Summary: After being rated the top Low-A Ballpark for fan experience in 2019, the TinCaps did not take the field in 2020 as the minor league season was cancelled. When they returned in 2021, they were playing in a newly formed High-A Central League, saying goodbye to the Midwest League that had been in existence since 1956. While the product on the field was less than stellar (54-66 record, finishing in last place), Parkview Field was now ranked the top High-A Ballpark for fan experience.
On the field, the TinCaps struggled with consistency throughout the year. They finished with in the back third in the league in nearly all offensive categories. The best results were all from familiar faces. With the upgrade from Low-A to High-A, many players who were with the TinCaps in 2019 returned this year for a higher level of competition. That group included outfielder Agustin Ruiz, who led the club in home runs and OPS before a late season promotion. Corner outfielder Tirso Ornelas reworked his swing during the break, leading him to lead the league in doubles, and infielders Justin Lopez and Reinaldo Ilarraza flashed potential, even if inconsistently.
On the mound, the TinCaps struggled with a 4.66 team ERA (ninth in the 12 team High-A Central). The starters were led by LHP Ethan Elliott and part-time knuckleballer RHP Matt Waldron. Unfortunately the bullpen had the worst ERA in the league and it became a daily drama to see which reliever would struggle.
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: High-A is the second level out of the complexes. This is normally the first time both hitters and pitchers notice a huge difference between college and pro ball. Pitchers can no longer get away with only one strong offering, while hitters start to realize that all pitchers can throw strikes, and many will try to exploit the hitters weakness at the plate. As such there is often a sizeable learning curve at this level, especially with younger players. It is common to see a player post a .550 OPS in the first month then closer to .850 by July/August.
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 Midwest League always played as a fair league, slightly skewing toward pitchers. That trend continued in 2021. The Midwest League lost two teams during the transition to High-A, and with the new schedule almost 70% of games were played against the same five teams.
MadFriars’ Fort Wayne TinCaps Player of the Year
Outfielder Agustin Ruiz (Unanimous)
.253/.343/.466 72 G, 15 2B, 15 HR, 51 RS, 56 RBI.
Entering this season, Ruiz’s career high for a season was four home runs set in 120 games in 2019. He equaled that number in the first 10 games in 2021. On a team that ranked near the bottom in every power category in the league, Ruiz was one bright spot for the first three months. By the time he was promoted in August, Ruiz had clubbed 15 homers and was leading the team in most offensive categories. The lefty from Mexico, who turned 22 at the end of the season, finished his High-A run with a 120 wRC+, the best mark on the club.
Runner-Up: outfielder Tirso Ornelas .248/.344/.389 31 2B, 7 HR, 52 BB, 57 RS, 55 RBI.
After a disappointing 2019 season, Ornelas spent the pandemic remaking his swing, and benefited from the results. He led the league in doubles, while seeing his strikeout percentage drop, and his walk percentage increase. While the season as a whole was not where he wanted it to be, he finished with a flourish. Over his last 17 games, the 21-year-old hit .400/.479/.550 with 24 hits and 10 walks in his final 70 plate appearances.
Others of note: Shortstop Justin Lopez led the team in RBI, and finished second on the club in home runs. … Halfway through the season catcher/utility man Jonny Homza was hitting .282/.413/.500, but he struggled with a shoulder injury and finished the season mired in an 8-for-78 slump. … Reinaldo Ilarraza, who has been with the TinCaps every season since 2017, put up his best season leading the team with 38 stolen bases. After playing almost all his career in the middle infield, the Padres had him split time between second and center field where his speed could play up more. … Zack Mathis opened the year in Lake Elsinore, but joined the TinCaps in July and posted a .752 OPS across the final two months. The left-handed batter, now 23 years old, primarily played the corner infield spots, but also saw his first game action as a catcher. … Grant Little, who has struggled with injuries and inconsistent performance since the Padres drafted him 74th overall in 2018, reached base at a solid .387 clip, but collected only 13 extra-base hits in 262 plate appearances. The Texas Tech product swiped a career-high 19 bases.
Tirso Ornelas (Conniff, Davey, Payne, Pond)
For the last four years, Tirso has been a player that we all just waited to have a breakout season. He has the frame of a linebacker, strong and athletic, with a great eye at the plate. On any given day you could see Tirso perform as a top prospect. But the consistency hasn’t been there as the club has worked with him to make significant swing adjustments. Despite the long history in the organization, Ornelas is still just 21 and he did put up his best OPS season of full season ball (even if it was .733). Tirso gets the vote of the dreamers – a group which includes me – who still believe in what he could be.
Runner Up: Agustin Ruiz (Charity, Jay, Wilkins)
Ruiz gets the votes of the realists. Ruiz, who turned 22 last month, tied for the organizational lead with 21 overall home runs between Fort Wayne and San Antonio. Accomplished this in two pitcher friendly parks make the accomplishment all the more impressive. However, as impressive as his 120 wRC+ was in Fort Wayne, it fell to 57 in 35 Double-A games. Ruiz will appear in the back half of the top 30.