Summary: The Padres’ Triple-A affiliate moved to El Paso prior to the 2014 season, and through their first six campaigns, they hadn’t finished below .500. After the lost 2020 campaign, the 2021 squad got off to a quick 8-3 start, but then dropped 10 of the next 11 and never again approached a winning record. With an offense that scored 49 fewer runs than the second-worst club on the circuit, the Chihuahuas finished last overall in the newly-constituted 10-team Triple-A West league.

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: Triple-A is a unique crossroads in professional baseball, with rosters that often feature as many players looking to get one last shot as those hoping for their first shot. After the Padres emptied out much of their minor league depth in trades, four of the seven highest plate appearance totals on the roster belonged to players signed as minor league free agents prior to the season. Luis Campusano and Tucupita Marcano were the only position players to appear on our Top 25 list coming into the year to log time with the Chihuahuas.

With the demise of the Pacific Coast League under MLB’s visionary new leadership of the minors, the Triple-A West circuit continued its predecessor’s legacy as an offense-heavy league. With new minor league travel policies, the Chihuahuas played fewer games in the bandboxes of Reno, Salt Lake and Las Vegas, but that in itself wasn’t the cause of the team finishing dead last in homers, slugging percentage and OPS.

2021 MadFriars’ Top Position Player of the Year

Luis Campusano has hit 14 of his 15 home runs after June 1. (Photo: Jorge Salgado)

C Luis Campusano (Conniff, Davey, Jay, Payne, Pond, Wilkens)
.295/.365/.541 15 HR, 66K, 27 BB in 326 PA; 13 of 60 runners caught stealing

Because of the oddities of the 2020 season and a season-opening injury to Austin Nola this year, Campusano logged his first big league at-bats before ever appearing at Double-A, much less in the Sun City. While he, unsurprisingly, wasn’t yet ready for MLB pitchers, once Campusano got settled in at El Paso, he was a force until an injury cut his season short. The Georgia native, who didn’t turn 23 until the end of the season, started slowly in May, but absolutely crushed the ball through the summer. From June on, he hit 14 homers in 62 games while striking out in 18% of his plate appearances. His .380 wOBA was the best on the club and trailed only Jo Adell and Keibert Ruiz among comparably-aged players in the league.

Taylor Kohlwey was a key cog in the El Paso offense in 2021. (Photo: Jorge Salgado)

OF/1B Taylor Kohlwey (Charity)
.319/.381/.456 7 HR, 84 K, 37 BB, 29 XBH in 383 PA; 9 SB

While Campusano clearly has the greater upside, Kohlwey gets a vote here by virtue of playing in 16 more games at the level and well-rounded contributions defensively and on the basepaths. The Wisconsin native, selected in the 21st round in 2016, actually opened the year in San Antonio and spent another two weeks there at the start of June, but posted an OPS above 1.000 over a seven-week stretch once he returned to West Texas. While his seven homers for El Paso don’t sound remarkable, they represent a surge for a player who came into the season with just 15 homers in 329 professional games. The 27-year-old logged time at all three outfield spots as well as first base, acquitting himself well in center.

Brian O’Grady mashed for most of the summer with the Chihuahuas. (Photo: Jorge Salgado)

Others of Note: Signed as a big league free agent over the winter, Brian O’Grady spent the bulk of his season in Triple-A, posting a team-high .547 slugging percentage and .913 OPS. The 29-year-old left-handed batter also showed good instincts on the basepaths, swiping 10 bags. … Utilityman Matt Batten hit .300 while appearing everywhere on the field but catcher and first base. The Quinnipiac University product selected 909 picks behind Campusano in 2017, also paced the club with 27 stolen bases. … San Diego native Gosuke Katoh had a solid showing in his first year in his hometown club’s organization, hitting .306/.388/.474 while providing solid defense everywhere around the infield but at shortstop with occasional trips to the outfield corners. … Like Campusano, Tucupita Marcano, started the year in San Diego out of necessity rather than readiness, but spent the bulk of the year in El Paso before he was traded at the deadline. The infielder, who played most of the year at 21 years old, walked more than he struck out, fueling a solid .366 on-base percentage while playing reliable defense on the left side of the infield. … Players acquired through the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft are often targeted for organizational need, but Yorman Rodriguez showed the Padres something as he shuttled across three levels this year. The 24-year-old had spent his previous career in the lowest levels of the Blue Jays system, yet slugged .545 in 32 games for El Paso. Primarily a catcher before he joined the Padres, he mostly played first and DH’ed this year.

2021 Top Prospect

Luis Campusano finishes his swing for the El Paso Chihuahuas

Luis Campusano is a potent threat at the plate. (Photo Jorge Salgado)

Luis Campusano
While he still has work to do, the 23-year-old 2017 second-rounder has all the component parts to be a two-way force at catcher. At bat, the second-generation professional makes plenty of loud contact, with enough power to be a true threat at the plate while maintaining low – at least in the context of the game today – strikeout rates. At a time when the median big league catcher barely provides league-average offense, Campusano has the potential to be among the top hitters at his position. Defensively, he has enough arm strength and footwork to become a strong receiver, but to date the in-game execution has trailed the tools, and he hasn’t yet shown the ability to manage a staff especially well. The coming season should offer him the opportunity to transition into a job-sharing role in the big leagues.

Posted by David Jay

David has written for MadFriars since 2005, has published articles in Baseball America, written a monthly column for FoxSports San Diego and appeared on numerous radio programs and podcasts. He may be best known on the island of Guam for his photos of Trae Santos that appeared in the Pacific Daily News.

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