Summary: Coming off a college-heavy 2022 draft class and a 2023 international signing period in which they spent almost all their money on Ethan Salas, the Padres’ 2023 complex team was notably short on showcase names for most of the season. Dylan Lesko made a brief cameo after finally completing his Tommy John surgery rehab, and this year’s first-rounder, Dillon Head, impressed on his way through the Valley of the Sun. But players at least 20 years old logged 55% of the team’s plate appearances and almost 60% of the innings thrown.
While the Padres plated the fourth-highest run total in the 17-team league, they did so with below-average team power output. They surrendered almost seven runs per game on the mound, though they were in the upper third of the circuit in strikeouts. Not that it’s at all relevant, but the club finished 30-26.
Overview: We use a simple formula for the awards. Players are considered with whichever team they appeared for the most. So, while Lesko was clearly the most talented pitcher to toe the mound in Peoria, and 2023 draftee Homer Bush, Jr. lit up the complex, you’ll need to wait until the Lake Elsinore review to see a discussion of them. For the top prospect, we consider not just what the player did this year but his age and potential impact in the major leagues.
Level: The changes to the timing of the draft and domestic roster sizes and the elimination of short-season leagues have had far greater impacts on the lowest level of stateside professional baseball than just shifting the name to the poorly-acronymed Arizona Complex League. Because play began more than a month before the draft, the ACL club featured a significant wave of older international pitchers making their professional debuts after signing in late 2022 or early 2023. The newly configured levels of the minors have incentivized organizations – even those not as prone to aggressive promotions as the Padres – to quickly move high-end college position players to full-season ball. Long-time scouts are still trying to recalibrate to the new level of competition.
Regarding the experience, baseball in the “Fire League” is unlike anything else in U.S. professional sports. Games are rarely played in front of more than a dozen people who aren’t team employees or players’ family members. Game time temperatures were well above 100 degrees for more than a month straight this summer, and even with the pitch clock, games often lumber well past three hours. The ACL will test even the most hearty fan’s commitment.
Player of the Year: 1B Romeo Sanabria
Sanabria is a big-bodied left-handed hitter drafted out of Florida JuCo powerhouse Indian River in the 18th round in 2022 who made just 15 plate appearances in his draft campaign. Originally selected as a catcher, his size and the organization’s positional depth pushed him to first base in his first instructional league. After returning to the Peoria Sports Complex for extended spring training, the 21-year-old demolished the ACL with a league-best 1.060 OPS. Sanabria finished the summer with eight homers in 50 games. Using a relatively short swing for a player his size, he hit the ball hard to all fields as he logged the top slugging percentage on the circuit. While his .444 average on balls in play won’t be sustainable at higher levels, it was fueled by frequent loud contact. The organization opted to keep him in the desert for the full season, only moving him up to Lake Elsinore for a few games at the end of the year. His positional limitations and age will keep him off of most prospect rankings, but the big man has an approach that will play at higher levels, and he’ll get a chance to prove his stellar 2023 campaign wasn’t a fluke.
Others of Note: Coming into the year, catcher Lamar King and first baseman/outfielder Daniel Montesino figured to be the primary players to watch on the roster. A series of injuries, including a concussion, limited King to just 84 plate appearances and only 12 games behind the plate. The physical 19-year-old posted a .324/.440/.397 line, as he struggled to barrel pitches with frequency. The club is still very bullish on his offensive upside, but he didn’t get near the repetitions behind the plate he needed this year. His bat may be able to carry him if he were to move to a corner position, but that would drag down his overall ceiling. … Montesino stayed healthy but had a truly disappointing campaign. The 19-year-old Venezuelan, who missed all of 2022 after Tommy John Surgery, regressed physically and was regularly overmatched in his stateside debut. He finished the year with a .248/.329/.324 line, going homerless across 165 plate appearances. While his 25% strikeout rate wasn’t a red flag, he didn’t hit many balls hard all year. … Cuban shortstop Yendry Rojas, one of the headliners of the Padres’ 2022 international class, had an equally lackluster campaign, hitting just .222 with a paltry .074 isolated power number from the left side. While there’s a chance for more strength, the 18-year-old’s thin frame limits his physical upside. Rojas logged most of his time at shortstop, but his toolset will likely require a shift to second in the long run.
