San Diego Padres prospect Chase Walter on the mound for the Lake Elsinore Storm.

Chase Walter dominated the competition in Lake Elsinore. (Photo: Dinur Blum)

Summary: The Lake Elsinore Storm opened 2021 with an inexperienced staff that saw several pitcher leap from the DSL after the 2020 season was canceled due to the pandemic. The rest of the staff was a collection of undrafted free agents and day three draft picks. As a result, the Storm staff struggled as a whole, pitching to a 4.97 ERA which ranked fifth in the eight-team Low-A West. The team did receive some reinforcements from the 2021 draft towards the end of the season that helped stabilize the staff down the stretch.

Overview: We use a simple formula for the awards. Whichever team the player appeared for most is where he is eligible. So, while Noel Vela and Chase Walter earned late-season promotions to Fort Wayne but they will be eligible here since they spent the majority of the season in the 951.

While there can be some overlap in awards, the Player of the Year is the player we think had the best overall season, while the Top Prospect is the one who has the brightest future and potentially the biggest impact at the major league level.

Level: As noted in our Player of the Year article, what in now the Low-A West was revered as a hitter’s league in the California League days. However, in the last ten years, the circuit has waved goodbye to Bakersfield, High Desert, and Lancaster which were among the most extreme hitters’ parks in all of professional baseball. The Lake Elsinore Diamond tends to play as more of a pitcher’s park, with a massive 430-foot gap in left-center and a 26-foot wall in right. Most players in Low-A tend to be in their first full professional season and it is the lowest level in full-season ball.

2021 Lake Elsinore Storm Pitcher of the Year

RHP Chase Walter (Charity, Conniff, Davey, Payne, Wilkens)
1-0, 2.28 ERA, 22 G, 27.2 IP, 20 H, 15 BB, 52 K.

The Storm rotation was in flux for most of the year, so most of the contenders for this award were bullpen arms. Walter’s 27.2 IP ranked 13th on the Storm staff but he dominated nearly every time he took the mound in 2021. Walter, 23, signed with the Padres as an undrafted free agent shortly after the 2020 draft. The 6-foot-7 Western Carolina product paired a fastball that sat in the mid-90s and topped out in triple digits with a nasty slider to rack up 52 strikeouts in 27.2 IP. Among Low-A West pitchers who tossed at least 20 innings, Walter’s K/9 of 16.9 ranked third in the league. Walter’s fastball control can be a bit spotty but he has the type of arm that should slot nicely into the back-end of a bullpen.

Gabriel Morales shows the makings of three solid pitches. (Photo: Antonio Gonzalez)

LHP Gabe Morales (Jay, Pond)
3-3. 4.12 ERA. 22 G, 59 IP, 48 H, 36 BB, 82 K

While Walters was more dominant, Morales more than doubled his workload, pushing him over the top for us. The 22-year-old spent most of his time in Lake Elsinore as a multi-inning reliever, often working the back-end of a piggyback start. When he is on, Morales can overwhelm hitters with a heater that tops out at 95 mph and a pair of impressive breaking balls. The southpaw posted a career-high K/9 of 12.5 and opposing hitters mustered just a .218 average against him. However, Morales can easily lose feel for his mechanics and sometimes seems overwhelmed in game situations, causing his control and command to disappear. He averaged nearly six walks per nine innings pitched, pushing his WHIP up to 1.42. Still, Morales has one of the best arms on the 2021 Storm roster and was the top performer in our minds.

Padres prospect Levi Thomas pitches for the Lake Elsinore Storm

Levi Thomas delivers for Lake Elsinore. (Photo: Dinur Blum)

Others of Note: RHP Levi Thomas, the Padres’ fourth-rounder in 2020, was the highest draft pick on the Storm’s opening night roster and the former Troy University star finished strong after a brutal start to the season. Through the season’s first three months. Thomas pitched to a 6.71 ERA but he was much better down the stretch, as evidenced by his 3.24 ERA in September. … RHP Jason Reynolds made 33 appearances out of the Storm bullpen and was a reliable innings-eater for an inexperienced staff. Reynolds pitched to a 2.75 ERA and led the club with four saves. Opposing batters hit just .198 off of the former 32nd-rounder. … RHP Ruben Galindo made his professional debut for the Storm in 2021 and opened some eyes when he punched out 10 batters in four innings in a July start against Visalia. The 20-year-old was hittable at times but he showed a lot of promise against much older competition. … RHP Alek Jacob was summoned from the Arizona Complex League in the final stretch and struck out 26 batters while walking just two in 18 innings of work. The former Gonzaga Bulldog, who barely scrapes 85 with his fastball, did not allow an earned run in his time with the Storm. … RHP Luarbert Arias also emerged from the desert after starting the season in the ACL. Arias was used primarily as a reliever and notched 44 strikeouts in 25 innings. He has arguably the best stuff of any pitcher used for the Storm in 2021.

Top Prospect

Robert Gasser’s velocity spike for the Cougars moved him up draftboards in 2021. (Photo: University of Houston Athletics)

LHP Robert Gasser (Charity, Conniff, Davey, Pond, Payne, Wilkens)
0-0, 1.29 ERA, 14 IP, 11 H, 2 BB, 13 K

Southpaw Robert Gasser was the Padres’ Competitive Balance Round B pick out of Houston, where the left-hander emerged this season after a poor start to the 2020 campaign. He drew praise for his outstanding work ethic and the strides he made to improve. After he threw 85.2 innings for the Cougars, he was limited in his professional debut, however he showed flashes. In 14 innings for the Storm, Gasser allowed just two earned runs. The Northern California native shows a four-pitch mix. While his fastball sat low-90s, he got it up to 96 with Elsinore. Though he relied more on his two breaking balls, the changeup has the makings of a strong offering, particularly with more separation from the fastball.

Also receiving votes:

Noel Vela. (Photo: Jeff Nycz)

LHP Noel Vela (Jay)
1-8, 3.98 ERA, 54.1 IP, 42 H, 30 BB, 63 K

2021 was something of a coming-out party for Vela, who toiled in the desert for three seasons before finally making it out of the complex league. The 22-year-old started strong, punching out seven in 3.1 innings in his first outing. Vela pitched to a 3.98 ERA with the Storm but due to horrible luck, Vela went 1-8 in 13 starts before being promoted to Fort Wayne in August. One of the youngest players in the 2017 draft, the Texas-born lefty has taken a while to fill out and find a consistent release point, but he now sits 93-95 mph range and shows a devastating good curve and change-up when he’s on. Vela needs to improve his control but he was one of the bright spots for the Storm in 2021.

Posted by Kevin Charity

Kevin Charity has written for MadFriars since 2015 and has had work featured on Fox Sports San Diego. He is a lifelong San Diego native and is looking forward to seeing the current wave of prospects thrive in San Diego.

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