Summary: After winning their third California League title in 2022, the Storm could not find lightning in a bottle for a second consecutive season, and finished with a 63-66 record. Despite the lackluster record, most of the Padres’ top prospects, including prized catcher Ethan Salas and righty starter Dylan Lesko, passed through Lake Elsinore.
Graham Pauley began his breakout season at The Diamond, and solid offensive performances from Samuel Zavala and Albert Fabian paced the offensive attack in the first half. Many members of the 2023 draft class featured prominently in the second half.
Overview: We use a simple formula for the awards. Players are considered with whichever team they appeared for the most. 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: Low-A is the first level out of the complex leagues and is the bottom rung of full-season ball, so it can be difficult to gauge how meaningful a prospect’s performance is. Some pundits focus primarily on the raw ability and potential demonstrated while others shift their gaze to the consistency of performance.
We lean toward more of a middle-of-the-road evaluation relying on a couple of questions to filter through it: (1) how old is the prospect compared to the competition; (2) how raw or developed is the prospect heading into full-season ball and (3) is he making the necessary adjustments in terms of mechanics and approach.
2023 Player of the Year: UTIL Graham Pauley (unanimous)
The 2022 13th-rounder had a remarkable breakout campaign that started with the Storm. It ended with the 23-year-old in the middle of the lineup for the Double-A San Antonio Missions in the playoffs.
The former Duke Blue Devil put up fantastic numbers in 62 games for the Storm, hitting .309/.422/.465 with 14 doubles, five triples, and four homers. While his .887 OPS was 43 percent better than the Cal League average, Pauley took another step forward in Fort Wayne, where Pauley connected on 16 homers in just 45 games before being promoted again to San Antonio near the end of the season
While with the Storm, the Georgia native showed an all-fields hitting approach with more gap power than the home run power he flashed with the TinCaps. The left-handed hitting infielder struck out in just 14.5% of his plate appearances and he drew 40 walks – good for a 14.5% walk rate. His K-rate would have been the third-lowest in the Cal League if he had enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title.
The left-handed power he flashed for Fort Wayne moved him from an interesting player with an above-average hit tool to someone who has a chance to be a regular in the big leagues, perhaps as soon as mid-2024. Defensively, Pauley saw most of his time at second and third base, though he logged innings in left field as well. He isn’t an ideal profile at any position, but if he produces like he did across his first full professional season, he’ll find a spot on the field.
Top Prospects Shine: Samuel Zavala was the top position prospect on the opening day Storm roster. While Pauley outshined him, the 19-year-old outfielder certainly was no slouch at the plate. Zavala played in 101 games for the Storm and produced an .871 OPS and a career-high 14 homers. He led the California League with 89 walks, and his 83 runs scored ranked second. He got beat by too many pitches, especially in the first half, leading to a 26.4% K rate, but his power/speed combination makes him an interesting player to watch.
You can’t talk about the 2023 Lake Elsinore Storm without focusing on prized teenage catcher Ethan Salas. The Padres made the highly uncommon choice to start his professional career in Low-A a few days before his 17th birthday. The U.S.-born Venezuelan citizen rewarded them by hitting .267/.350/.487 with nine homers in 48 games with the Storm. Despite the excellent overall numbers, he had a bit of an uneven campaign with Lake Elsinore. He struggled badly in June (.632 OPS) before breaking out in July (1.136 OPS in 19 games). Salas was promoted to Fort Wayne in August, playing in nine games before moving up to the Missions where he also played in nine games before ending the season on the injured list with a right knee sprain.
Others of Note: Outfielder Tyler Robertson showed an intriguing blend of power and speed for the Storm, especially before a hamstring issue sent him to the IL. The former Louisiana-Lafayette star hit .265/.355/.417 with six homers and 23 stolen bases in his first full professional season. When the Storm offense clicked, it was usually because the hyper-athletic Robertson was wreaking havoc at the top of the order. He eventually was promoted to the TinCaps, where he produced a .927 OPS in 17 games. … Homer Bush, Jr. logged 24 of his 44 games after the Padres drafted him in the fourth round for Elsinore. The fleet-footed second-generation Padres farmhand sprayed the ball to all fields and let his speed shine, carrying him to better-than-league-average production despite just a .094 isolated power line. … After a solid start to the 2022 campaign with the Storm but major struggles in Fort Wayne, outfielder/first baseman Albert Fabian returned to the Storm this year. Fabian, 21, finished second on the Storm with 12 homers and slugged .504 before being promoted to the TinCaps once again. … Big first baseman Griffin Doersching posted league-average offensive numbers for the Storm but hit just 11 homers in 93 games. For comparison, the 25-year-old slugger connected on eight homers in just 25 games for Lake Elsinore in 2022 in his pro debut. … At the other end of the physical and age spectrum, 18-year-old Rosman Verdugo showed some flashes, finishing one off the league lead with 31 doubles and swiping 15 bases. But he was often overmatched at the plate and might need to shift to second base defensively. Even if he returns to Elsinore to open the 2024 campaign, he’ll be among the youngest players on the circuit. … Former undrafted free agent Kai Murphy was a solid contributor for the Storm after injuries and promotions allowed him an opportunity to get some additional playing time. The former ASU outfielder/pitcher produced a .796 OPS with 15 doubles and six homers before being promoted to Fort Wayne. Murphy is the son of former Padres interim manager Pat Murphy.
