Summary: The 2023 season was a tale of two teams for the Missions. The first half we have featured many minor league free agents – some with extensive league experience – who found their way to the San Diego Padres organization and earned the club a spot in the playoffs with a solid first half. The second was highlighted by some of the top prospects in San Diego’s system – led by Jackson Merrill, Jakob Marsee, Jairo Iriarte, and Adam Mazur. We’ve already covered those players in the Fort Wayne wrap-up.
In his first year after coming to the Padres organization from the Boston system, Manager Luke Montz deserves much credit for getting a disparate group of people to play together and embrace his mantra of “being where your feet are.”
Level: The jump to Double-A is often the hardest in professional baseball before reaching the big leagues. Some top prospects have jumped straight from the Texas League to the majors, though many still get additional exposure in Triple-A. At this level, hitters regularly face pitchers who can locate multiple pitches consistently and defenses that regularly turn even difficult balls in play into outs. The diversity of ages, abilities, and backgrounds makes it one of the most interesting levels to watch and, where on-page stats aren’t always the whole story. The Texas League tends to be slightly friendly to offenses, but the Missions’ home ballpark, Wolff Stadium, is very friendly to pitchers.
Player of the Year: RF/LF Tirso Ornelas (John Conniff, David Jay, Kevin Charity, Ben Davey, Mark Wilkens)
INF/OF Ripken Reyes (Conniff and Charity voted for Reyes as the co-player of the year with Ornelas).
Tirso Ornelas, 23, put up the best numbers of his six-year career in his second go-around with the Missions this year with a .284/.381/.474 slash line in 312 plate appearances. The 23-year-old logged 28 extra-base hits before getting promoted to Triple-A. With the Missions, he kept his strikeout rate at 18.9% and posted the second-highest walk rate of his career at 14.9%.
However, the biggest part of his success may have been accepting the challenge from the Missions coaching staff of picking up his work ethic and using his legs more to get the ball in the air and increase his power. After hitting .188 and .233 in April and May, his work paid off with a blistering June when he put up a .353/.411/.598 line.
Ripken Reyes, 26, led the team in on-base percentage at .408 and finished sixth in the Texas League in the same category while getting plunked 49 times and setting a minor league record. The former USD Torero and Cal Bear began the year on the development squad and worked his way onto the team and the starting lineup. Defensively, he spent most of his time at second base but also saw time at shortstop, third and first base, and both corner outfield positions. (John Conniff)
Pitcher of the Year: Jackson Wolf (Jay, Davey & Wilkens)
Lake Bachar (Conniff & Charity split between Wolf and Bachar).
Jackson Wolf, 24, began his second full professional season in the Missions’ rotation. He started 18 games, going 8-9 with a 4.08 ERA, which culminated in Wolf making his major league debut with the pitching-depleted Padres, winning his only start against the Detroit Tigers on the road. In 88.1 Texas League innings, he struck out 105 batters, good for the fifth-highest K/9 (10.7) and the fifth-lowest BB/9 (2.24) in the league. His 29.7% K-rate ranked fourth in the circuit.
Wolf’s positive development led to him being the centerpiece of the Padres’ ill-fated deadline deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Wolf finished the year with Double-A Altoona, where he pitched to a 4.25 ERA in eight starts.
After a miserable 2022 campaign, Lake Bachar embraced a full-time move to the bullpen and had his best season as a professional. The Wisconsin native pitched in a career-high 42 games and went 5-1 with a 2.69 ERA. In 60.1 innings, Bachar struck out 69 batters, and opposing batters hit just .239 against him. After a rough April (8.10 ERA in eight outings), Bachar pitched to a 1.59 ERA across the final 50.1 innings for the Missions. While at 28, he may be too old to be considered a prospect, a pitcher with his success in 2022 has a chance to crack a big league roster at some point. Bachar is a minor league free agent this winter, so the next professional pitch he throws may come as a member of a different organization.
