It was always clear that 2023 wasn’t going to be a big year for rookie contributions for the San Diego Padres. With a big league roster featuring multiple All-Stars on long-term contracts, the opportunities were limited and the list of possible contributors was as well.
Among our preseason Top 20 prospects, only Jay Groome, Jackson Wolf, and Pedro Avila opened the season on an active roster in the upper minors. By the end of the year, the organization had six players who exhausted their rookie eligibility and eight more who got their first taste of the majors. While many of them didn’t come into the season with high expectations, several have put themselves on the radar as future contributors.
Pedro Avila, RHP
The journey for Avila, who came into the year as our #18 prospect in the system, has been anything but direct. More than 1,500 days passed between his big league debut and losing his rookie eligibility. A Tommy John surgery, removal from the 40-player roster, and a bounceback in 2022 before a challenging 2023 campaign in El Paso were just a few of the twists along the way. But when the big league club needed depth in July and had remarkably few other options, Avila got the call and delivered. The 26-year-old allowed just two earned runs over his first 22.1 innings while showcasing an above-average changeup and curve. A ground ball machine, he has pitched his way into the plans for 2024, and could take another step forward if he can balance usage on his four-seam and sinker a bit more.
Drew Carlton, RHRP
Signed as a minor league free agent and given an invitation to spring training after Detroit outrighted him a second time, Carlton came into the year with just enough service time that when he was called up to bolster the Padres’ bullpen between May and June, he crossed over the rookie threshold. The 28-year-old, originally drafted by the Tigers 17 picks behind Matthew Batten, turned in a 4.35 ERA across 20 innings before he hit the IL in July despite rarely getting his fastball above 92. He wound up undergoing elbow surgery in September, clouding his future.
Tom Cosgrove, LHRP
Less than a year after the Padres dropped his release point, Cosgrove was the only player the Padres worried enough about losing in last winter’s Rule 5 draft to add to the 40-player roster. The lefty more than rewarded their confidence with a stellar 2023 campaign. After getting optioned to Triple-A early in spring, the Manhattan College alum – who topped out at number 20 on one of our individual top 30 lists heading into the season – needed just nine shutout outings with El Paso before he earned his call-up in late April. He went on to post a 1.75 ERA that led all MLB rookies with at least 50 innings of work and proved to be elite at inducing weak contact. He held righties to a .131 average, establishing himself as a reliable high-leverage option beyond simply being a lefty specialist.
Brent Honeywell, RHP
If Avila’s journey was circuitous, then Honeywell took a veritable roller coaster before finally logging enough service time to lose his rookie status. Once ranked among the game’s top prospects as he came through the Tampa Bay Rays system, the righty missed all of the 2018 and 2019 seasons with Tommy John surgery and then a broken elbow. He then had another elbow surgery while throwing at their alternate site in 2020. He was finally healthy and looked productive in Triple-A in 2021, but when Tampa tried to get him through waivers, Oakland put in a claim and worked out a trade for cash considerations. Another injury-derailed year later, he signed a big league deal with the Padres in January and finally made his first big league opening day roster. The master of the screwball provided some valuable relief innings to the Padres in the first half of the year, but appeared to be fading in July and the Padres ultimately designated him for assignment after the trade deadline. The White Sox claimed him, but he worked just 5.2 innings before the new organization successfully pushed him through waivers and he finished the year off a 40-player roster in Triple-A. The 28-year-old will look for another opportunity to get back to the big leagues next year, but will likely remain a case of what might have been.
Ray Kerr, LHRP
Acquired from the Mariners organization in the Adam Frazier deal, the hard-throwing lefty reached the big leagues in 2022, but his erratic control seemed to limit his upside even as he struck out a third of the batters he faced in Triple-A. This year, at 29 years old, Kerr found the strike zone about 10% more often, and that led to a significant step forward in production. With a fastball that sits at 96 mph and a curve that induces more than a 50% whiff rate, Kerr cut his walk rate to the single digits. His underlying data suggests the Reno native could get even better results next year, even if he doesn’t refine the control further. With a slight improvement on that front, he could establish himself as a key part of a bullpen that will see significant turnover next year.
Brett Sullivan, C
Acquired in the trade that sent Victor Caratini to Milwaukee at the end of spring training in 2022, Sullivan got an opportunity when Luis Campusano hit the injured list in April. The 29-year-old gave the Padres innings they desperately needed behind the plate until Gary Sanchez signed at the end of May, then did it again when Sanchez and then Campusano went down late in the year. A left-handed hitter, Sullivan managed just a .528 OPS across 86 plate appearances, but he’s been able to post nearly league-average offense in the upper minors dating back to 2018. He has some experience at third base and left field, making him a viable option for a big league club wanting to carry three catchers.
