Summary: After a year away due to the pandemic, the Padres again sent some of their youngest and newest prospects to Peoria. Fielding only one team after several years of running two clubs in the AZL, the now-ACL Padres finished 12th in the 18-team league, with a record of 26-32, and an identical 13-16 record both home at the Peoria Sports Complex and in away games. The ACL Padres were 10th in the league with a 5.13 ERA, and seventh in WHIP with a 1.43 mark, while hitters finished 13th in the league with a .704 OPS and 14th in batting average at .234. Of course, at this level, wins and losses hardly are of concern, and team stats don’t tell the story of a level focused entirely on development.
Overview: For these awards, we consider players based on where they spent the majority of their playing time this season. So while Cole Cummings made a splash in Lake Elsinore, he is still a part of the ACL for the purposes of wrapping up this season, while Colton Bender ended up spending more time backstopping for the Lake Elsinore Storm, so any consideration for him would be in the wrapup for the Storm.
For each level, we highlight a player of the year and a top prospect among both position players and pitchers. The player of the year will simply be the most impressive performance on the team this season. Top prospect will also take into account age and potential future impact in the major leagues along with their production.
Level: Formerly the Arizona League, or AZL, the newly-renamed Arizona Complex League, or ACL, is the lowest stateside level of minor league baseball. Running from June until mid-September, it is now the only level in the United States that plays a short season, and is considered “Rookie” level, a level below Low-A. Eighteen teams played in this year’s league, with the Royals, Brewers, and Giants fielding two teams each. Games are played at the spring training complexes, typically on the back fields, though some games did take place in the stadiums. Games are open to the public, but if your gameday experience requires ample concessions, in-game entertainment, and the roar of the crowd, the ACL is not for you. Games aren’t staffed by anyone whose job is fan-related, there are no concessions, no entertainment, and, really, no cheering, as the majority of the small crowd is club staff, scouts, and media. The players are mostly freshly-drafted high school and college players, international players who are making their first appearances in the United States, and returning players who are looking to play their way into a promotion. The games themselves have a spring training feel, as pitch counts are highly restrictive, and teams aren’t pulling out all the stops to win, focusing instead on player development and minimizing risks.
MadFriars ACL Padres Player of the Year for 2021: CF James Wood .372/.465/.535, 32K/13BB in 101 PA; 10 SB/0 CS
When the Padres drafted 6-foot-7 James Wood out of IMG Academy, it seemed to go against the mold of what AJ Preller and the club’s scouts had been looking for. With his large frame, 80-grade power, and relative inexperience playing baseball, the 18-year-old Wood became a selection with mixed reviews, but an undoubtedly high ceiling.
In his first professional season, however, Wood showed much more than many expected. Despite his size, he doesn’t seem out of place in center field at this level, and it isn’t impossible he stays there as he rises through the organization. He stole 10 bases while never being caught, and he was a much more complete hitter than advertised; hitting opposite-field singles just as capably as mashing doubles and, as time went on, home runs. Interestingly enough, the prospect known for size and power did not homer until his 14th game, doing so again in his 22nd game, and the 26th and final game of his 2021 season.
Wood finished his first campaign tied for fourth in the Complex League in batting average, and fifth in stolen bases.
Runner-Up: OF Pierce Jones .302/.446/.524, 26K/16BB in 83 PA; 6 SB/2 CS
There are a few players who could easily lay claim to this spot, but Jones performed over the most plate appearances of the group. A 26th round selection in the 2019 draft out of Marian Catholic High School in Chicago, Illinois, Jones struggled mightily in Arizona in his age-18 season. After a year away due to the pandemic, Jones is still only 20-years old, and started to show progress at the plate to match his well-regarded defense in the outfield.
He began the year with a decent July, slashing .286/.381/.400, but it was August which netted him promotion to Lake Elsinore. In 35 plate appearances in August, Jones slashed .348/.543/.652, walked 11 times against 11 strikeouts, and hit two of his four home runs.
Other Players Of Note: Top draft pick Jackson Merrill got off to a strong start, posting an .832 OPS through his first month, but faded before missing the last week of the season and finished his debut campaign with a .280/.339/.383 in 120 plate appearances. … Cole Cummings, an undrafted free agent out of University of California at Santa Barbara, slashed .283/.395/.500 in 76 plate appearances with a pair of home runs, five doubles, and a triple, earning himself a promotion to Lake Elsinore. Cummings also walked 11 times against 15 strikeouts. … What Nerwilian Cedeno, 19, lacked in playing time this season, he made up for in prodigious power, slugging a pair of home runs, a triple, and eight doubles in 66 plate appearances. The 19-year-old middle infielder did not hit a single home run in 210 PA in the DSL in 2019. … Undrafted free agent Justin Farmer logged just 53 plate appearances, but matched Wood and Jones for the team lead with three homers and posted a team-best .581 slugging percentage. … While River Ryan‘s .308/.349/.436 line as a designated hitter is intriguing on its own, the possibility that he could develop as a two-way player makes the North Carolinian a name to watch next year.
Top Position Prospect for the ACL: James Wood
Wood showed up in Peoria with the reputation of an all-or-nothing masher, and spent his first season showing strides in approach which translated into immediate results on the field. His speed is exceptional, especially given his size, his defense is capable in center field, and he hit the ball where it’s pitched far more than anticipated. While still seen as a project with great initial tools, Wood showed in 2021 he can play pro baseball at a high level. His development will continue in 2022, most likely in the Padres’ backyard in Lake Elsinore.
Look forward to driving up the 5 and seeing most of these players at Lake Elsinore next year. Besides having an injury, it seemed like Merrill is still growing into his body, adding significant weight to more than 4 inches of height. I hope he does not become too bulky and lose his flexibility. I’m also interested in seeing what Max Ferguson can do, whether it is at 2b or CF. Seemed like he wore down in Arizona and didn’t have much left when he arrived at Elsinore. Wood and Jones need to cut down their K rates, but provide some hope as OF prospects of the future. It was a decent 2021 draft and undrafted FA signings Cummings and Farmer made it even better.
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At some point, the organization will see that James is very smooth and sold at first base as well.