Others of note: The Padres signed right-hander Raul Brito to a minor league deal after he spent six seasons in the Marlins organization. In 17 games for the Missions, Brito went 5-1 with a 2.68 ERA in 17 games, functioning as a multi-inning reliever. He racked up 52 strikeouts in 40.1 innings for the Missions. … After starting early in the season, the Padres moved righty Efrain Contreras to the bullpen. His results as a reliever were certainly more encouraging. The 23-year-old pitched to a 5.37 ERA as a starter, but as a reliever, he improved that mark to a 3.81 ERA. In 28.1 innings for the Missions out of the ‘pen, Contreras struck out 33 batters. Contreras is also a minor league free agent this winter and could be somewhere else next spring. … Righty relief specialist Alek Jacob didn’t join San Antonio until a few weeks into the season. Still, once the soft-tosser got there, he quickly made up for lost time. The 25-year-old, a 16th-round pick out of Gonzaga in 2021, appeared in 18 games for San Antonio, posting a 1.32 ERA and striking out 32 across 27.1 innings. While he works in the mid-80s with his fastball, Jacob earned his way to the big leagues by early July and worked three scoreless innings before an elbow injury landed him on the IL. His unique delivery puts huge torque on his arm, so any arm problems are especially concerning. Still, if he arrives in Peoria healthy next spring, he could provide valuable innings for the big league club. (Kevin Charity)
Top Position Prospect: Tirso Ornelas
At 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, the left-handed hitting Tijuana native has been a fan favorite since he signed in 2016. After his strong campaign, the organization agreed to a new minor league deal rather than let him leave as a minor league free agent but opted not to give him a 40-player roster spot. Ornelas, coming off his best showing with the Missions, posted numbers with El Paso that were good on the surface at .285/.358/.425, but in the hitter-friendly environment of the Pacific Coast League, they were slightly below the league average. Assuming that no team that could have signed him as a free agent takes him in the Rule 5 draft, look for Ornelas to continue to try to launch the ball into the air more to take advantage of his power potential and the thin air of the PCL West in 2024. (John Conniff)
Top Pitching Prospect: Jose Espada (Conniff & Charity), Kevin Kopps (Davey), Jackson Wolf (Jay & Wilkens)
This season was quite the journey for 26-year-old Jose Espada. The righty was drafted in the fifth round by the Toronto Blue Jays way back in 2015. When he signed with the Padres as a minor league free agent in 2022, he was pitching for the Milwaukee Milkmen of the American Association. Yet, he ended the 2023 in the Padres’ bullpen, pitching in one game in the big leagues. The bulk of Espada’s work this season came with the Missions. In 64 innings for San Antonio, he went 3-2 with a 2.81 ERA and struck out 85 batters in 64 innings. Opposing Texas League hitters batted just .207 against him. He earned a promotion to El Paso, where he pitched well down the stretch for a bad Chihuahuas team. Espada possesses a low 90s fastball but has movement and pairs nicely with his slider. After being outrighted off the 40-player roster after the season, Espada could be on the radar for an NPB team and could thrive internationally.
Kevin Kopps spent his second full season in San Antonio, producing much better results in his repeat campaign. He cut his ERA from 4.14 in 2022 to a much more palatable 2.63 ERA while reducing his walks from 5.6 per nine innings in 2022 to 3.9, increasing his strikeout rate. The 26-year-old uses his slider/cutter hybrid – some have called it a “gyro ball” – with a fastball to generate grounders; he had a fantastic 56.3% groundball rate. He was still a bit too hittable, allowing 55 hits in 54.2 innings for San Antonio. Kopps earned a late-season promotion to Triple-A, where he pitched well outside of a couple of disastrous appearances. He will be 27 next spring and should have a chance to be in the Padres bullpen conversation with a good spring. (Kevin Charity)
You can read our level-by-level wrap ups for the 2023 season here.