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 this 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 ways to tell you that pitching 30 straight scoreless innings is a good thing, 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 Pitcher of the Year
Gabriel Morales 1.66 ERA, 58 K, 14 BB, .184 avg allowed in 48.2 innings (Unanimous)
The big lefty from Venezuela made huge strides with his strike zone command in his second summer in the AZL, and it paid off with a 1.66 ERA that was good for second on the circuit. A lanky hurler who has begun to fill out his 6-foot-3 frame, Morales allowed seven earned runs over his first 12 innings. Then, after a five inning scoreless outing, he gave up two more on July 16. After that, nothing. He finished on a stellar run, holding opponents scoreless over his final six outings in the AZL. The numbers through that stretch are absurd; he allowed just 11 hits and six walks while striking out 37 over 28.2 innings. Opposing batters reached base at a clip of .167 across his final month in the AZL.
2019 Top Pitching Prospect
Gabriel Morales (Barnett, Charity, Conniff, Davey, Pond)
Long-limbed lefties with projectability have been a thing for the Padres, and Morales certainly looks to add his name to the list of success the organization appears to have going with that demographic. He turned 20 in April and came into the year with over 80 innings of professional experience already, so the numbers in the AZL are only so important at this stage. As he continues to hone his command, he still has room to add to a fastball that currently sits in the mid-90s and build on an already-solid ability to spin the ball. Morales should be in line for a spot in Fort Wayne to open 2020 and has the build and athleticism to succeed there.
Luarbert Arias 3.68 ERA, 60 K, 9 BB, .221 avg allowed in 51.1 innings (Jay)
The big-bodied Venezuelan righty’s ERA was two full runs higher than his countrymate’s, but the peripherals were better. He matched Morales’s impressive K rates, but walked just 4.4% of the batters he faced. Those two together yielded a better FIP for the second consecutive year. After opening his season with nine scoreless frames, he had a few hiccups in the second half, but still allowed just 42 hits and only one of them left the yard all year. He then capped his season with a strong cameo appearance in Tri-City. While Arias is 20 months younger than Morales, he’s also closer to his physical max and he’ll need to make sure he any weight he adds is good muscle mass. He’ll turn 19 in December having already logged 100 stateside innings and two full extended spring and instructional league programs, and is still scratching the surface of his abilities.
Others of Note
Dylan Coleman showed big velocity and good athleticism to earn a fourth-round selection out of Missouri State in 2018, but his mechanics fell apart on him, his velocity plummeted, and he wound up needing a complete reset back in the AZL this summer after starting the year with Lake Elsinore. The 6-foot-6 righty began to put things back together again through July, and finished with 26 strikeouts against just six walks in 19 innings in the desert. The 23-year-old still has plenty of upside, but will need to convert on it quickly when he likely heads back to the Cal League to open 2020.
Miguel Rondon, 18, is short, but several expect big things from him as he adds muscle to an athletic frame. The Venezuelan righty posted a strong 48:13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first 40.1 innings stateside relying on an advanced approach and solid feel for using both his curve and change. His countrymate Jesus Gonzalez, the youngest pitcher on the circuit and still 17 when draftees reported to the complex, impressed with an advanced feel for spin on his slider and a whippy fast arm. The lefty was rewarded for a strong stateside debut with a late-season cameo in Fort Wayne where he tossed five solid innings and looked like he belonged.
Despite spending all of 2018 in Peoria, Venezuelan righty Frank Lopez was sent out to the Dominican during extended this year. He made three appearances there before coming back over and putting up a 3.30 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning across 43.2 frames. The projectable righty improved his command this year and should open his age-19 season with Tri-City.
Martin Carrasco, signed out of Tijuana early in the 2016 international free agency period, posted a ridiculous 41:4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 24.2 innings after getting limited action as he dealt with injuries last summer. The righty has an advanced change-up-centric approach.
Righty Seth Mayberry signed out of high school in Richmond, Virginia, for $125,000 in the 39th round last summer after he’d missed much of his senior year with injuries. After a year off the mound, he posted a 2.10 ERA and struck out 28 in 25.2 innings in his debut this summer. Undersized righty Edgar Martinez already had a lengthy resume with the Cuban junior national program when he signed as a 16-year-old in 2017. After a strong showing in the DSL last summer, Martinez actually showed improved peripherals in his first taste of the game in the U.S. this year, but his ERA jumped to 4.40. His lack of physicality limits his ceiling, but he’s an arm to watch in 2020.
Yet another of the $300,000 international signees in 2017, Carlos Guarate followed a workhorse year in the DSL in 2018 with a similarly-effective one in Peoria this summer. The righty doesn’t have the same upside as some of the other arms from the class, but despite just a 20% strikeout rate through his first 75.2 professional innings, he’s posted a 2.22 ERA. He also got a taste of the Midwest league at the end of the season and could return to Fort Wayne a few weeks after he turns 19 next spring.
While the Padres have been active with undrafted free agents in the past few years, they signed just one this summer; 23-year-old lefty Sam Williams. The Ohio native delivered 21.1 solid innings in the desert before filling needs at both Elsinore and Amarillo late in the year.
While he threw only six innings, Bodi Rascon is a name to watch heading into 2020. The big lefty out of Texas earned a $432,500 bonus to bypass his commitment to Oklahoma State. Already 6-foot-6 with plenty of physical projection left, he is widely expected to add velocity. His tenacity and aptitude got several rave reviews and he’ll have plenty of time and opportunity to develop in a system that’s done very well with pitchers who match his profile.
You can also read our AZL position player wrap-up, and subscribers can read an interview with Ben Sestanovich 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.