Big League Debuts
Jose Espada, RHP
When he signed out of the American Association last summer, the only guarantee for the former Blue Jays prospect was that he’d get a look while the COVID-decimated High-A TinCaps roster tried to recover. While his fastball sits low-90s, he showed a nasty breaking ball and tenacity, striking out 58 over 40 innings to earn another opportunity in 2023. Working in a swing role for San Antonio and then El Paso, the 26-year-old continued to set hitters down, holding opponents to a .213 average. Eight years after he was drafted out of high school in Puerto Rico, Espada got called up to the Padres for the last week of the season and struck out a pair in his lone inning of work. He’ll hope to get more opportunities in 2024.
Nick Hernandez, RHRP
Signed as a minor league free agent after seven seasons in the Astros organization, Hernandez opened the season in San Antonio before moving up to El Paso at the end of June. The Texas native showed a consistent ability to keep the ball in the zone, which finally earned him his first big league call-up in September. He made two appearances, giving up a pair of runs in each while uncharacteristically walking four in three innings. At 28, his spot on the 40-player roster heading into the offseason has to be considered a tenuous one.
Alek Jacob, LHRP
All he’s done since the Padres drafted him as a 23-year-old in the 16th round of 2021 is make professional hitters look bad. After striking out nearly a third of the batters he faced across three levels last year, Jacob had a minor shoulder injury during spring training and didn’t get this season underway until mid-April. Once he did, the results continued to impress as he held opponents to a .192 average. In July, he got the call to the big leagues and promptly struck out five of the 10 batters he faced over three outings. Then, his highly-taxed right elbow started barking and he wound up on the injured list. He ultimately had elbow surgery in September and is expected to be ready to go when the Padres report to Peoria in February. While he rarely dials it up to even the upper-80s, his unique low-slot delivery and remarkable run on his pitches make him a uniquely challenging match-up on the mound. The Padres will hope he can continue to spin his magic with better health in 2024.
Taylor Kohlwey, 1B/OF
It’s hard to think of a player whose arrival in the big leagues made more people across the organization happy than the 2016 21st-rounder. A lefty from Wisconsin, Kohlwey logged almost 330 games in El Paso before finally getting the call to join the Padres just before his 29th birthday in July. He got only 13 plate appearances and two hits before his cup of coffee ended. While his above-average hit tool has helped Kohlwey avoid strikeouts and draw walks at Triple-A, but doesn’t have the power clubs look for from players limited to first base and left field. If he stays on the 40-player roster through the offseason, he’ll fight for another shot when the season opens.
Eguy Rosario, INF
Last October, having already made his first appearance in the big leagues, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Rosario would be a contributor to the 2023 Padres. Coming off a strong season in El Paso where he showed off a tool set that plays well off the bench, he was exactly the sort of player who profiled with the big league team. But then, after his winter ball program, he broke his leg training at home in the Dominican Republic. After months in a cast, he got back into action during extended spring training, but lingering pain and then a quad strain kept him out of meaningful action until late in July. Once he returned to regular activity, his production was down significantly from last year in El Paso, but he nonetheless got back to San Diego in late September and played in 11 games. At 24, and assuming health, he’ll head into his final option year next spring offering more offensive upside by less positional versatility than fellow infield option Matthew Batten.
Chandler Seagle, C
As it stands, Seagle is the 376th player since 1900 with exactly one career big league plate appearance. The 2017 30th-rounder out of Appalachian State has a career OPS of just .564 in the minors, but his defense behind the plate has graded off the charts. A fixture in San Antonio since 2021, the defensive specialist got to El Paso in August, where he struck out in 38% of his plate appearances. When Luis Campusano sprained his ankle in the last week of the season and left the Padres with only one active catcher on the 40-player roster, Seagle got a call to provide reinforcements. The North Carolina native has been a stalwart for the organization, but there’s a real possibility that his groundout while pinch-hitting for Juan Soto in the penultimate game of the year will be the lone trip he makes to a big league batters box.
Matt Waldron, RHP
When he was included in the trade that brought Mike Clevinger to the Padres in late 2020, Waldron was a standard-issue college righty who hadn’t pitched in a full-season league. But when playing catch in his first minor league camp with the Padres, he broke out a knuckleball. It’s taken him three years to figure out how best to deploy it, but the Nebraska product has reminded us all what a fun, and effective, weapon the pitch can be. While the knuckleball didn’t move as well at elevation in the PCL, he’s gotten better results with it in several stints in the Majors this year. It’s clear that using the pitch more often is his ticket to future big league opportunities. He’ll head into the 2024 campaign with a shot to work in multiple roles for the big league club, while keeping the Bruce Hurst trade tree alive.
Jackson Wolf, LHP
After working his way to Double-A in his first professional season last year, Wolf opened the year back in San Antonio as our 14th overall prospect in the system. He continued to leverage a unique release point and slightly improved velocity to rack up strikeouts, but tended to get hit hard when opponents did connect. With the Padres in the middle of a stretch of 13 games in as many days in July and dealing with injuries, they called Wolf up for a spot start in Detroit. He got through five innings as the offense put up double-digits to claim his first big league victory, but was packaged in the ill-fated trade with Pittsburgh for Rich Hill and Ji Man Choi a week later. Wolf finished the year in Double-A and saw his strikeout rate nosedive. Working in the Pirates organization, he’ll get opportunities to assert himself in the coming years.