With the full-season minors arriving at the midway point and the first major wave of player movement rolling across the system, the MadFriars team takes the opportunity to look at top performers, risers, and those who still have some concerns to address.
El Paso Chihuahuas
Top Pitching Performer: In not the most forgiving pitching environment, right-hander Anderson Espinoza, 25, had a 5.79 ERA in 13 starts and 56 innings pitched, the best among pitchers with 10 or more starts. As we wrote yesterday, when he’s on, he can still get impressive results even after a pair of Tommy John surgeries sapped the premium velocity he had as a teenager. However, with a 58:40 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the command can go up and down. Still, he’s given up only six home runs and has allowed 58 hits in 56 innings pitched, also significantly lower than his fellow starters.
Top Position Player Performer: Alfonso Rivas, may not be the sexiest pick as a 26-year-old minor league free agent signee, but aside from the week-long bender Fernando Tatis, Jr. went on early in the year, the Chula Vista native’s .995 OPS trailed only Preston Tucker‘s 1.126. Rivas pounded out 23 extra-base hits in 53 games to get the nod over Tucker, who only played in 44 of the Chihuahua’s 75 games. The left-handed Rivas is primarily a first baseman but has played a little in the outfield corners and had a brief call-up already this year with the Padres.
Biggest Riser: On a largely veteran roster, reliever Ray Kerr, 28, has cut his WHIP from 1.83 last year to 1.34 and struck out 28 batters in 22.1 innings against only 10 walks for a 3.63 ERA. The slim 6-foot-3 lefty has a big fastball that has gotten up to 102 and has worked on attacking the zone more this season. The increased reliability has already earned Kerr a pair of call-ups to help the big league bullpen and he’ll likely get more opportunities down the stretch.
Looking for a bounce-back: Jay Groome, 24, came into the season looking to build off of a solid half season with the Chihuahuas in 2022 when he posted a 3.16 ERA in 10 starts after the Padres acquired him. A strong spring training nearly earned him a spot with the big league club, but after getting optioned out late, he’s had a nightmare first half with a 1-6 record and 9.73 ERA. Last year PCL opponents hit .267 against him in 51.1 innings, while this season, it .333 in 65.2 innings. His command has completely gone off the rails, with his walk rate ballooning from 3.33 per nine innings in El Paso last year to 7.40 this year. The 6-foot-6 lefty was our number-eight prospect coming into the season, and the big club could have desperately used innings from him this summer. He’ll look to get back on track in El Paso instead. (John Conniff)
San Antonio Missions
Top Pitching Performer: With 82 strikeouts and a 1.04 WHIP across 67 innings, Jackson Wolf has lived up to his draft position as a fourth-round pick in the 2021 draft. The 6-foot-7 West Virginia product gives a deceptive delivery from multiple low-slot release points, a joy to watch for Missions fans, and undoubtedly a source of frustration for opposing batters. The 24-year-old focused on adding strength to boost velocity on his fastball over the winter, but the pitch still sits around 91 mph in most contests. Wolf has shaved more than a walk per nine innings off his rate from Fort Wayne last year while striking out just over 30% of the batters he faces. Wolf only profiles as a back-end starter, but with few viable options ahead of him in the system, might be called upon if the big league club continues to founder.
Top Position Player Performer: After his first 37 games, Tirso Ornelas was hitting just just .180/.315/.279 as he returned for a second pass at the Texas League. Since then, however, he’s be a different player, posting a .366/.446/.618 while hitting the ball in the air with more authority to all fields. He has a team-leading nine home runs, and he’s pushed his OPS for the season up to .823, good for a wRC+ of 119. The 23-year-old, who appeared in the very back end of several of our top 30 lists coming into the year after failing to progress over the last four years, will look to carry his blazing momentum into the second half and reassert himself as a future big league contributor.
Biggest Riser: One could argue Ornelas belongs in this spot as well, but a case can also be made for Ripken Reyes as the Missions’ top position player performer of the first half. Reyes, who spent some time on the Development List in April, leads the Missions with a .430 OBP and .829 OPS, providing a pesky leadoff presence in the San Antonio lineup. The 26-year-old is primarily a second baseman, but has added some positional versatility in the outfield over the last year. While it’s hard to see a path to a big league job for the University of San Diego product, he’s doing everything in his control to put himself in position.
