While the Fort Wayne TinCaps failed to make the playoffs in 2019, there was still plenty of talent featured in the Summit City. Key Padres prospects Xavier Edwards, Ryan Weathers, and Tucupita Marcano saw significant playing time for San Diego’s Low-A affiliate.
Broadcaster John Nolan had a front row seat, calling games on both radio and television, which was finally made available to Padres fans everywhere via MiLB.TV. The Syracuse graduate also has worked as a sideline reporter for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, the G-League affiliate of the Indiana Pacers. John was gracious enough to give us his thoughts on the 2019 version of the Fort Wayne TinCaps.
MadFriars: Xavier Edwards would have won the batting title in the Midwest League if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. What can you say about his ability to make consistent contact?
John Nolan: To back that up with numbers, Xavier swung and missed at just 4.2% of the pitches he saw (that was the third-lowest rate in the Midwest League). For comparison, Wander Franco was at 4.5%. FanGraphs has batted ball data available back through 2008, and X had the best contact rate of any Fort Wayne player over the last 12 years.
Like you said, he didn’t have enough plate appearances for the league batting title or to qualify for a franchise record, but for what it’s worth, if he stayed here and hypothetically finished with his .336 average, that would’ve been second best in the club’s 27-year history to only Sean Burroughs in 1999 (.359).
I had never thought of comparing a hitter to a basketball player before, but watching X hit was akin to watching Steph Curry take jump shots. If Steph is open, it’s almost automatic he’s going to make it. And likewise, if X got a pitch in the zone, it felt like a guarantee he’d knock it for a hit. Through the first half of the season, he was batting better than .500 when putting the first pitch of an AB in play.
X did an outstanding job of staying within himself. So as a guy who’s smaller in stature with elite speed, that meant not swinging for home runs but playing to his strengths by hitting line drives and legging out more than his fair share of infield hits on grounders. According to FanGraphs, his batted-ball distribution was 48% the opposite way, 27% to the center of the field, and only 24% pulled.
That said, in his final couple weeks here before being promoted to Lake Elsinore, we did see him hit his first pro home run and he was trending toward driving fly balls deeper than he had in the first half.
Michael Curry didn’t make a team out of spring training but was arguably the TinCaps’ most consistent player in the second half. Is he a player that fans should have on their radar?
John Nolan: Michael wasn’t just the most consistent TinCaps hitter in the second half of the season, from Memorial Day Weekend (his first shot at getting regular ABs) through the end of the season, he ranked fifth in the Midwest League in OPS (.849). His .395 OBP was fourth, his .302 AVG was fifth, and .454 SLG was eighth among qualifying players.
He jokes that his approach at the plate is simply to swing hard just in case he hits it, and his ferocious cuts earned him the nickname “Paul Bunyan” from hitting coach Jonathan Mathews. Suffice to say he doesn’t get cheated when he swings.
One thing that I thought made Michael’s success all the more impressive is that he put up those great numbers while being a true student-athlete throughout the season, taking online classes towards a business degree at the University of Georgia.
Michael also stood out as one of the most popular players in Fort Wayne this year not only for the offense he generated but for the time he took being friendly with fans, signing autographs, tossing balls to the crowd, posing for photos, etc.
He’d acknowledge that his bat is ahead of his glove, but with his work ethic, I expect him to make strides defensively by next year as a corner outfielder who’s also efforting to play first base.
Tucupita Marcano struck out in just 9% of his plate appearances, although the underlying numbers don’t necessarily show a ton of hard contact. Do you think he has a chance to hit for a little more power?
John Nolan: Right, Tucu is similar to Xavier in regards to his bat-to-ball ability, and also swung and missed at a minuscule four percent clip. As manager Anthony Contreras put it, Tucu has some “thump” in his bat, too, even if it wasn’t on display consistently. Part of that is his approach—he was often looking to spray the ball or bunt – and at that, bunt in a rather unorthodox fashion, almost like a softball player.
The Padres’ media guide listed him at 165 pounds and six feet tall heading into the season. He put on and maintained a few pounds to his wiry build during the season, with still plenty of room to fill out. Strength coach Sam Hoffman did his best to make sure Tucu was pounding the protein shakes and consuming enough healthy calories. That can be an underrated aspect of the development for some of these young guys.
His father, Raul, who played professionally in Venezuela and in indy ball stateside, was listed by baseball-reference.com at 5-10, 185 pounds. Apparently he was similarly slender as a teen and added more muscle his early 20s. Tucu just turned 20 on Sept. 16, so we’ll see if he can start to add strength and show more power potential now as well.
Everyone we have talked to in the organization has always raved about Blake Hunt‘s building blocks as a catcher. However, he really showed that he can handle the bat as well. What kind of potential do you think he has going forward?
