Synopsis: The Low-A Lake Elsinore Storm open the 2022 season with the Padres’ top two picks from the 2021 draft. Shortstop Jackson Merrill and outfielder James Wood highlight a roster that features 10 returning players and three of our preseason top 20 prospects. The Storm aren’t loaded by any means but they have a few players worth the pilgrimage to Riverside County.
Three Strikes with Mark Conner, Minor League Field Coordinator
Jackson Merrill impressed in camp, including when he’s gone over to the big league side, but so far has played only shortstop in games. Does the organization have plans to try him at other infield positions and how has his arm looked at shortstop?
Mark Connor: He put together a very good spring training and a good first impression last summer. He is a rare combination of make-up and tools. He has shown the ability to stay at shortstop, he’s going to have to continue to work on foot speed, footwork, and arm strength as he goes up, but we don’t have any plans to move him off of shortstop in the near future.
He could easily play another position, like third base – his hands are quick enough and the arm is there, but I think he is going to be that player that will stay at short. He has a very good internal clock and the arm has been good. On some of his throws, he has got to continue to keep his legs underneath him to maximize the use of his body – that’s when you see less carry.
But he has the ability to make plays in the six-hole and has looked great on throws on the run.
James Wood really produced last season in the ACL. What has he improved the most on coming into 2022? Is he capable of even more?
Mark Connor: He’s just fun to watch every day, we see something new every day with James. He is constantly improving his pitch recognition, zone control and bat-to-ball skills. He got into a few balls late in spring for some home runs as he was learning to leverage the baseball and tap into more power.
His speed is unique, it’s just good – not good for his size. He can run the bases extremely well, he takes like five or six strides and he’s at the next base. I still haven’t seen him get thrown out yet.
His defense has improved a lot, mainly with some technical things like controlling his center of gravity because of the length of his body. We are going to run him out in center and right field this year.
His ceiling is high and expanding higher every day.
After two years disrupted by COVID, are you anticipating that starting pitchers in the low minors will have more traditional workloads this year, or are there still some guys who might have less runway than they might have otherwise?
Mark Connor: It is definitely a different time in COVID with player development. Every pitcher in our system will be handled a little bit different; particularly because you are dealing with college, high school and international players. Everyone that is going out is going out with the intention to pitch and as the season goes on we will monitor it and keep a close eye on where they are at physically and with arm health.
2022 projected lineup:
1B: Matt Acosta
2B: Max Ferguson
SS Jackson Merrill
3B: Kervin Pichardo
LF: Pierce Jones
CF: James Wood
RF: Justin Farmer
DH: Carlos Luis
SP: RHP Jairo Iriarte
SP: RHP Victor Lizarraga
SP: RHP Garrett Hawkins
SP: LHP Jesus Gonzalez
RHRP: Kobe Robinson
LHRP Mason Feole
MadFriars Top 20 Prospects in Lake Elsinore: OF James Wood (#5), SS/INF Jackson Merrill (#9), RHP Victor Lizarraga (#16).
Catch a Rising Star: James Wood was drafted in the second round of last year’s draft, out of the athletically prestigious IMG Academy in Florida. Wood struggled to make consistent contact his senior year but he looked explosive in his professional debut with the ACL Padres. Wood hit a scorching .372/.465/.535 in his first 101 plate appearances of his professional career.
Wood has prodigious power potential and at 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds, he is athletic enough to stick in center. The 19-year-old should hit in the middle of the order for the Storm.
Starting Pitching: The starting staff should be led by RHP Victor Lizarraga, the San Diego-born hurler who was signed out of Mexico as part of the January 2021 international class. The 18-year-old threw 30 innings in the desert and pitched to a 5.10 ERA. Lizarraga sat in the low-90s last season and has room to get a few more ticks on his fastball. 20-year-old Jairo Iriarte saw some action in Lake Elsinore last season, starting three games down the stretch. The results were not pretty; Iriarte allowed a staggering 25 hits in nine innings of work and finished his brief stay in Low-A with a 27.00 ERA. He fared much better in the desert and punched out 25 batters in 21 innings in the ACL. Iriarte has a fastball that sits in the mid-90s. Jesus Gonzalez reached the Low-A level in 2019 with the TinCaps but only appeared in two ACL games late last year. The left-hander will turn 21 in June.
Bullpen: Kobe Robinson was drafted in the 13th round last year and features a fastball that reached 99 mph while he pitched in the MLB Draft League. His whipsaw delivery and wipeout slider make him a tough matchup at the end of a game. Mason Feole had Tommy John surgery shortly after being drafted in 2019, when the Padres selected him in the 11th round, out of the University of Connecticut. Feole appeared in 21 games for the TinCaps last year and never looked comfortable, struggling with his fastball command. He walked 20 batters in 16 innings and finished the season with an ERA of 9.00. Feole’s assignment represents a demotion but he is a talented left-hander who could have a short stay in the California League if everything clicks.
“I think that we are looking pretty solid,” said RHP Brandon Heiss at Storm media day. “We have some guys that are returning, we have a lot of speed out there, guys that can swing it and our bullpen is pretty stacked. The older guys are teaching the younger guys what they need to do and what they can expect and what they need to work on.”
Heiss signed with the Padres last year as an undrafted free agent out of Florida Gulf Coast and threw 4.2 innings in the desert. He will slot into the bullpen as well.
Catching: Mexicali native Gilberto Vizcarra figures to get the bulk of playing time behind the dish. The 23-year-old played behind Brandon Valenzuela last season and caught 49 games, hitting a solid .293/.335/.435 with five homers. Jared Alvarez-Lopez slots in nicely behind Vizcarra. The 21-year-old was drafted in 2019 in the 17th round out of high school in Cypress, Texas. In 53 career games in the ACL, he produced a slash-line of .179/.258/.232.
Infield: Merrill is the one to watch here. The 27th overall pick in last year’s draft got off to a hot start in the desert before fading a bit. Merrill will be the everyday shortstop. He is still looking to connect on his first professional homer. Max Ferguson is a versatile speedster who will see time at second but can play every position except catcher. He played with Lake Elsinore at the end of last season, seeing the bulk of time in center field. He was drafted in the fifth round of the 2021 draft. Former USC star Matthew Acosta returns for a second stint with the Storm. He should see time at first base and in the outfield. Last season Acosta hit .264/.372/.414 – good for a wRC+ of 112. Kervin Pichardo should see some time at third base. The 20-year-old was acquired from the Phillies for RHP James Norwood during the spring. In 35 games between three levels last year, the 2019 draftee hit .247/.476/.466.
Outfield: Wood will patrol center most days, but there will likely be a lot of mixing and matching on the corner spots. Pierce Jones parlayed a solid sophomore season in the ACL into a late-season promotion to Lake Elsinore. He ended the season with a bang, connecting on a homer in the season’s final game. Justin Farmer, an undrafted free agent from Florida International should see some time as well. In 53 plate appearances, Farmer hit .302/.415/.581 with the ACL Padres with three homers.
“I think we’re going to be really good, “ said Farmer during Lake Elsinore’s media day. “There’s a lot of old[er] guys, especially for a Low-A affiliate. The young guys are really good; they are super mature. And I also think we are deep: we can play defense, we can hit, and we can pitch so I think we have a chance to be really good.”
Under the Radar: Righty Garrett Hawkins was the Padres’ ninth-rounder last year after starring for Trenton in the MLB Draft League. In 24 innings, the big righty from British Colombia had a 32:2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In 15.1 innings in the ACL, Hawkins blew away the competition, striking out 27 while walking just two. He should have a chance to pitch in the Storm’s rotation.