Looking for a bounce-back: It feels like a long time since Efrain Contreras was one of the top young arms in the Padres organization. After the pandemic wiped out the 2020 minor league season, the Juarez, Mexico’s elbow blew out during instructs. He missed the 2021 season following surgery and spent 2022 slowly finding himself as he recovered, making 2023 a key season in his career. Working in Contreras’ favor is his talent, significant enough that he was protected on the Padres’ 40-player roster coming off Tommy John. On paper, his 4-4 record, 5.18 ERA, and 72:29 strikeout-to-walk ratio this year aren’t disastrous, but they aren’t the sort of numbers that will get the righty to the next step. He’ll have to find something in the second half that’s closer to the stuff that earned him 121 strikeouts against 32 walks in 109.2 innings for Fort Wayne in 2019. (Mark Wilkens)
Fort Wayne TinCaps
Top Pitching Performer: Adam Mazur has posted the best ERA and WHIP among all pitchers who have thrown 45 inning or more in the Midwest League, which is certainly one way to get noticed. The Padres’ second-round pick last year, Mazur made his professional debut in April after being held out of games last summer. He missed two weeks with a virus, but came back as arguably the most effective pitcher in the Midwest League. Since May 1, Mazur has thrown 41 innings over eight starts, allowing just six earned runs on 29 hits with just seven walks allowed. That is good for a 1.32 ERA and 0.88 WHIP. The one area to quibble with the 22-year-old’s performance is that he has struck out only 21% of opponents, but he’s shown the ability to get swings and misses. Mazur has been sitting 93-95 mph with his fastball throughout the season, and now is relying more on his slider in recent outings. The ability to locate it both in and out of the strike zone as part of a four-pitch mix gives Mazur a high floor, the reason he entered the year in our top 10.
Top Position Player Performer: Nearly three months into the season, Nathan Martorella leads the TinCaps in doubles, slugging percentage and OPS, which sits at .851. Beyond that, he is tied for the league lead with 12 home runs and paces the circuit with 49 RBI thanks in part to a slash line of .344/.440/.688 with runners in scoring position. He has a 142 wRC+ for a team that has often struggled for consistent hitting. The 22-year-old is on pace to break the TinCaps’ single-season home run record held by Tatis should he hang around the Midwest League and is walking almost as often as he strikes out. Over the last three months, Martorella has gone from a nice college bat, to a legitimate first-base prospect. The offensive bar is high at the position, thus only the Rays’ Kyle Manzardo ranks among the top 100 prospects in the game, but Martorella is showing potential to emerge as a big league regular.
Biggest Riser: Jairo Iriarte might be the easiest answer in this entire exercise. We had the hard-throwing righty as the system’s #13 prospect going into the season. While he led Lake Elsinore with 109 strikeouts last year, he also posted a 5.12 ERA while fighting to find both command and control with his arsenal which includes a fastball that can get into the upper-90s and an above-average slider and change. The only problem was consistently locating his pitches. This year, he was the talk of spring training. While his 11.2% walk rate has stayed a bit higher than hoped, he is striking out a career-high 29.7% of batters, good for second in the Midwest League. while holding opponents to just a .210 average. That all adds up to a 2.95 ERA thus far. The 21-year-old has continued to improve as the season rolls on, posting his best month so far in June by allowing five runs over four starts. The extra few miles on his fastball have generated more swing-and-misses, and while he does still miss out of the zone, he’s reworked his slider into more of a sweeper, making it difficult to lay off. Irarte has seen his stock rise over the last few months from a lottery ticket to a player with enough talent to one day become a #2 or 3 on a big-league staff.