Lake Elsinore Storm Pitcher of the Year: LHP Robby Snelling (unanimous)
The 2022 draft could go down as one of the best in the Padres’ history. The team selected Dylan Lesko 15th overall and later-round picks Jakob Marsee and Pauley asserted themselves as strong prospects in their first season. However, the best player selected in that draft could end up being competitive balance pick Robby Snelling, who exceeded even the most optimistic expectations for him in 2023.
The 19-year-old lefty broke out in Lake Elsinore, going 5-1 with a 1.57 ERA in 11 starts. After abbreviated outings to start his professional career, Snelling went at least five innings in his final nine outings as a member of the Storm. The Nevada native allowed two earned runs or less in 10 of his 11 outings and allowed just three runs in the other. His best work came in June when he walked just one and struck out 27 batters in just 20 innings. Snelling’s fantastic work led to a promotion to Fort Wayne, where he continued to dominate hitters several years older than him. Between Lake Elsinore, Fort Wayne, and finally San Antonio, Snelling went 11-3, with a 1.82 ERA with 118 strikeouts in 103.2 innings. Snelling touched 95 mph and may be able to get another tick or two as he gains strength and experience. He is as polished as any pitcher the Padres have had in the system during the A.J.Preller era.
Others of Note: Lefthander Austin Krob began the season with the Storm and did his best to match Snelling’s production pitch-by-pitch. The former TCU lefthander didn’t win a game with the Storm but he pitched to a 2.34 ERA in 11 games (10 starts). In four May outings, he pitched to a 1.27 ERA over 21.1 innings. His best start as a member of the Storm came on May 30 when he allowed just one earned run in seven innings. During his time with the Storm, Krob had a fantastic 59.2% groundball rate and allowed just a single home run in 50 innings of work. … Henry Baez made his full-season debut in 2023 for the Storm and the 21-year-old shined. Baez appeared in 17 games (14 starts) and went 7-3 with a 3.24 ERA in 83.1 innings. Opposing batters hit just .218 against him. He earned a late-season promotion to Fort Wayne where he pitched to a 7.20 ERA in four starts. After struggling to open the year in Fort Wayne, reliever Ruben Galindo returned to Lake Elsinore for the third straight season and he dominated the opposition. In 28 outings for the Storm, the Colombia native went 2-1 with a 1.02 ERA, striking out 49 batters in 44 innings. He’ll be 23 going into next season, but could carve out a relief role for himself. … After being drafted in 2020 during the pandemic-shortened five-round draft, lefty Jagger Haynes finally made his pro debut in Lake Elsinore in 2023. The North Carolina native battled blister and shoulder issues this season and threw just 25.1 innings for the Storm, pitching to a 3.91 ERA. Haynes was named as part of the Padres’ contingent that was sent to the Arizona Fall League but did not appear in a game. … Fellow Tarheel State native Isaiah Lowe only logged three outings for Elsinore before shoulder issues sidelined him for the rest of the year, but the 20-year-old righty impressed in his brief showing. Another product of the 2022 draft class, Lowe showed a lively fastball and an out-pitch with his breaking ball while recording 17 strikeouts in his 11.1 innings of work.
Top Position Prospect: C Ethan Salas (unanimous)
Ethan Salas opened the year as our number three prospect. Suffice it to say, he could end up ranked much higher. Initially, the Padres appeared to ease Salas into professional baseball, rotating him between catcher and designated hitter, typically giving him a day off or two each week. However, Salas’ red-hot July led to a pair of promotions that saw the teenager end up in San Antonio at the season’s end. Salas’ resilience and the ability to make adjustments within an at-bat were impressive to watch during his time with the Storm. Even at his young age, he was able to control a game on both sides of the ball and never looked out of place despite his youth. While he still has plenty to work on to turn his immense talent and advanced approach into consistent performance at the highest levels, he is already one of the top prospects in the game.
Top Pitching Prospect: RHP Dylan Lesko (Kevin Charity, Ben Davey, David Jay, Mark Wilkens); LHP Robby Snelling (John Conniff).
After making his pro debut in abbreviated outings in the desert, Dylan Lesko spent some time with the Storm where he impressed with his big-time stuff. Armed with a fastball that touched 96 mph, a ridiculous changeup, and a breaking ball that is underrated, Lesko showed flashes of brilliance. In an outing on August 12, Lesko carved up the Visalia Rawhide in a four-inning start in which he didn’t give up a hit after the first batter of the game. Overall, Lesko pitched to a 4.50 ERA in 16 innings for the Storm before earning a promotion to Fort Wayne to end the season. While Salas might be the best position player prospect in the system, it seems as if Lesko will be the Padres’ top pitching prospect heading into 2024. Should anyone eclipse him, it will be Snelling, whose very good three-pitch mix and intense competitive approach on the mound have created very lofty expectations heading into his second professional campaign.
You can read each of our level-by-level wrap ups for the 2023 season here.