Summary: The TinCaps were playoff-bound for the first time since 2017 and clinched on the final day of the season, finishing 37-29 in the second half and 69-63 overall.
Throughout the season, nearly every top prospect made their way through Fort Wayne, even though, for most, it was a brief stop. For the first time in the last 20 years, the TinCaps only had one pitcher throw more than 70 innings, with Victor Lizarraga pitching 94.2 innings. Even the three position players who appeared in over 100 games ended the season promoted to Double-A. Still, the top six prospects in the organization and 13 of our top 20 prospects spent time this year as a TinCap
Overview: We use a simple formula for the awards. Whichever team the player appeared for most is where he is eligible. 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: High-A is the second level out of the complexes. This is usually the first time both hitters and pitchers notice a huge difference between college and pro ball. Pitchers can no longer get away with only one strong offering, and while hitters realize that all pitchers can throw strikes, many will try to exploit the hitters’ weakness at the plate. As such, this level often has a sizable learning curve, especially with younger players. It is not uncommon to see a young player – even one familiar with playing in the cold – struggle through the first month and then surge in the summer.
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?
The Midwest League always played as a fair league, slightly skewing toward pitchers. As opposed to in years past, the new schedule instituted in 2021, almost 70% of games were played against the same five teams.
Player of the Year: Center Fielder Jakob Marsee (unanimous)
While Jakob Marsee has made a name for himself post-season in the Arizona Fall League, his breakout campaign started early this year with Fort Wayne. Despite being promoted for the last month of the season, he still finished the campaign leading the Midwest League in both runs (91) and OBP (.413) and finished in the top three in stolen bases (41) and walks (87). Among players with more than 40 walks, he was the only player to have more walks than strikeouts. At the time of his promotion, Marsee had a 142 wRC+
As his stats imply, the 22-year-old is a table-setter who started to develop more pop as the former high school running back became more adept at recognizing pitches he can pull. In his first full professional season, he hit 13 home runs with the TinCaps and three more in San Antonio, blowing past his three-year career totals at Central Michigan University.
Others of Note: While many prospects appeared in Fort Wayne, perhaps the biggest contributor didn’t qualify. Our Lake Elsinore player of the year Graham Pauley tore up the MWL. Over a 45-game stretch, he hit .300/.358/.629 with a more home runs than any player in the league over his tenure in Fort Wayne. Despite the short stay, he ended the season tied for the team lead with 16 home runs. … He shared the top spot with Nathan Martorella, who lead the team in extra-base hits and RBI while posting a .851 OPS. Martorella, who logged occasional time in left field but profiles exclusively as a first baseman, walked at an impressive 15.1% clip while striking out only 18% of the time as he posted one of the top 10 offensive seasons for Single-A first basemen…. Among players with at least 300 plate appearances, Marcos Castañon led the team with a .287 BA and .843 OPS and hit 13 home runs before being promoted to San Antonio for the last two months of the season.The 24-year-old infielder cut his strikeout rate while stepping up a level for the second straight year. … Switch-hitting catcher Brandon Valenzuela had a strong bounce-back showing for Fort Wayne in the first half of the season. The Hermosillo, Mexico, native, who turned 23 after the season, hit .279/.372/.456 across 39 Midwest League games while throwing out 30% of would-be base stealers. Valenzuela saw his production drop off and then hit the IL after he was promoted in late June, but re-established that he has the tools to be a solid two-way catcher. … Middle infielders Nerwilian Cedeño and Kervin Pichardo each had stretches during the year when they showed upside. Cedeño, a switch-hitter, was sidelined for part of the season by an arm injury for the second straight year. However, when he was on the field, he flashed a compact, whippy swing that could make an impact. Pichardo, six months older than his teammate, got spotty playing time through the first half, but posted an OPS over 1.000 across the final six weeks of the season as he cut his strikeout rate and improved his walk rate.
Pitcher of the Year: RHP Adam Mazur
After being drafted in the second round of the 2022 draft, Adam Mazur didn’t throw his first pitch in an affiliate uniform until April of this year, jumping straight to High-A. The University of Iowa alum picked up where he left off in college. He pitched to a 4-1 record and a 2.02 ERA over 11 starts with the TinCaps. His 1.03 WHIP led all starters who threw eight or more games, and his nearly five strikeouts per walk were one of the best in the league.
With Iowa, Mazur was peaking at 99 mph early in the season before barely scratching 90 mph in his final few starts. However, for the Padres organization, he has been consistently in that 94-95 range, reaching for 97 when needed. At 6-foot-2, 180 lb, he still has the frame to add muscle and a mile or two on his fastball. He has two other strong pitches in his slider and changeup, with the ceiling of a mid-rotation starter.
Others of Note: Ryan Bergert, 23, lowered his ERA from 5.84 in Fort Wayne in 2022 to 2.63 in 2023. His 75 strikeouts before moving up to Double-A led the team, and he was in the top 10 in the league. Bergert is now three years removed from Tommy John surgery and looks fully recovered. … Victor Lizarraga was again one of the younger players in the league at 19. He scuffled throughout the season but finished strong, allowing just three earned runs over his last four starts and 23 innings pitched. The San Diego native hasn’t seen an uptick in his velocity since coming into the organization, but his change-up is a plus offering. … Carter Loewen also returned from TJ surgery and kept improving, finishing the season with a 2.30 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 31.1 innings in Fort Wayne. He held batters to a .180 batting average against over the last month of the season, working in both multi-inning and closer roles. … Lefty Bodi Rascon, originally an over-slot day three draftee out of high school in Texas in 2019, got his best career results, posting a 3.59 ERA across 62.2 innings before missing the final month on the IL. The 22-year-old struck out 63 and held opponents to a .219 average.
Top Position Prospect: Jackson Merrill (unanimous)
Merrill is one of the Top 10 prospects in all of baseball, so this was an easy choice. While his overall numbers in Fort Wayne do not jump off the page, his overall talent was apparent. After a slow start that saw him post a .585 OPS in April as he battled multiple illnesses, before exploding with a 1.144 OPS in July and a trip to the 2023 All-Star Futures Game. Merrill’s most significant improvement this year was demonstrating that he could pull the ball with power while staying in the middle of the field at shortstop. He only struck out in 12.3% of his plate appearances, which is already no small feat, but from June 30 to July 20, Merrill struck out once in 57 plate appearances.
Top Pitching Prospect: RHP Jairo Iriarte (unanimous)
While it was a trendy pick to call Iriarte a “breakout” candidate heading into the 2023 season, in 2022, he was also in the top five of the Cal League with 109 strikeouts. This year, he did more to catch people’s attention. He rode an upper-90s fastball and sometimes-devastating sweeper to a 3.10 ERA and more than 11 strikeouts per nine innings. He also walked more than 10% of the Midwest League hitters he faced. From a pure talent perspective, his rising fastball is as good as anyone’s in the system; it’s just how consistent his secondary pitches can become. The organization had him work out of the bullpen following a promotion to Double-A before ultimately having him finish the year with three starts in which he posted a 24:14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in just 13.2 innings. Now on the 40-player roster, the club will have an interesting choice to make on whether to get him to the majors quickly in the bullpen or to see if he can add enough feel to work through six innings on a regular basis.
You can read each of our level-by-level wrap-ups for the 2023 season here.