Synopsis: El Paso joins eight other former Pacific Coast League teams and the previously independent Sugar Land Skeeters in the compellingly-renamed Triple-A West league. The Chihuahuas will open the year with MacKenzie Gore fronting the rotation, but certainly the Padres organization hopes that assignment won’t last for long. The roster will feature a mix of key prospects, long-time members of the organization, and minor league free agents.
Rules Changes for Triple-A: Watch for larger bases in use at the minors’ highest level. New 18-inch squares are intended to slightly help stolen base and infield hit attempts.
What to watch: The Padres’ most important storyline on the farm this spring and early summer will be how Gore looks. The 22-year-old lefty never fully put it together as he worked on some mechanical issues the club saw – but has steadfastly not spoken about publicly – in his delivery at the University of San Diego alternate site last summer. Gore has rarely faced a challenge on the baseball field he couldn’t quickly surmount, and there are some who wonder if the lack of in-game competition last year was a factor in his struggles. Still widely seen as one of the top pitching prospects in the game, the Padres will hope Gore forces a call-up to the big league club.
Three Strikes with Sam Geaney, Senior Director, Player Development
MadFriars: Most questions that we get are on MacKenzie Gore. What is the organization looking from for him in El Paso?
Sam Geaney: I think we are just looking for a sustained level of consistency from him and it’s not just by necessarily looking at the box score. So far at the Alternate Site he has been taking the ball regularly with good results. He is scheduled to pitch this Friday in Tacoma against the Mariners’ Triple-A squad, which will be his first action against someone other than his own teammates or the Dodgers’ minor league squads.
I think when he’s throwing his heater over the plate for strikes and his secondary pitches are where they are capable off, he’s going to be very good. The key will be getting him working deeper into games, on a consistent routine and hopefully we will see him go on a bit of a run.
Despite never playing at the Double-A level, Luis Campusano made his major league debut in 2020 and was on the roster this month until Aaron Nola returned. As impressive as he has been at the plate, what parts of his defensive game do you want to see improve?
Sam Geaney: I think we have seen a lot of growth in Luis, especially this past month in getting to work with major league starters in how to approach catching a big league game – particularly pitch sequencing. I think when he goes to Triple-A, he will take more of a leadership role and grow even more.
Behind the plate we saw improvement on a consistent basis with his receiving and blocking along with becoming a more vocal leader.
Tucupita Marcano has played all over the field. What position do you expect to see him log the most time at this year?
Sam Geaney: All over the field [laughs]. Tucu has always been really gifted there and we plan to continue with it. What you might see is him at shortstop a few more times than in previous years, but he will also be at second, third and all over the outfield.
Top 25 Prospects in El Paso: LHP MacKenzie Gore (#1); C Luis Campusano (#4); INF/OF Tucupita Marcano (#9); Jorge Oña* (#11); & RHP/RP Mason Thompson (#21)
Starting Pitching: After Gore, the rotation doesn’t have the sort of depth it has in recent years. Brett Kennedy, who has thrown only 11 official pitches since a knee injury shut down his late-season run in the big leagues in 2018, is back and looking to re-establish himself as a starting option. Jesse Scholtens, who led Amarillo in innings in 2019, will join with a group of free agent signees at the back of the rotation.
Bullpen: Following the model of the big league club, the back of the Chihuahuas bullpen will have formidable depth with 40-man arms James Norwood and Mason Thompson flanked by Jordan Guerrero and Steven Wilson. Lefty Kyle McGrath, who reached the big leagues in 2018 and had Tommy John surgery after the 2019 campaign, will open the year as one of just three players who AJ Preller inherited still in the organization.
Catcher: While Luis Campusano has logged time with the big league club last year and this out of necessity, the talented prospect still has work to do on both sides of the ball. The 22-year-old makes loud contact and showed good command of the strike zone hitting in Single-A, and he has the tools to be a solid receiver. However, his mechanics behind the plate need some clean-up and he struggled to catch up with big league pitching in April. A full year of more typical development will serve the Georgia native well as he prepares for a role with the big league club in the future.
Infield: While Tucupita Marcano’s strong spring training campaign may have been a surprise to many outside the organization, the club’s decision-makers have been high on the Venezuelan native since he first came stateside. Now 21-years old, the left-handed hitter has added enough muscle to make his strong bat-to-ball skills a viable threat. While he is best suited on the left side of the infield, he will move around the field for El Paso in preparation for his potential role with the big league club. He’ll be flanked on the infield by Ivan Castillo, who hit at a .300 clip for Amarillo in his first season in the system in 2019, and a group of minor league free agent signees including San Diego native Gosuke Katoh.
Outfield: After Brian O’Grady signed a big league free agent contract over the winter, he nearly earned a spot on the Padres’ opening day roster. A late-bloomer, the Philadelphia native will likely shuttle back-and-forth as needed this year. Jorge Oña began the year on the disabled list for the big league club, but should anchor the middle of the lineup when he’s ready to get underway.