Synopsis: The Storm will move down a level as part of Major League Baseball’s complete overhaul of the minor leagues. Lake Elsinore will now be in the Low-A West League, along with six of their counterparts in the now-defunct California League. Fresno will take the place of the Lancaster Jethawks, who have ceased operations.
Lake Elsinore will now be the first stop in full-season baseball for Padres prospects and it should allow fans to see top draft picks and prospects a year earlier than they have been accustomed to.
The More the Merrier: In both A-ball levels, rosters will expand to 30 players, up from 25 in 2019. All Low-A Leagues will play Tuesday through Sunday, playing a six-game series in one city. The rule gives a designated day off each week and will reduce travel. All eight teams will be based in California.
Experimental rules for Low-A: Across the three Low-A leagues, pitchers will be limited to two pickoff throws per plate appearance. A balk will be called on the third attempt unless the pitcher is successful in picking off the runner.
In Low-A West, timers will be added to enforce time between pitches, inning breaks, and pitching changes.
Three Strikes with Sam Geaney, the Padres Senior Director of Player Development
Robert Hassell moved up the ranks prospects nationally rather quickly. What can you tell Padres fans about some of the reasons he is so highly regarded? Do you see him as a center fielder going forward?
Sam Geaney: He can really swing the bat and is very instinctual in center. Last year he may have been the best high school player in the country so we were really fortunate to get that type of talent [in the draft]. He sees the baseball very well and he’s going to get bigger and stronger. He runs and throws very well and has all the things you look for in a premium, up-the-middle player.
Joshua Mears had some impressive at-bats in the spring. Where have you seen his game progress?
Sam Geaney: Joshua has definitely improved offensively, and most of us saw that in the spring. He’s always had tremendous strength but since he’s been with us he’s also implemented some smaller mechanical moves, specifically on how he initiates his swing and we are anxious to see how it plays in a full-season league. He’s gotten much better at throwing and he’s another kid who benefited in spending a lot of time with one of our coaches at the complex, [Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator] Vinny Lopez.
What can you tell Padres fans about Jordy Barley and where do you see most of his playing time?
Sam Geaney: Jordy had a great camp and I thought he had a good year in Tri-City in 2019. He’s definitely a talent and he’s improved as he’s gotten more game reps. You will see him mainly at shortstop, with some time at second base. He’s another player we are very excited to see play.
MadFriars‘ Top 25 Prospects in Lake Elsinore: #6 OF Robert Hassell III, #13 OF Joshua Mears, #16 LHP Gabriel Morales, & #17 SS/INF Jordy Barley.
Catch a Rising Star: Robert Hassell III, 19, will make his official professional debut just 70 miles north of Petco Park. The Franklin, Tennessee native was drafted eighth overall in 2020 and spent last summer participating in the Padres’ alternate site at USD, where he drew favorable reviews.
Hassell was mentioned as arguably the best pure hitter in last year’s draft, with the potential to tap into some power and hit 20-25 homers a season. He spent some time in big league camp with the Padres and struggled against advanced pitching – not exactly a surprise considering he was in high school last year. He figures to play up the middle with Joshua Mears in right field and former Helix High star Jack Stronach sharing time in left. Hassell gives Padres fans in San Diego a reason to drive up the I-15 and check out the Storm.
Starting Pitching: The Storm haven’t announced their starting rotation but it figures to be headlined by LHP Gabriel Morales and RHP Carlos Guarate.
Morales, 22, spent most of 2019 in the Arizona League – his second year at the level. He pitched to a 1.66 ERA in 11 games (six starts) with 58 strikeouts in 48.2 innings. Morales finished the season making one start in Tri-City. He has a mid-90s fastball with good spin and a projectable frame capable of adding strength and velocity. Morales is Rule 5 eligible after the 2021 season, so a good season could be a boon to his future with the organization.
Guarate, 20, also spent most of 2019 in the desert and broke out, earning a late-season promotion to Fort Wayne (formerly Low-A). The righty throws in the low-90s but could eventually gain some velocity as he fills out physically. He throws a curveball which is his best offspeed offering. Guarate likely projects as a back-end starter with potential for more.
