Synopsis: After falling one win shy of the Pacific Coast League Championship in 2022, this year’s edition of the Chihuahuas will feature quite a few new names. While both seasons begin with two of our top 20 prospects on the roster, the level of prospect is slightly different. Last year, two of our top three prospects, MacKenzie Gore and Luis Campusano opened the year in the Sun City; the 2023 edition will have lefty Jay Groome and righty Pedro Avila. That doesn’t mean this team is devoid of talent. The 2023 Chihuahuas will be a veteran team that could light up the scoreboard again.
Three Strikes with Mike Daly, Padres Assistant Director of Player Development
Jay Groome was impressive coming over from the Boston Red Sox at the trade deadline, and he turned some heads this spring. What did you see?
Mike Daly: He definitely did that and was one of the last guys we sent down. Jay deserves a lot of credit for all his work during the offseason; he came into the spring in great shape. I think he will impact our team this year; unfortunately, there isn’t room for him right now. His changeup improved along with a few ticks in his velocity, but to me, the biggest thing was the arsenal or variety of pitches he was throwing.
A lot of it goes back to the work he did in the offseason, and he did a lot of work.
We were really happy to see Anderson Espinoza back on the mound again, and he had a solid camp. Is he expected to start or come in for relief?
Mike Daly: I think Padres fans of a certain age can also remember when he first came here from Boston. When he became a minor league free agent last year Anderson and his agent reached out to us because of the positive experience.
From a delivery standpoint, we have been working on some of his timing to allow his arm to get out in front on his release more. His stuff, feel, and outstanding makeup are all still there. As I said, he had an opportunity to play for a number of teams, but he wanted to come back here. Hopefully, he pitches well in El Paso and impacts the major league team this year.
As for what he’ll do, we have 16 pitchers going out there, so he’ll probably do a little bit of both. We’ll probably put him in the rotation right now and go from there. The biggest thing is to get him on the mound consistently.
Moises Lugo also looked excellent this Spring – what has been his biggest improvement?
Mike Daly: Moises was another guy who came into camp in phenomenal shape. He pitched in the Arizona Fall League and very well overall in the offseason. He lives close to our complex in the Dominican Republic, and when it was closed, we gave him a key so he could continue to work out, and he did.
We opened the camp on January 16 with many young kids; he was one of the first. He earned the opportunity to go to big league camp and opened a number of eyes. It’s a real credit to his ownership of his career, in both the work he does with us and on his own.
He will give us every reason to look at him when there is an opportunity at the major league level this season.
1B/3B Brandon Dixon OF Preston Tucker*
INF Max Schrock* C/DH Brett Sullivan*/Yorman Rodriguez
* Indicates left-handed hitter
Projected Starters and Closer
LHP Jay Groome RHP Matt Waldron
RHP Anderson Espinoza LHP Tom Cosgrove
RHP Pedro Avila RHP Angel Felipe
RHP Reiss Knehr RHP Moises Lugo
RHP Julio Teheran
MadFriars’ Top 20 Prospects in El Paso: LHP Jay Groome (8) and RHP Pedro Avila (18)
Catch a Rising Star: After totaling just 41 starts over his first five professional seasons due to injury, Jay Groome finally showed he was healthy and what he was capable of in 2022. He made 27 starts across three stops and came away with a 3.44 ERA over 144 innings. He then continued to impress by allowing just two earned runs over 14 spring training innings. The last pitcher off the big league roster, he’ll await his opportunity in El Paso.
