Summary: The TinCaps came into the season as one of the top Padres’ farm teams, but the additions that the big club made in midseason of Juan Soto, Josh Hader and the subtraction of Eric Hosmer gutted the Padres’ High-A affiliate with top prospects Robert Hassell III, Robert Gasser, Corey Rosier and Max Ferguson departing from the organization.
The TinCaps finished the season at 50-80, thirty games under .500, but a few players did stand out.
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, and while hitters realize that all pitchers can throw strikes, many will try to exploit the hitters’ weakness at the plate. As such, this level often has a sizable learning curve, especially with younger players. It is common to see a player post a .550 OPS in the first month and 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. As opposed to in years past, the new schedule instituted in 2021, almost 70% of games were played against the same five teams.
Player of the Year: OF Joshua Mears (John Conniff, David Jay, Kevin Charity, Ben Davey, and Mark Wilkens); Robert Hassell III (Kevin split his vote)
Joshua Mears is one of the more fascinating prospects in baseball. He has legitimate 80-grade power on the scouts 20-80 scale, a decent eye at the plate, and after the departure of Hassell, demonstrated an ability to play center field at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds. The question is with Joshua, is the same since he came into the organization in 2019, can he get his strikeouts below a forty percent rate?
With the TinCaps this season, Mears had 14 home runs and 25 extra-base hits in 52 games to go along with 16 walks for a .223/.304/.511 slash line. The bad news is he also struck out 90 times in 207 plate appearances, and there is the riddle. If Mears posts an on-base percentage around the low .300s, the accompanying numbers are going to play out; the question is, can he do it against better pitching as he moves forward?
In 94 plate appearances with San Antonio, he hit .169/.266/.374 with five home runs and seven extra-base hits in 24 games to go along with 45 strikeouts. The good news is the Missions hitting coach is Raul Padron, one of the organization’s best hitting coaches, and if he can refine the approach – and again, this is a very big “if” – Mears could develop into one of the top prospects in baseball.
Before being included in the Soto trade, Hassell was the top player in Fort Wayne at .299/.379/.467 with 20 stolen bases in 23 attempts and played a solid center field. He struggled after being sent to the Washington Nationals organization in July, hitting .211/.311/.237 in High-A Wilmington and .222/.312/.296 in 27 games and 122 plate appearances in Double-A Harrisburg at 20. The bad numbers seem more of an anomaly of a player trying too hard than indicative of his future performance.
Look for Hassell to return to Double-A this spring and put up numbers with an outside shot at being in DC in September.
Pitcher of the Year: LHP Jackson Wolf (Conniff, Charity, Davey, and Wilkens); LHP Noel Vela (Jay)
The 6-foot-7 lefty from the University of West Virginia led the TinCaps in innings pitched (119) and strikeouts (134) while posting 22 starts and two with Double-A San Antonio after being promoted. The long-limbed Wolf has a lot of funk in his delivery, and batters in the Midwest League appeared to have great difficulty picking up the ball. He throws a wide variety of pitches, two and four-seam fastballs, and has solid secondary offerings in his slider, curve, and changeup.
The challenge for Wolf this offseason will be to see if the organization can unlock a few more ticks of velocity by streamlining his delivery to improve upon a fastball that sits around 88-91 mph, which will make his secondary stuff play up more.
Noel Vela is another lefty but opposite Wolf, who signed out of Mission High School in south Texas in 2017 as a 28th-round pick. He spent three long years sweating in the rookie-level Arizona League as opposed to going to college before getting a shot with Lake Elsinore in 2021.
With the TinCaps, he did show an ability to strike people out with 101 strikeouts in 87 innings, but he also allowed 47 walks. Vela can bring his fastball up in the zone in the mid-90’s then go after the hitter low with his changeup, slider, or two-seamer. The problem he’s had is with his command, which isn’t always there, which happened in four starts at San Antonio, where he had a 6.75 ERA.
Wolf and Vela showed flashes of potential this season in Fort Wayne and the ability to repeat quality performances. Double-A is a big jump; each will have to address a few things to repeat their successes at an upper level.
Others of Note: Ryan Bergert and Efrain Contreras are two pitchers to keep an eye on. Bergert gets a lot of punch outs of his high-spin fastball that appears to rise in the zone but the right-hander struggles with off-speed. He doesn’t use a changeup that much, but when his slider and curve are effective, he can be tough with 129 strikeouts in 103.1 innings, but he can also catch too much of the plate with 124 hits for a 5.84 ERA. Contreras came back from Tommy John surgery in 2020 and was more effective than his 0-5 record with 64 punch-outs in 53.1 innings against 25 walks. The Juarez, Mexico, native works with a fastball, change, and curve. His fastball has been clocked up to the mid-90’s but he mainly relies on throwing all three pitches at any time, and far he will progress will depend on how long he will be able to replicate it. He is somewhat similar to Pedro Avila with the Triple-A El Paso Chihuahuas but has a little more velocity on his fastball. San Diego left him off the 40-man roster this season after adding him last year, but resigned him this winter.
Switch-hitting catcher Brandon Valenzuela had his worse year at the plate with a .209/.334/.348 line, but defensively continued to show the plus attributes that make him one of San Diego’s top prospects, particularly in-game management. He has a career on-base percentage of .372, so the career-low batting average of .209 may be an aberration.
Top Position Prospect: Joshua Mears (Conniff, Charity, Davey, and Wilkens); Brandon Valenzuela (Jay)
If Mears can make more contact, he is one of the better prospects in baseball, but right now, that is a very big ask. His personal career best strikeout rate was 30.3% in the Arizona League at 18. Last year, it was 47.9% in 24 games at Double-A. Valenzuela is a plus defender, but the offense is going to have to pick to have a legitimate shot.
Top Pitching Prospect: Noel Vela (Conniff, Charity, Davey); Efrain Contreras (Jay, Wilkens)
Vela has great stuff; if he can harness it, he could develop into a back-end rotation piece or a reliever. The key for him is to continue improving his command and, more importantly, not to beat himself up mentally when things don’t always go his way. Contreras could be a breakout performer this season in San Antonio with an ability to take the ball and eat innings. However, to be successful, he needs to have a three-pitch mix working for every start with no one real plus pitch.
2023 Outlook: The Lake Elsinore Storm won the Cal League championship in 2022, and several of the Padres’ top prospects should be headed out to northeast Indiana, including shortstop Jackson Merrill, who will be San Diego’s top prospect in 2023 and a bevy of young pitching talent.