John Nolan: First off, in terms of his defense, Blake was indeed very impressive this season. The metrics for receiving aren’t publicly out there for Single-A guys, but my understanding is that Blake has remained strong in that regard, and actually improved from last year. As a tall catcher at 6-foot-4, getting low strikes can pose a challenge, but Blake showed progress there—a credit to the hours he put in during the offseason using a pitching machine he bought for home workouts, plus continued time with Padres Coordinator of Instruction Ryley Westman (who works with catchers) and [Contreras]. Blake also had the best fielding percentage among catchers in the Midwest League, the third fewest passed balls, and was top five in caught stealing.
As for his bat, Blake’s season got off to an unlucky start. Through his first 35 games, he was slashing .192/.301/.312 (.613 OPS). At that point, despite making routinely hard contact, Blake’s BABIP was .214—the third lowest in the Midwest League. Not to mention, he wasn’t getting help from official scorers or umpires either, and oh, by the way, the weather was pretty darn cold for baseball most of April and May. Not that the humidity of summer was ideal either for a Costa Mesa, California, native, but fortunately, from Memorial Day Weekend on, things ticked up and over his final 54 games, Blake slashed .293/.349/.423 (.772 OPS).
For considering his potential going forward, keep in mind that Blake is as high character as they come. I’m excited to see how he does next year close to home in Lake Elsinore, especially after seeing the jump Luis Campusano made from Low-A to High-A.
Dwayna Williams-Sutton quietly was productive, despite not flashing a lot of power. Do you think he is a guy that could break out in the power department in 2020?
John Nolan: Certainly. Perhaps as a preview of what could be in store next year, Dwanya hit three homers over his final five games of the season to finish with a total of nine. Most of those were no-doubters, including a 420-foot shot in April that marked the team’s first homer of the year.
From a physical standpoint, Dwanya was the best-built position player on the team at a legit 6-foot-2, 225. But while he may have lacked in unlocking that raw power with consistency, he certainly demonstrated consistent patience. Dwanya led the Midwest League in on-base percentage (.411) as he had the third-highest BB% in the league at 15% and was hit by a Minor League Baseball-high 32 pitches. Those HBPs were good for a franchise record, too.
On the position player side, are there any players that may have flown under-the-radar in 2019?
John Nolan: A total of 11 players in the Midwest League hit 13 or more home runs this year. What do 10 of those guys have in common? They’re 21 or older. Who’s the outlier? Shortstop Justin Lopez, who didn’t turn 19 until May. Overall, Justin is still a work in progress offensively, but he ended the season on an upswing. From July 21 on, over 38 games, he slashed .275/.321/.436 (.757 OPS). Defensively, in a Baseball America survey, Midwest League managers voted that he had the strongest arm in the circuit among infielders. While he didn’t make as many hang-a-star plays as Fernando Tatis Jr. and Gabriel Arias did the last two years, he was steadier overall and committed fewer errors.
Speaking of 19-year-olds, though he ultimately also lacked consistency, corner outfielder Agustin Ruiz led the team in doubles and ranked seventh in the MWL with 26.
In his first year entirely focused on baseball rather than splitting time with football, center fielder Jawuan Harris, beyond covering a ton of ground in the outfield, ranked third in the league in stolen bases (29). He had the highest success rate (82%) on stolen base attempts for anyone who attempted to swipe more than 25 bags. With the bat, he came alive late, slashing .263/.370/.449 (.819 OPS) over his last 41 games going back to July 15.
Finally, among those with the team for the majority of the season, utility infielder Lee Solomon and catcher Juan Fernandez were great assets as role players. Lee stands out for being highly intelligent and hard-working, along with being exceptionally strong/athletic, hitting the ball hard, and having defensive versatility. Being a No. 2 catcher is the most thankless job in Low-A, but Juan has a charisma and energy to him that provides intangible value. Lee finished second on the team in doubles (22), while Juan was actually fourth in OPS (.728) among guys who appeared in 50+ games.
Joey Cantillo had the most dominant season from a TinCap pitcher that I can remember, despite not possessing a ton of velocity on his fastball. What can you tell us about his arsenal and how was he able to generate so many strikeouts?
John Nolan: To your point on Joey’s dominance – with FanGraphs data available back to 2006, Joey had the highest K/9 (11.76) and K% (34%) for any Fort Wayne pitcher who’s thrown 90+ innings in a season in that span, as well as the best K-BB% (27%), plus the lowest WHIP (0.87). He also had the lowest FIP (2.15) and xFIP (2.44). Remember, that’s up against a bunch of guys who’ve gone on to reach the big leagues, like Dinelson Lamet, Max Fried, Logan Allen, Zach Eflin, et al., and he did this at 19.
In terms of his velocity, Joey topped out at 94, and he plans to work hard to find that with more regularity and perhaps throw even harder. But, yes, he mostly sat in the upper 80s, lower 90s.
Joey’s success came throwing a four-seam fastball, a vulcan changeup, and a curveball. He considered his changeup his best pitch this year.
