Synopsis: The roster features eight of the top 20 prospects in the system, and the core of this squad won the California League title for Lake Elsinore last year. Headlined by the top position prospect in the system and four of the top six pitchers on opening day rosters, the TinCaps should be positioned for their first playoff appearance since 2017.
Three Strikes with Mike Daly, Padres Associate Director of Player Development:
MadFriars: Jackson Merrill got a lot of attention this spring, but because of injuries last year, he only played 45 games in Low-A. What improvements are the organization hoping to see from him this season?
Mike Daly: From Jackson’s standpoint, from mid-August to March 30, it’s been quite a few months for him. Between the championship team in Lake Elsinore, jumping into the Arizona Fall League – where we thought he did well – to being part of FanFest in San Diego, playing in major league camp, and performing, it’s been quite a ride.
He’s grown a ton, both physically and mentally. Everyone could see he could compete with anyone. The next step in his development was to go to High-A, and we expect he will earn the opportunity to go to Double-A at some point during the season. We are excited to see him with the team we are sending out to Fort Wayne, the group that won the championship in the Cal League, and they will have a ton of fun out there.
Jairo Iriarte looked great in the spring. What impressed you the most about him?
Mike Daly: He turned some heads this spring. He had an outing against Kansas City’s prospects; many still talk about how his fastball was playing. We are excited about where he’s at, particularly improving his fastball command and ability to land off-speed pitches.
It will be a fun staff with him, [Adam] Mazur, and [Victor] Lizarraga putting up numbers and competing against one another.
Brandon Valenzuela came back and looked to be in better shape. What did you see?
Mike Daly: Development is not always linear. Brandon had a few years where he played great and last year was a bump in the road. He came into camp in better shape, and we could see it in his movement behind the plate, where he looked great. He will be in High-A to start the year, and we will not be surprised if he earns his way to Double-A fairly quickly.
Sometimes in players’ careers, some things don’t go as planned, but Brandon used it as fuel to have a tremendous offseason which will benefit him this year.
2023 projected lineup:
2B Nerwilian Cedeño# OF Justin Farmer
SS Jackson Merrill* CF Jakob Marsee*
3B Marcos Castañon OF Joshua Mears
* Left-handed hitter # Switch-hitter
Projected Starters and Key Relievers
RHSP Jairo Iriarte RHP Alan Mundo
MadFriars Top 20 Prospects in Fort Wayne: #1 SS Jackson Merrill; #5 RHP Victor Lizarraga; #9 RHP Adam Mazur; #12 Garrett Hawkins; #13 Jairo Iriarte; #15 Joshua Mears; #17 Brandon Valenzuela; #19 Nerwilian Cedeño
Catch a Rising Star: There was some thought Merrill might bypass Fort Wayne altogether, but the organization ultimately decided – as they have with other key prospects this season – to moderate their aggressive promotion timelines. So Merrill, still just 19 for the first two weeks of the season, will get a chance to show out in the Midwest League. If the left-handed hitter shows he can turn on a few more fastballs while still hitting the ball with authority to all fields, he’ll likely be ticketed for San Antonio by the middle of the year.
Starting Pitching: The rotation should be a real strength for the club, featuring Victor Lizarraga, one of the top performers in the Cal League as an 18-year-old last year, second-round pick Adam Mazur, Garrett Hawkins, and Iriarte. … Mazur, who will turn 22 this month, will be making his professional debut after spending last summer working with the development staff. He has a four-pitch mix that could help him shine against Midwest League batters. … Hawkins struck out more than a third of the hitters he faced in Low-A last year but will be asked to show a more consistent breaking ball this year. … Beyond the big four, returner Ryan Bergert and lefty Bodi Rascon each have upside at the back end of a rotation that will likely feature six arms at times.
Bullpen: While there’s not a single clear-cut closer on the opening day roster, the back end could be anchored by Chris Lincoln and Jose Geraldo, who are both coming back from injuries – multiple in the case of Lincoln. The righty has thrown just 23 innings since the Padres selected him out of UC Santa Barbara in the fifth round in 2019; his fastball/slider combo was electric before shoulder and elbow issues. Geraldo had Tommy John surgery late in the summer of 2021, ending what had been an impressive full-season debut. … Keegan Collett has piled up massive strikeout totals since the Padres selected him 30 rounds behind Lincoln, recording 101 Ks in 58.1 innings. However, he’s also walked nearly 20% of the professional hitters he’s faced. He’ll need to find the zone with his breaking ball enough that hitters have to swing at it. … Aaron Holiday, Alan Mundo, and Adam Smith are among the other names to know in a surprisingly deep bullpen.
Catchers: Brandon Valenzuela had a rough 2022 campaign at the plate for Fort Wayne but still offers plenty of upside as a switch-hitter with strong catch-and-throw skills. The 22-year-old from Hermosillo, Mexico, will share time with Juan Zabala, who has the chance to emerge as a great low-cost acquisition story, and Colton Bender, who has split time between the complex and Lake Elsinore each of the last two years since signing as a 10th-rounder.
Infielders: While Merrill is the clear star, Nerwilian Cedeño will provide a dynamic pairing with him at the top of the order and up the middle defensively. The 21-year-old switch-hitter from Venezuela offers surprising pop and above-average speed offensively but is limited to second base. … Cal product and fifth-rounder Nathan Martorella will get the bulk of the work at first base after impressing in limited action last summer, while Cal League home run champ Marcos Castañon will anchor third base. The 24-year-old showed an impressive eye in his full-season debut but will be asked to show he can do damage against breaking balls without having to sell out to get to his power.
Outfielders: The trio may be one of the best defensive outfields the Padres have sent to an affiliate in years. After a three-stop 2022 campaign, Joshua Mears is back where he began last season, trying to find a consistent way to get to his top-of-the-scale power. The big man has walked, struck out, or homered in 55% of his professional plate appearances, but not yet in the ratio he’d like. … Jakob Marsee is already widely regarded in the organization for his defense in center and discerning eye at the plate. The sixth-rounder out of Central Michigan University will get a chance to show what he can do against the most advanced pitching he’s ever faced. … Justin Farmer was one of 22 players at any level of the minors to reach double-digits in homers and swipe at least 40 bases last year, but his 150 strikeouts limited his overall output. With improved pitch recognition, he could see a big jump in production and surprise people with his impact this year.
On the Spot: Very few people at any level of the game can hit a ball as hard or as far as Joshua Mears. But even fewer have found their way to the big leagues with a career minor league strikeout rate of 39.1%. The Washington state native is a quietly intense competitor on the field who sometimes struggles to shake off bad at-bats but is incredibly easy to root for as a person. He’ll try to consolidate some of the swing changes he’s made over the last 10 months but will need to show he can get his contact skills up to a bare minimum level this year.
Under the Radar: Under the A.J. Preller regime, the Padres have prioritized premium tools at up-the-middle positions in the draft. That makes Martorella and Marsee pretty significant departures. They don’t show the kind of dynamism you’d typically expect of top prospects in the organization, but both have the potential to assert themselves in their full-season debuts.