Looking for a bounce-back: Victor Lizarraga came into the season at number five in our rankings. He was coming off dominating the Cal League to the tune of a 3.43 ERA and 95 strikeouts over 94.1 innings as an 18-year-old. The expectations were extremely high that, in his second offseason with the club, he would add muscle to fuel an uptick in velocity. So far, that spike hasn’t arrived. His change-up, which generated so many swing-and-misses in Low-A, is still an effective pitch, but hitters in High-A have had better success laying off of it and sitting on his fastball while he works to develop a consistent breaking pitch. Lizarraga is at a career-low 6.22 K/9 this season with an ERA over a point higher than last year’s. While this does present a warning sign, there are plenty of factors to show this is simply a teenager adjusting to a new level. While his strikeouts are down, his walk rate of 2.53 is the lowest in his career. His FIP (4.02) and xFIP (4.23) are also the lowest of his career, suggesting that he is getting unlucky more than that he is pitching badly. Lastly, his ERA has improved every month from 6.75 to 4.50 to 3.66 in June. Lizarraga still has the talent to finish this year strong and put his name back in the mix for a top 10 spot. (Ben Davey)
Lake Elsinore Storm
Top Pitching Performer: We had Robby Snelling ranked as the number six prospect coming into the year before he’d ever thrown a professional pitch. The supremely athletic lefty played linebacker and quarterback in high school while also pitching in the spring. When the Padres drafted him in the competitive balance round last year, he decided to forgo college. So far, it appears Snelling made the right call. The 19-year-old dominated the California League with a 1.57 ERA that is more than half a run better than anyone who’s thrown 50 innings to earn a promotion this week. Aside from his first two starts when he was on a reduced pitch count, Snelling pitched at least five innings in his last nine starts and had didn’t allow a run in five outings. He struck out nearly 30% of the batters he faced, and his K/BB ratio of 4.54 was the best in the circuit. Coming into the season, it seemed Snelling was destined to spend most, if not all, of the year in Lake Elsinore, but his sheer dominance of the Cal League necessitated a greater challenge. The organization hasn’t seen a pitcher this dominant in Lake Elsinore since MacKenzie Gore in 2019.
Top Position Player Performer: Infielder Graham Pauley was solid in his pro debut with the Storm last year, but he elevated his performance this year and was a key cog to the Storm’s offensive attack. The former Duke infielder hit .309/.422/.465 with four homers, 14 doubles, five triples, and 36 RBI with a 14.5% K rate that is the fourth-lowest in the league. His 145 wRC+ ranks as the fourth-best in the Cal League. Like Snelling, Pauley will start the second half of the season in Fort Wayne, where he should play all over the field, perhaps settling in at second base. While Pauley hasn’t flashed home run power yet, he hits the ball to all fields and makes consistent contact.
Biggest Riser: Coming into the season, there wasn’t much hype around left-handed pitcher Austin Krob, but he opened eyes with his consistent performance. At times, the former 12th-rounder battles command, but he has a good two-seam fastball that he pairs with a slider and a changeup. If it weren’t for the pure domination of Snelling, Krob certainly would have attracted more hype. Krob has pitched to a 2.34 ERA, trailing only Snelling among pitchers who have thrown 50 innings. He averaged 10.62 strikeouts per nine innings and kept the ball out of the air. His 59.2% groundball rate was the second-highest in the league. In 50 innings, he allowed just one homer. Krob earned a promotion to Fort Wayne, where he is expected to make his TinCaps debut on Wednesday. He may not have the pure stuff or athleticism that Snelling has but he has the makings of a lefthander with above-average stuff.
Looking for a bounce-back: Hulking first baseman Griffin Doersching didn’t have a bad first half by any means, but it hasn’t really gone as expected. Doersching’s offensive output has been slightly above league average, but the power he showed last year hasn’t been there. In 2022, the 24-year-old slugger hit eight homers in 106 plate appearances. This season, the former Oklahoma State and Western Kentucky first baseman has connected on just five in 236 plate appearances. Doersching has reduced his strikeout rate this year, but he’s still punching out in 30% of his plate appearances. For a slugger, that’s tolerable, but Doersching hasn’t been that type of hitter. With Albert Fabian and Graham Pauley promoted to Fort Wayne, Doersching, Samuel Zavala, and 17-year-old Ethan Salas should headline the heart of the Storm order that will look to make the playoffs in the second half. (Kevin Charity)