He does a tremendous job of tunnelling, especially with the change. He has a bit of a funky delivery. At 6-foot-4, he seems to get the most out of his height/length. We don’t have public data on extension or spin, but you’d have to think those metrics are there without elite velocity. The control/command was phenomenal. He’s smart and mature. I could keep going… Maybe most of all, the coaching staff raved about the work and preparation he put in between starts. Manager Anthony Contreras likened that aspect of Joey to 2018 TinCap Nick Margevicius.
Efraín Contreras posted big strikeouts numbers in his first exposure to full-season ball. What kind of stuff does he possess?
John Nolan: First off, consider this with Efraín: He was one of only two teenagers in the Midwest League this year to log 100+ innings. (The other was Reds prospect Lyon Richardson, a fellow 19-year-old.)
Now regardless of age, of the 38 pitchers who threw 100+ innings, he was third in K-BB% (19%) and xFIP (3.26), fifth in K/9 (9.93), K/BB (3.78), and K% (26%), seventh in Swing & Miss% (13%), and 10th in WHIP (1.18).
As for Efraín’s stuff, he has a four-seamer, a sinker, a curveball, a changeup, and a slider (the latter of which we didn’t see much of).
The 4-seamer averaged in the low 90s most of the season, but it was encouraging to see him actually add velocity late in the year. He topped out at 96 (if not 97?) over his last few starts.
Part of the explanation for that could be attributed to how he got in better physical condition over the course of the season, shedding about 10 pounds. The coaching staff viewed him as a diligent worker and Efraín told me he has goals for being in even better shape by next spring training.
One thing to watch for going forward: Among 15 TinCaps pitchers who worked 30+ innings this year, Efraín allowed both the lowest rate of ground balls and the highest rate of fly balls. He yielded the seventh-most home runs in the league (12). That’ll be something to rectify in Lake Elsinore.
Ryan Weathers got off to a hot start but seemed a little more hittable after returning from the injured list. What can you tell us about his 2019 campaign?
John Nolan: Before I tell you anything about Ryan’s 2019 campaign, maybe it’s worth first revisiting MacKenzie Gore’s 2018 campaign in Fort Wayne. Of course, the disclaimer when bringing up Mac’s season a year ago is that he was plagued by a lingering blister issue that turned into a fingernail problem, and overall a year of frustration. By comparison, Ryan missed about three weeks in May with what was described as a dead arm. So these are certainly not identical circumstances. Ryan managed to make six more starts and throw 35 more innings than Mac did.
But for what it’s worth, Ryan came away with a lower ERA, a lower WHIP, a lower walk rate, a lower home runs allowed rate, and a better K/BB. That said, Ryan was certainly not satisfied with how his season went and feels he’s capable of more in the future.
In his own words, Ryan said the season was humbling but appreciates the opportunity to turn the adversity into a positive. For example, with his velocity down to 88-91 in the middle of the season, that forced him to realize the importance of hitting his spots since he wasn’t going to overpower anyone. He now goes into this offseason with an awareness of what it will take to be better going forward.
It was promising to see Ryan’s velo back up to 94-95 by the season’s end. We know how Mac bounced back this year in Lake Elsinore and Amarillo. Padres fans can hope Ryan follows a similar route.
Omar Cruz had awfully impressive numbers, finishing second on the squad in K’s per nine innings among starters. What type of potential do you think he has?
John Nolan: My opinion doesn’t count for anything, but I heard from scouts who think he’s a future big leaguer.
You’re talking about a 20-year-old lefty who, as you alluded to, struck out 11.39 per nine innings. He even had a start with 10 Ks in 5.2. But better yet for Omar was improved control. He came to Fort Wayne after having walked 22 batters in 29.1 IP at Tri-City (between this year and last). With the TinCaps, though, he walked either one or zero in each of his last 8 starts of the season.
Omar featured a fastball-changeup-curveball mix this season, with his fastball sitting in the low 90s and his curveball sometimes spinning less than 70 miles per hour.
Were there any other pitchers you saw in Fort Wayne that should be on the radar of Padres’ fans?
John Nolan: Will start by piggybacking Ben Sestanovich’s answer to this question when asked about Tri-City: Mason Fox. He only made six appearances with the ’Caps, totalling eight scoreless innings, but they were memorable with 16 strikeouts, zero walks, and three hits. For a quick perspective (again utilizing FanGraphs numbers available back to ’06), among anyone who’s put on a Fort Wayne uniform and thrown 5+ innings, that’s the highest K/9 (18) and best K-BB% (61%).
Otherwise, Adrian Martinez had the most lively fastball coming out of the bullpen, with velo in the high 90s, and he then impressed in four of his five chances to start before continuing to impress with Lake Elsinore late in the year). Henry Henry showed good progress as a bullpen piece with a great sinker-slider combo. Odds are stacked against Jose Quezada, who was 23 this season, but he’s deserving of praise for how he served as a leader on the team and, for that matter, led the league in appearances (48). Considering he’s 5-9, 165, it’s hard to say if it’s more eye-opening that he had that kind of durability or how he can light up the radar gun in the upper 90s. Finally, he ended the season in Amarillo, but Carlos Belen had a commendable first full-year as a pitcher.
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