as they come in the game. Much of his success this year can be credited to developing a curveball he basically taught himself how to throw by studying grip types on @PitchingNinja. Combine the smarts with his work ethic and something of an edge that comes from being overlooked and I look forward to seeing how he’ll build off this year, which don’t forget was capped by throwing seven innings of one-run ball in a must-win Texas League playoff game.  

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Osvaldo Hernandez impressed with a sub-2 ERA. He doesn’t have big velocity but baffled hitters all season. What type of secondary stuff did he flash? 

John Nolan: Osvaldo featured a curveball, slider, and changeup. The curveball (12-6) appeared to be a go-to pitch this year. I think he has even more in his repertoire like a knuckleball but stuck with those four main offerings. Nevertheless, he seems to alter his arm angles over the course of an outing more than the average pitcher so in a way that still furthers his arsenal. And don’t sleep on the heater which he can dial up to 94 so far as a 20-year-old. 

Luis Patino broke out this year in a big way. What were your thoughts on his dominant campaign? 

John Nolan: Luis Patiño is one of the most charismatic players to come through Parkview Field. His dominance was displayed in a joyful fashion. His personality shines whether he’s on the mound, in the dugout, or away from the field. In fact, watching him and his interactions with teammates in the dugout could be as entertaining as the game itself at times. 

He was a class act with fans and media. I’d really encourage fans to watch this video feature he did with Fort Wayne’s CBS affiliate to get a feel for the type of person he is, and here’s a look at his pregame handshake routine with everyone on the team. Watch this for the personality plus dominance on the mound. I’m not usually one for hyperbole, but he reminded me of Pedro Martinez in more ways than one.

Luis Patino had a really good year. Photo: Jeff Nycz.

And if you’re into numbers… Midwest League pitchers from May 16-Aug. 27:

– 1.07 WHIP (1st)

– 2.16 ERA (2nd to only teammate Osvaldo Hernandez)

– 98 Strikeouts (tied 2nd)

– .220 AVG (3rd)

Midwest League pitchers with 80+ IP in 2018:

– 2.33 FIP (1st)

– 29.7% K% (1st)

– 22.4% K-BB% (1st)

– 0.11 HR/9 (1st) 

– 1.07 WHIP (1st)

– 16.0% Swing & Miss% (2nd)

– 2.92 xFIP (2nd)

– 2.16 ERA (3rd)

– 10.58 K/9 (3rd)

– .220 AVG (5th)

– 4.08 K/BB (8th)

MacKenzie Gore is still one of the best pitchers in the Padres’ system. Photo: Jeff Nycz

MacKenzie Gore didn’t have the amazing stats fans were hoping for, but he still showed plenty of promise. What were your thoughts on his progression throughout the season. 

John Nolan: For basically any other 19-year-old in the Midwest League, you’d look at MacKenzie’s numbers and come away impressed. For example, among MWL pitchers who worked 60-plus innings, he ranked sixth in K/9 (10.98) and only one other teenager had a K/BB better than his 4.11. 

But as a result of MacKenzie setting an extremely high standard for himself, the Padres having big plans for him, and fans/media getting caught up in rankings/magazine covers, the bar was set about as high as could be. Throw in the blister and fingernail issues—not to mention fluky stuff like a start impacted by pouring rain and a run scoring on a passed ball because the catcher’s mitt came untied—and unfortunately, it became just about impossible to live up to the noise. In the end, it’s important to remember the overall numbers don’t matter here, and when MacKenzie was healthy, he was dominant and electric. 

Scouts rave about his command, and I can’t think of any pitcher I’ve seen at this level who could hit his spots like Mac when he was on. His fastball ball would come out of his hand like a laser to the catcher’s glove with pinpoint precision. Depending on which scout you talk to, they’ll say his curveball, slider, or changeup is his best secondary. 

Big picture, it’s not like he can’t handle pressure or a big stage. He had his finest showing in front of the largest crowd at Parkview Field this season (8,805) on the Fourth of July: six scoreless with six Ks. It’s more fun when everything goes according to plan, but the reality is a professional pitcher is going to have rough patches and face adversity eventually. So, while you don’t root for it, there’s a silver lining to some of Mac’s struggles this year that has him mentally tougher and better prepared for the future. 

Anyone who hops off the bandwagon now is making a mistake.       

 

Posted by Kevin Charity

Kevin Charity has written for MadFriars since 2015 and has had work featured on Fox Sports San Diego. He is a lifelong San Diego native and is looking forward to seeing the current wave of prospects thrive in San Diego.

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