Keep an Eye On: RHP Levi Thomas, the Padres’ fourth-rounder last year, who should be in the rotation to make his pro debut. The righty has having a breakout season in his junior year at Troy University before COVID-19 shut everything down. He allowed just one earned run in 23 innings, striking out a whopping 42 batters in 23 innings. He doesn’t have the big fastball that you look for in a front-line starter and his size, 5-foot-11, doesn’t scream projection but he has a chance to be a very successful starter for the Storm and perhaps develop into a back-end starter.
Bullpen: The Storm ‘pen will have an international flair, as seven of the ten projected relievers signed as amateur free agents from Latin countries. The biggest name in the group is righty Michell Miliano, who was part of the Padres’ large class of signings in 2016, signing for $450,000. The 21-year-old has yet to find consistency but has the stuff to succeed. In 2019, Milano struck out 35 batters in 21 innings in the Arizona League but often struggled to find the plate, issuing 26 walks. Miliano will get his first chance at full-season ball this summer.
Chase Walter was signed by the Padres as an undrafted free agent last year and is one of the tallest players in the system. Walter, listed at six-seven, played collegiately at Western Carolina University and struck out 24 batters in 16.2 innings – albeit with 21 walks. He has a fastball that can reach the high-90s and could gain a tick or two out of the bullpen.
Catchers: Each affiliate will carry three backstops and much like the bullpen, Lake Elsinore’s catchers will feature an international flavor. Mexican-born Brandon Valenzuela seems like the best bet to be the regular behind the dish. The 20-year-old switch-hitter posted a .399 on-base percentage in 183 plate appearances with the AZL Padres in 2019. While Valenzuela has shown a penchant for getting on base, he is lauded more for his defensive behind the plate. The young catcher hasn’t shown any power in his professional career so his offensive upside seems limited.
Alison Quintero signed for $850,000 back in 2016 but has yet to break out. In 2019, Quintero hit just .144/.183/.176 with short-season Tri City. The young catcher will need to make considerable strides at the plate to regain his prospect status.
Mexicali native Gilberto Vizcarra will round out the backstop options for the 2021 Storm. Vizcarra put up a very solid .751 OPS with just a 12.7% K-rate. He has yet to show any power but he has controlled the zone throughout his professional career.
Infield: Jordy Barley is the headliner on the dirt and has the potential to shoot up the prospect rankings. Barley, 21, hit eight homers to lead the Dust Devils in 2019. He also six triples and stole 14 bags. Barley has tantalizing tools but will need to make more contact (32.2% K-rate ) for them to matter at a higher level. Barley will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft for a second time this winter, so he will be one to watch.
Former University of San Diego star Ripken Reyes hit well in his pro debut and will return to the Low-A level for a second time. The 30th-rounder in 2019 hit .286/.390/.429 in 16 games with the 2019 TinCaps.
Outfield: As noted, Hassell is the best prospect but Joshua Mears’ power potential might be the loudest tool you could see in Riverside County in 2021. Mears, 20, hit .253/.354/.440 with seven homers in the Arizona League in 2019. He was in big league camp this spring and hit a home run that left the park at 117 mph. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Mears hit 20 homers in the Low-A West league.
On the Spot: LHP Ramon Perez is back for a second year in Low-A. He started 2019 in Fort Wayne and showed flashes, pitching to a 2.31 ERA in June. He got demoted to Tri City and pitched exclusively out of the bullpen and put up big strikeout numbers. The organization left behind some intriguing arms in extended spring and Perez will need to pitch well to fend off the competition in extended spring.
Under the Radar: Former UCLA and Helix High standout Jack Stronach struggled out of the gate in his pro debut but finished the season strong for Tri City in 2019. The left-handed swinging infielder/outfielder hit .304/.388/.464 with his first two professional homers in August. The former 21st-rounder’s versatility and left-handed stroke should help him find regular at-bats in the Storm lineup in 2021.
[…] into the game with just one career homer in nearly 500 career plate appearances. As we wrote in our Storm preview yesterday, Valenzuela is an excellent defensive catcher who has yet to flash any significant power […]