Baseball returned to Lake Elsinore in 2021 after a missed year thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the Storm didn’t advance to the Low-A West Championship Series, they did display some of the best prospects in the entire system.
Robert Hassell III made his professional debut and lived up to the considerable hype that surrounded him entering the season. Infielder Euribiel Angeles won the batting title and catcher/first baseman Brandon Valenzuela raised his stock considerably in his first crack at full-season ball.
2021 also brought some changes in the broadcast booth. Longtime Storm broadcaster Sean McCall did not return to the booth, ending a 24-year tenure with the club. The Storm turned to Jason Schwartz who has plenty of experience behind the mic. Schwartz spent eight years with the Lancaster Jethawks, where he saw the likes of George Springer, Kyle Tucker, and Padres starter Joe Musgrove develop as members of the Houston Astros organization. Schwartz also saw time with the Tri-City Dust Devils in 2011. In addition to baseball, Schwartz is the play-by-play announcer for the Long Beach State basketball team and he is the host of the USC football halftime and postgame show.
Jason was nice enough to give us some insight into the 2021 Storm, though he notes that this his insights are limited because he only called home games due to the COVID-19 protocols in the minors.
MadFriars: Just from a personal standpoint, you called games for Lancaster for several years but that team was one of the teams that was contracted by MLB. You ended up with the Storm in 2021.
What was it like to call games again after such a long layoff?
Jason Schwartz: To be honest, the layoff wasn’t that noticeable because the entire Minor League Baseball season was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, so I wasn’t the only one going through it. And the weeks leading up to the season were pretty chaotic because there were still so many questions about protocols, what the season was going to look like for broadcasters, and whether we’d even be able to get the full schedule in. And personally, my opportunity with the Storm didn’t materialize until less than a month before the season started.
Looking back, it’s all kind of a blur. I do remember looking out at the field on Opening Night and pausing for an extra moment to take it all in. I was very grateful to be calling games again, but once the broadcast started, it hardly felt like any time had passed and it felt so good to get right back into the baseball play-by-play rhythm.
Robert Hassell III was the highest profile player in Lake Elsinore in 2021. What were your impressions on what you saw from him?
Jason Schwartz: I had actually seen Robert in 2019 when I called the U-18 World Cup in Korea and he was a standout on the USA team, so I knew what to expect going into the 2021 season.
He’s advanced and mature beyond his years. He started fast with a walk-off bases-clearing double against a tough lefty reliever during the first homestand of the season and finished strong in the second half before getting promoted to Fort Wayne. He played a solid centerfield in a quirky and spacious outfield, he rarely wasted an at-bat, and he showed off some good wheels on the bases.
There’s room for his power to develop as you’d expect from a guy just a year out of high school, but he showed a knack for finding the gaps. You can tell he’s very confident but also very eager to be a good teammate, work hard, and improve his game. Obviously Low-A is a long way from the big leagues and there’s a lot of time for him to develop, but I’d be excited about his future if I’m a Padres fan.
Euribiel Angeles was the breakout star in the system, rising from the DSL to Low-A. He really came on in June and finished strong. What can you tell us about his ability at the plate?
Jason Schwartz: Euribiel became one of the most dynamic players in the league as the season went along. By mid-summer, as his confidence grew, he was someone that you never wanted to take your eyes off of. Whether it was at the plate or in the field, he seemed to do something exciting every game. It really wasn’t until his 22-game hitting streak that I realized what a special season he was having. He led the league with 124 hits and ended up hitting .343 to win the batting title. He just had a knack for getting hits. He only struck out 61 times in 405 plate appearances. There were plenty of “line drives in the box score” type hits, but he’s a good example of a guy who knew that just putting the ball in play gave himself a chance to get on base.
Brandon Valenzuela was viewed as more of a defensive catcher coming into 2021 but he broke out at the plate. What was the most impressive part of his game in your opinion?
Jason Schwartz: I was most impressed with how well Brandon swung the bat from both sides of the plate. He hit .293 against righties and .311 against lefties. Pretty consistent. He had a confident approach from both sides of the plate and a good feel for the strike zone. His power from the right side does have some room to catch up. All seven of his home runs and 25 of his 31 extra-base hits came from the left side. His overall game felt advanced for Low-A, and he was a steady presence in the middle of the lineup and behind the plate.