Starting Pitching: This will probably be the team’s strength, even though they play in the hitter-friendly PCL. In addition to Groome, the rotation will feature two other pitchers who once ranked among the top 20 prospects in all of baseball, Anderson Espinoza and Julio Teheran. Espinoza was famously traded to the Padres for Drew Pomeranz; after two Tommy John surgeries, he was traded to the Cubs for Jake Marisnick. The talent is still there for Espinoza in the spring, but repeating his delivery and health will be key. Teheran was also a top prospect with the Atlanta Braves and amassed over 20 WAR with them. The now-32-year-old hasn’t had a successful big league season since 2019 but threw well in Spring Training and could get another chance. … Reiss Knehr, 26, pitched well enough for the Padres in 2021 before a disastrous 2022 saw him removed from the El Paso rotation. … The wondrous knuckleball will return to El Paso with Matt Waldron. Will he excel like he did in posting a 2.84 ERA in Double-A, or will he look more like the guy who posted an 8.44 ERA in El Paso? Anyone who can throw a knuckler and a fastball in the low 90s will get an opportunity. … Pedro Avila, 26, led the team with 124 strikeouts in 114 innings last year. Avila was the most likely to pitch deep into games and the most consistent pitcher on the team last year with his potent three-pitch mix. The Padres added him to the 40-man this past offseason.
Bullpen: Playing the shuttle game this year between El Paso and San Diego, the Padres already have three El Paso relievers on their 40-man. The first, Ray Kerr, 28, is a typical flame-throwing lefty with plenty of talent if he can find the plate. He struck out 67 in 44.1 innings last year but also walked 36. … The second is Angel Felipe, 25, who was the closer for San Antonio last year before being promoted to El Paso. Across the two leagues, he struck out 84 in 62 innings. … Tom Cosgrove, 26, was a slight surprise addition to the 40-man roster this past offseason. Between Double-A and Triple-A last year, he had 82 strikeouts in 55.2 innings. Most notably, Cosgrove faced 49 left-handed hitters last season, struck out 45% of them, and only allowed five hits. While Moises Lugo, 24, isn’t yet on the 40-man roster, don’t be surprised if he’s added at some point during the year.
Catching: The Chihuahuas will be led by a tandem behind the plate. Pedro Severino, 29, has been on a major league roster each of the past eight seasons. He has 370 big league games under his belt should the Padres need a call-up. … Brett Sullivan, 29, had quite a World Baseball Classic as the starting catcher for Italy. Sullivan will bounce around other positions as he looks to improve upon his .783 OPS last season.
Infield: Matt Batten, 27, was hopeful of making the Padres before being optioned and can play the infield, outfield, and heck, even pitch if you ask him nicely. He hit .289/.382/.458 for El Paso last season, and in 313 games with the Chihuahuas, he has hit .296/.369/.420. … Brandon Dixon, 31, is somewhat in the same boat, although he doesn’t pitch. After missing time with an injury last year, he came back white hot. He ended up hitting .374/.442/.823 before being called up to the Padres in September. He hit 23 home runs in 51 games between three clubs. Tim Lopes, 28, was outstanding during the Cactus League hitting .360/.393/.480 and is another versatile player who will see time in both the infield and outfield.
Outfield: There will be quite a few names coming in and out of the outfield in El Paso. As of now, the outfield will be anchored by Taylor Kohlwey, Luis Liberato, and free-agent signee Preston Tucker. Kohlwey, 28, was one of the last names to be sent down and was exceptional in 2022, hitting .297/.389/.443 season while playing nearly every game for El Paso. … Liberato, 27, was second on the Chihuahuas last year with 20 home runs and is a plus outfielder that posted a .895 OPS in 99 games last year and earned a call-up to the big club. … Dixon and Sullivan will also likely receive playing time in the outfield. The team should get a boost a few games into the season when a former shortstop named Fernando Tatis Jr. has a two-week stint in April, and Adam Engel makes a rehab appearance of his own.
On the Spot: Reiss Knehr was a valuable starter in Double-A San Antonio in 2021 with a 6-1 record and a 3.90 ERA in 55 innings, which earned him a call-up to San Diego. So far, he’s struggled to regain that level of success in El Paso and has actually performed better in the big leagues, where the altitude does not affect the movement on his sinker as much. This year, he’ll be challenged to demonstrate better control and command of his fastball. The former Fordham Ram was a two-way player in college and is one of the better athletes in the system.
Under the Radar: Relievers Angel Felipe and Tom Cosgrove could easily be this year’s Steven Wilson, unheralded players who earn their spot in the big leagues by performance. Keep an eye on Felipe, who has a huge fastball.