After the Padres’ big 2016 international free agent splash, they were limited on big signing bonuses for two years. Rather than bow out of the market, though, the organization aggressively doled out the maximum $300,000 they could to as many players as possible. The rewards of that approach, along with strong performances from the 2019 draft class, led to a pair of strong entries in the AZL this summer. The AZL-2 club posted the second-best record on the circuit, powered by the third highest scoring offense in the league while the AZL-1 pitching staff was second in ERA on their way to a .582 winning percentage. While, of course, wins and losses are not a priority in the lowest levels of the minors, both teams got plenty of contributions from key high-upside prospects.
Eligibility for the awards is simple. We consider a player at whatever level he made the most regular-season appearances. So, all plaudits for Ethan Skender‘s perseverance paying off will wait until the TinCaps wrap-up. Conversely, Dylan Coleman is – probably to his and the organization’s disappointment – part of our AZL wrap-up.
We’ve kept the level-by-level summaries changes we introduced last year. That means that rather than six of us trying to find different superlatives to describe CJ Abrams‘ professional debut, we have a single summary of any players who received votes as either the top player or top prospect at each level.
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. Seven organizations now field two teams in the AZL, which means that the circuit now includes nearly 700 players who hope to one day lay claim to a spot in the big leagues. With 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.
2019 AZL Player of the Year
CJ Abrams .401/.442/.662, 14 K/10 BB in 162 PA; 14 SB/ 6 CS (Unanimous)
Padres executives raved after they selected the left-handed hitting Abrams with the sixth overall pick in June’s draft. The 18-year-old from Georgia wasted no time showing off the dynamism that excited the organization’s brain trust, homering and reaching base five times in his professional debut. He barely slowed down from there. By the time he was promoted to Fort Wayne in early August, Abrams was pacing the AZL in a variety of offensive categories. He hit in his first 20 games and reached in 30 of 32 contests in the desert. He struck out in just nine percent of his plate appearances while posting the second-best isolated power rate among hitters who topped 100 plate appearances on the circuit and did so while showing electric speed and athleticism.
Runner Up: Yeison Santana .346/.429/.494 38 K/23 BB in 173 PA (Barnett, Charity, Conniff, Jay, Pond)
An 18-year-old true shortstop putting up offensive production 50% above the league average would normally rate among the top storylines in rookie ball. However, playing across the complex from Abrams and with an unusually large crop of 17-year-olds making their stateside debuts in the Valley of the Sun, Santana’s impressive campaign flew somewhat under the radar. After flashing strong pitch recognition ability in his DSL debut last summer, the big-swinging Dominican nearly doubled his extra-base hit rate in his first taste of the friendly offensive environment of Arizona without sacrificing much in patience. While batted ball data from the backfields are notably unreliable, the numbers and anecdotal reports both support the fact that he hit the ball hard and often. His timeline for getting to full-season ball next year is at least as dependent on others as himself, but Santana is a name few yet know who you should be watching.
Junior Perez .268/.349/.512 59 K/24 BB, 11 HR, 11 SB in 238 PA (Davey)
Perez slugged 11 homers, more than any other Padre player in the desert and also swiped 11 bases in a strong stateside debut. No other player in the AZL reached double figures in both categories. The prototypical corner outfielder, who turned 18 in July, got more aggressive at the plate this year after walking or striking out in over 50% of his plate appearances in his DSL debut last summer. He has the tools to make that approach work and, after logging 15% more total bases than any batter in Peoria, has asserted himself as one of the key 2017 international free agents to follow.
2019 AZL Top Prospect
There will be some tough calls in this series. This isn’t one.
Pedigree plus performance equals prospect. Abrams was widely seen as one of the most complete high schoolers in the draft, then went out and simply outclassed the competition in his first summer as a pro. Though his raw power was a question heading into the draft, the top-of-the-scale runner showed the ability to hit the ball with authority without sacrificing any of his premium bat-to-ball skills. Had he not gone down with an injury after just two games with the TinCaps, Abrams was in a position to deliver one of the most impressive professional debuts of the decade. While the Padres are committed to working him at shortstop early in his career, his success in the outfield with Team USA and his spotty performance on the dirt this summer will continue to lead to questions about where he will wind up defensively. Whether at short or center, Abrams possesses the blend of ability, tools and makeup to emerge as a cornerstone player.
Others of Note
While Abrams was certainly the highlight of the draft class, he wasn’t alone in putting up notable debuts. Fellow high schoolers Joshua Mears and Hudson Head both showed upside in their debuts. Head, who turned 18 just two months before the Padres rewarded him with the largest draft bonus ever handed out in the third round, was having a solid campaign when he was shut down with what sounds like a minor injury. The Texan showed across-the-board abilities, posting a .800 OPS in 141 plate appearances. A strong showing in camp next year could earn him a spot in Fort Wayne to open the season. Mears, a physically-developed outfielder from the Pacific Northwest, launched seven homers in 43 games, but also struck out in 30% of his plate appearances. The big corner bat started slowly but hit .296/.393/.535 over the final three weeks as he got more exposure to pro-level velocity.
Fellow outfielder Cristian Heredia, who is three months older and offers more physical projection than Junior Perez, also put together a strong campaign in his first showing stateside. The Spanish-born, Dominican-raised outfielder posted a .330 wOBA while showing ability to develop in center.
Ripken Reyes and Chris Givin, a pair of day three college middle infielders, outclassed the league before late-season promotions to Fort Wayne. Reyes, a switch-hitter from Washington by way of the University of San Diego, hit .315/.419/.430 while showing solid fundamentals that will play across the infield as he progresses. Givin, also 22, played all four infield positions while posting a .926 OPS for the AZL-1 club. Both should get a chance to test their versatility in Fort Wayne next year.
Catchers Brandon Valenzuela and Gilberto Vizcarra both posted above-average offensive lines, though they arrived in similar spots via different paths. Mexicali native Vizcarra, finally grew into enough strength to make his bat-to-ball skills play well this year, three years after signing. In his repeat year in the desert, his OPS rose almost 50% while he pushed his strikeout rate into the single digits. Valenzuela, 18 months younger but more physically developed, drew more walks than strikeouts in his first stateside campaign. Both will likely remain in extended spring training next year. Fellow receiver Tyler Malone, drafted on day three out of Oregon State, showed well offensively in his pro debut, reaching base at a .398 clip.
Big first baseman Michael Suarez continued a slow introduction to professional baseball in his second season since the Padres drafted him out of high school in Miami. The 19-year-old lefty made impressive strides in all aspects of the game as he works to become the poster boy for the Padres’ strategy of targeting under-the-radar talents with limited exposure.