Joshua Mears battled some injuries but showed unbelievable power when he made contact. Should Padres fans be excited about his power potential?
Jason Schwartz: Yes, absolutely. The power is definitely real. Joshua hit some mammoth no-doubters at The Diamond this season, and that ballpark isn’t exactly the easiest place to hit home runs with its deep left field.
One of the more interesting things about this season was the league’s change from High-A to Low-A. We were used to seeing more experienced players who had already had multiple seasons to develop their game. Now we’re seeing some of the youngest guys just getting their start, which I thought made their progression a lot more noticeable over the course of a full season. Joshua was one of the best examples. The power was always there, but the rest of his game came a long way. He’s got a high ceiling and I’m excited to see how his game continues to develop.
To me, Jarryd Dale is one of the most interesting guys on the roster because of his background, versatility, and raw tools. Which part of his game stands out to you?
Jason Schwartz: I think you said it best in your question. It’s his versatility and his baseball IQ that make him so interesting, so it’s not easy to pick one single part of his game. Jarryd was able to contribute in so many ways. He could hit for power, lay down a bunt, play almost anywhere in the field, run the bases…the list goes on. I believe he played every position except pitcher and catcher.
He comes from a deep baseball background in Australia and it shows. His dad was a minor leaguer, a manager, and is now a scout. And Jarryd has had the opportunity to play professionally in Australia and on an international stage. All of that and he was only 20-years-old this season. I remember watching Kiké Hernandez play in this league and thought this guy does a lot of things well but isn’t getting a lot of attention. I think Jarryd is similar.
Noel Vela was arguably the best starter in the rotation before his promotion to Fort Wayne. What were your thoughts on the lefty?
Jason Schwartz: I will admit it was a lot harder for me to get a feel for Lake Elsinore’s pitchers this season since I didn’t travel with the team. I basically saw the starters throw once every other week. Noel had some tough luck with the Storm. He finished with a 1-8 record but allowed one earned run or fewer in four of his eight losses. He showed some good arm strength with a pretty effortless fastball and a good ability to spin the ball too. The league didn’t hit him all that well, but command was definitely an issue at times. No doubt he had some of the best stuff on the staff and judging by his strikeout numbers in Fort Wayne, it seemed to play pretty well at High-A too.
Chase Walter dominated out of the bullpen with a big fastball. What made him so dominant in his first pro season?
Jason Schwartz: Chase stood out as one of the more dominant relievers I saw in the league this season. He averaged almost two strikeouts an inning. One scout told me he did a good job “throwing down at hitters,” which led to his success with the fastball as you mentioned. He also got a lot of swings and misses with his slider which I thought was a pretty advanced pitch for the level. Ultimately with a guy like Chase I’ll be very curious to see how his stuff plays at higher levels. He turned 23 during the season and pitched in college so he’s got a bit more experience and maturity than a lot of the hitters he faced.
LHP Gabriel Morales was utilized as a reliever after starting in the Arizona League in 2019. What kind of stuff does Morales possess?
Jason Schwartz: Gabe was used in a kind of hybrid starter/reliever role. The Storm consistently featured tandem starting pitchers throughout the season and he was definitely in the mix as one of those “starters,” he just happened to be the guy coming out of the bullpen more times than not.
I think there is a lot to be excited about with Gabe. His fastball has good life and he throws a pretty good curveball and changeup. One scout told me he has big league stuff but struggles to repeat his delivery. I’ll take that assessment for a guy in Low-A. Another thing about Gabe, he’s a big-league grunter. Not quite Serena Williams level, but Rich Hill comes to mind. It gave the broadcast some good background sound, especially on the quieter nights. Hard to deny he’s giving max effort out there.
Were there any under-the-radar players not mentioned that really impressed you in 2021?
Jason Schwartz: A number of guys come to mind. Angel Solarte got into the mix when the roster was thin due to injuries and played his way into a middle-of-the-lineup everyday role. I think he can be a productive player as he works his way up through the system. Gilberto Vizcarra showed off some good tools behind the plate and played with energy and flare. Cole Cummings and Colton Bender had strong showings after joining the club late in the season. Alek Jacob and his funky delivery were practically unhittable in a dozen games out of the bullpen. Overall, the team struggled to win games but still was a lot of fun to watch. I’m really looking forward to seeing how these guys perform at the next level and will be rooting for their success.