Summary: The 2022 version of the Lake Elsinore Storm had a season for the ages. They finished up the regular season 77-55, winning the first-half title and, eventually won their third California League Championship by sweeping the Fresno Grizzlies in the championship series. On July 1, the Storm also threw their first no-hitter in franchise history against Inland Empire.
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: Low-A is now the first level out of the complex leagues and is the bottom rung of full-season ball, so it can be difficult to gauge how meaningful a prospect’s performance is in the grand scheme of things. Some pundits focus primarily on the raw ability and potential demonstrated while others shift their gaze to the consistency of performance.
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?
Lake Elsinore Storm Player of the Year for 2022: INF Marcos Castañon (unanimous selection)
Castañon, 23, started the season as a part-time player, playing behind Lucas Dunn and Max Ferguson but heated up as the playing time became more plentiful. After a slow April, Castañon broke out in May with a .804 OPS. He did his best work in August when he made the California League his personal playground.
The former UC-Santa Barbara slugger blasted nine homers in August and finished the month with a .287/.425/.584 for a team that won the California League championship. While some of the other top performers in Lake Elsinore received a promotion to Fort Wayne, Castañon stayed in Lake Elsinore for the duration and because of that, he ranked among league leaders in several categories.
He led the circuit with 23 homers and finished seventh with 25 doubles. His .397 on-base percentage also finished seventh in the league.
The Rialto, California native won’t dazzle observers with a lot of athleticism but he has excellent bat speed. In the field, he showed good hands at third base and looked more comfortable as the season wore on. He should open next year somewhere in the Fort Wayne infield, where he will see if his power plays in the Midwest League.
Others of Note: You can’t tell the story of the 2022 Lake Elsinore Storm without mentioning the contributions of outfielder James Wood. Wood, 19, was the Padres’ second-round pick in 2021, out of IMG Academy in Florida. The outfielder was traded by the Padres as part of the massive haul Washington acquired in the deal that sent Juan Soto and Josh Bell to San Diego.
Wood hit .337/.453/.601 with 10 homers in just 50 games. He showed impressive speed in the outfield and on the bases and a much-improved approach at the plate. His breakout campaign led to his ascension on many of the national lists.
Infielder Carlos Luis showed massive improvement at the plate, as the left-handed swinging corner infielder finally started to tap into his power. In his time with Lake Elsinore, Luis hit .319/.390/.465 with 25 doubles and six homers. It’s been a slow burn with Luis, who was part of the Padres’ 2016 international signing class, but the organization’s patience with him is starting to pay dividends. Samuel Zavala only played in 33 games for the Storm but it was enough for him to put his name on the map. In just 141 plate appearances, Zavala homered seven times and hit .254/.355/.508 overall. The 18-year-old also stole five bases and displayed a smooth left-handed swing and he lowered his k-rate as the season progressed.
The 2022 draft class shined: Late in the season, the organization promoted several of their 2022 draft picks to Lake Elsinore, and they shined down the stretch. On the position player side, fifth-rounder Nathan Martorella had a .805 OPS in 17 games with a pair of homers. … sixth-rounder Jakob Marsee drew 16 walks in 18 games and was a constant on-base threat down the stretch. … Eighth-rounder Griffin Doersching put his name on the map with a six-homer series late in the season in Stockton. While the punchouts were plentiful, his power display was fun to follow down the stretch.
Lake Elsinore Pitcher of the Year: RHP Victor Lizarraga (unanimous selection)
Lizarraga, 18, was the age of a high school senior in 2022 but he showed ability that makes him one of the top pitchers in the organization. The right-hander was born in San Diego and grew up on both sides of the border, pitching for Montgomery High as an underclassman.
Despite his young age, he was a model of consistency for a pitching staff that saw a lot of turnover. His worst month was May, when he still posted a respectable 4.41 ERA. Over his last 13 starts, he allowed two runs or less in 12 of them.
He saved perhaps his best start for last. In game two of the California League Championship Series, Lizarraga worked into the seventh inning against a very good Fresno club. He earned the victory, pitching a season-high 6.2 innings as the Storm won their third championship.
The right-hander features a fastball that sits in the 91-93 mph range, a curve, and a change-up. Given his age and physical frame, it would not be a surprise to see him add a few ticks to his fastball. With his aptitude for pitching and his pure stuff, he could be a top-100 guy in the near future.
Others of Note: Right-hander Garrett Hawkins was the opening day starter for the Storm in 2022 and as the team racked up wins in the first half, Hawkins was the ace that gave the team a chance to win every night. The 23-year-old righty racked up 108 strikeouts in 77.2 innings. Hawkins also threw seven perfect innings on July 1st, when the Storm threw their first no-hitter in team history. His 3.94 ERA was inflated by some bad luck with balls in play and he walked just 20 batters.
After a dismal Cal League debut in 2021, right-hander Jairo Iriarte showed massive improvement despite having inconsistent results. Iriarte tied for second on the Storm in innings pitched (91.1) and he struck out a team-high 108 batters. He showed a fastball that can touch the mid-90s and much like Lizarraga, he still has room to fill out physically. One of the Padres’ success stories was the signing of 6-foot-7 Duncan Snider, 24, out of the the American Association. Snider posted a 6-1 record with a 4.38 ERA in 48 innings and had an interesting journey to affiliated ball. Out of the bullpen, Mexican-born Alan Mundo quietly had a dominant season out of the Storm bullpen. In 48.1 innings, Mundo pitched to a 2.23 ERA with 68 punchouts. Opposing batters hit just .197 off of the right-hander. His mid-90s heater pairs well with an excellent slider that helped him rack up the strikeouts.
Top Position Prospect: Shortstop Jackson Merrill (unanimous selection)
If not for a wrist injury that stole ten weeks from him, Merrill likely would have been the Storm player of the year. The 19-year-old from Maryland displayed an advanced ability to make contact and by the end of the season, he simply overwhelmed opposing pitchers. He did his best work in August, hitting .317/.367/.515 with four homers and 23 RBI. The left-handed hitting Merrill struck out in less than 20% of plate appearances. Down the stretch, he was the best offensive weapon in a Storm lineup that finished third in the Cal League with 871 runs.
Defensively, he looked just fine at shortstop and should be able to stick at the position going forward. While intangibles can’t be measured by statistics, he is lauded in the organization for his character and leadership ability.
Top Pitching Prospect: RHP Victor Lizarraga (unanimous selection)
The 18-year-old was incredibly consistent in his first full professional season out of the complex league. He looked stronger as the season progressed and he has a case to be the Padres’ top pitching prospect in 2023.
2023 Outlook: The Storm roster should feature some interesting international players such as Juan Morillo and Rosman Verdugo, who showed flashes in the ACL. On the mound, Comp Round A pick Robby Snelling seems like a good bet to see time in Riverside County next year.