Pitcher of the Year: RHP Braden Nett
Nett has a big fastball and quality secondary offerings that allowed him to hold opposing batters to just a .187 average. He also has a high-effort delivery that led to 25 walks in 27.1 ACL innings to inflate his ERA to 4.28. The 21-year-old didn’t throw a competitive pitch in two years at St. Charles (Missouri) Community College because of injuries but got healthy enough to log innings in the MLB Draft League and draw enough attention to sign for $10,000 as an undrafted free agent in 2022. He logged just three innings that summer, so he came into the season with little high-level experience. He impressed from the outset in 2023, running his fastball into the upper 90s with some frequency and showing the ability to shape his sweeper/slider effectively. Nett didn’t pitch more than three innings in an outing until August but delivered one of the season’s best performances with six hitless frames in the first game after the organization upped his workload. His success – and the organization’s short list of pitchers with innings to throw – inspired the Padres to send Nett to the showcase Arizona Fall League, where he more than held his own.
Others of Note: In August 2022, Zack Qin became the Padres’ first signee from mainland China. A product of MLB’s expanding academy program, the lefty, who turned 18 in July, showed some feel for spin but doesn’t yet have the velocity to consistently get even low-level hitters out. The 6-foot-2 hurler should add strength as he matures, though his arm speed isn’t as explosive as other young pitchers who profile higher. It wouldn’t be a shock if Qin spent another summer in the desert to consolidate some of the advances he made in his first exposure to the pro game. … Jhosep Chirinos, who signed a few months before his 18th birthday in 2022, showed big stuff but little feel in his stateside debut. The 19-year-old struck out 33 batters in 15.2 innings but walked 28 while posting a 2.74 WHIP. The 6-foot-4 righty gets impressive extension from his max effort delivery but will have to find a way to rein it in enough to land more pitches in the zone. … Lefty Luis Gutierrez was one of the team’s headline signees out of Venezuela way back in 2019, but quickly developed the yips and didn’t come stateside for the first time until 2022. Now 20, Gutierrez worked a career- and team-high 40 innings. While his 7.65 ERA was unsightly, he broke out a new change-up that dazzled in front of Trackman in the bullpen but was hesitant to bring into games. If he can leverage the new offering consistently, he could carve out a role as a relief option going forward.
Those we didn’t see: The Padres kept most of their most intriguing pitching draftees out of competition at the complex for the second consecutive year. High school arms Kannon Kemp, Blake Dickerson, Dane Lais, and 11th-round college wildcard Carson Montgomery did not log a single inning of competitive action. Instead, the team opted to work with them in controlled environments to identify development plans. (Would-be two-way player Tucker Musgrove had Tommy John surgery just after signing, taking another arm off the active roster in Peoria.) If the draft continues to happen in mid-July rather than the natural time the day after the College World Series in June, expect the Padres to continue this pattern.
Top Position Prospect: OF Dillon Head
The Padres’ first-round pick out of a Chicago-area high school in July’s draft, Head spent two weeks in action before moving quickly to Lake Elsinore to end the year. The fleet-footed outfielder, who didn’t turn 19 until after the season, collected hits in his first nine professional games and impressed with a strong approach and high-quality contact during his brief desert showcase. He’s exactly the high-upside, hit-first, up-the-middle athlete the Padres have long prioritized in the draft and compares favorably to former first-rounder Xavier Edwards at the same stage because he has more room to fill out and add strength. Head has plenty to build on in his first winter as a professional and should be a top attraction in the Padres’ system in 2024.
Top Pitching Prospect: RHP Braian Salazar
Salazar, 18, only logged three appearances and eight innings in the ACL before injuries shut him down, but the 18-year-old lefty stood out as the most talented pitcher in the group. With a typical pitcher’s frame, already solid velocity, and an easy delivery, Salazar showed why the club invested a a six-figure signing bonus for him on the first day of the 2022 signing period. The Venezuelan is obviously a long, long way from the big leagues, and his health will be an important storyline in February, but on a relatively shallow roster, it’s easy to dream on his long-term potential.
You can read each of our level-by-level wrap ups for the 2023 season here.