Summary: After making the California League finals in 2019, the Lake Elsinore Storm did not take the field in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When they finally returned in 2021, the club became part of the newly-formed Low-A West league, dropping down after 26 seasons as a High-A club. The California League, which had been in existence since 1941, ceased to exist after the minor league realignment by Major League Baseball.
On the field, the Storm may have had the most talent at the plate in the entire system, as former first-rounder Robert Hassell III broke out at the plate and Joshua Mears displayed his ridiculous power potential while dealing with a variety of nagging injuries. Brandon Valenzuela and Euribiel Angeles also broke out in their first foray into full-season ball. While the offense flashed plenty of talent, the pitching staff was light on experience and limped to a 4.97 ERA for the season.
Overview: We use a simple formula for the awards. Whichever team the player appeared for most is where he is eligible. For the top prospect, we take into account not just what the player did this year, but his age and potential impact in the major leagues.
Level: Low-A is now the first level out of the complex leagues and is the bottom rung of full-season ball, so it can be difficult to gauge how meaningful a prospect’s performance is in the grand scheme of things, especially as the play was often sloppy coming off the list year. Some pundits focus primarily on the raw ability and potential demonstrated while others shift their gaze to the consistency of performance.
We lean toward more of a middle-of-the-road evaluation, relying on a couple of questions to filter through it: (1) how old is the prospect compared to the competition; (2) how raw or developed is the prospect heading into full-season ball; and (3) is he making the necessary adjustments in terms of mechanics and approach?
The circuit formerly known as the California League always skewed as a hitter’s league and for the most part that trend continued in 2021, despite the change in class. The former launching pad of the California League in Lancaster was phased out and replaced by Fresno which was a former Pacific Coast League park.
MadFriars’ Lake Elsinore Storm Player of the Year for 2021: outfielder Robert Hassell III: .323/.415/.482, 41 extra-base hits, seven home runs, 176 total bases, 31 stolen bases.
Robert Hassell III waited nearly a year after being drafted to see action in a game that counts, and the 20-year-old absolutely came as advertised. The eighth overall pick in 2020 showed an advanced approach at the plate, rarely chasing pitches out of the strike zone, plus speed and the ability to drive the ball into the cavernous outfield at The Diamond.
Hassell opened the year with a solid but not spectacular slash-line of in .265/.383/.448 in May before breaking out in July when it was clear that Hassell was too advanced for the Low-A Level. In July, he had a .477 on-base percentage and walked more than he struck out. Overall, his .415 on-base percentage ranked second in the circuit and his .323 batting average finished third. While the homers weren’t abundant with the Storm, he flashed power to the gaps and should be able to find the seats as he gets stronger. Defensively, Hassell handled center field well and should have no issue sticking there in the future. Hassell’s excellent performance resulted in a promotion to High-A Fort Wayne where he made headlines with a three-homer performance. The Tennessee native is firmly entrenched as one of the best prospects in the Padres system.
Runner-Up: infielder Euribiel Angeles .343/.397/.461, 31 extra-base hits, three homers, 56 RBI, 28 stolen bases.
Hassell narrowly took the player of the year award for the Storm, but Angeles was the breakout prospect for the Storm and arguably the entire system. Prior to opening the year with the Storm, Angeles had just 44 games of professional experience, all coming in the Dominican Summer League in 2019. Angeles signed for $300,000 as part of the 2019 international signing class.
Much like Hassell, Angeles got off to a slow start in May before picking things up in June. After June 1, the 19-year-old infielder hit .367/.424/.491 with an excellent 13% K-rate. Angeles ended up winning the Low-A West batting title with a .343 average. Angeles’s walk-rate improved throughout his time with the Storm and his ability to make contact was reminiscent of Tucupita Marcano. Angeles is likely a second base-only prospect, although he did play plenty at short this season. Like Hassell, Angeles finished the season in Fort Wayne and should open the 2022 season in the Summit City.
Others of note: Catcher Brandon Valenzuela broke out as well in Riverside County, hitting .307/.389/.444 with a career-high six homers. Coming into 2021, Valenzuela had just one professional homer to his name. He performed well behind the plate defensively and also played first base capably. Valenzuela is a solid prospect and is someone to watch going into 2022 … Big Joshua Mears battled a shoulder issue and a concussion in 2021 but his power potential tantalized observers when he was on the field. Mears led the club with 17 homers and produced an OPS of nearly .900. Mears will need to rein in the strikeouts (nearly 40% K-rate) but his power might be the loudest tool in the entire system. … Jarryd Dale played all over the diamond, appearing at every defensive position other than catcher. The versatile Australian hit six homers for Lake Elsinore, after failing to notch one in three seasons at the complex. He has plus-speed and is still rather raw but his tools are very interesting. … After Brandon Valenzuela’s promotion, Gilberto Vizcarra settled in behind the plate and hit .390/.429/.559 in September.
Top Prospect: Robert Hassell
Hassell’s performance should rank him no lower than fourth on any Padres’ prospect list but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him challenge for the top spot in the system. Most major publications have placed him as a Top-50 overall prospect going into 2022.