Minors : : General
Sunday, January 15, 2012

Top Prospects: San Diego Padres

David Rawnsley        
Photo: Perfect Game

General Manager: Josh Byrnes
Minor League Director: Randy Smith
Scouting Director: Jaron Madson

AAA:  Tucson Padres (Pacific Coast League) 65-79

AA:  San Antonio Missions (Texas League) 94-46
Hi A:  Lake Elsinore Storm (California League) 69-71
Low A:  Fort Wayne TinCaps (Midwest League) 69-70
Rookie Adv.:  Eugene Emeralds (Northwest League) 46-30
Rookie:  Padres (Arizona Summer League) 23-33
Dominican:  DSL Padres (Dominican Summer League) 27-41

System Overview

The Padres over the two years have turned in two polar opposite seasons, going a surprising 90-72 in 2010 and reversing that with a disappointing 71-91 mark in 2011. The formula for 2010 was pretty simple in retrospect. They received 148 very steady starts from their five starting pitchers, had the best bullpen in baseball statistically and had a MVP caliber season from 1B Adrian Gonzalez. In 2011, their pitching wasn’t quite as solid, especially among the starters (although the Padres still finished third in the NL in team ERA) and Gonzalez was having another MVP-type season, only in the other league for the Red Sox. That led to the Padres scoring 73 less runs than in 2010. In the context of Petco Park, that’s a huge difference.

And everything with the Padres has to be taken in context of their home field, much in the same way that Coors Field formally did and The Rangers Ballpark in Arlington does today for scoring runs. Petco ranked dead last in Major League Baseball from 2007 to 2009 in promoting offense and moved all the way up to third from the bottom in 2011.

The type of extreme pitcher’s environment that Petco represents makes good offensive players all that much more important while marginalizing the level of pitching. Mediocre pitching can still compete at Petco, which is one of the reasons why the Padres have been so successful in building standout bullpens. But a mediocre offense is going to be sucked down by Petco and that’s what the Padres, without Gonzalez, had in 2011.

Since home runs are infrequent at Petco, multi-run innings are going to be built around walks, speed to steal or take the extra base and a succession of base hits. Not a bunt, a bloop and a three-run home run. The high batting average/high on base percentage formula is going to be successful, just as the opposite will be true on the mound: a pitcher who keeps walks to a minimum and pitches to contact is going to be more successful.

There are signs that the current Padres regime gets this concept. With the value on non-elite pitching marginalized, the Padres can afford to take a young talent like RHP Matt Latos and flip him for multiple young prospects, including two premium position players. One senses that the Padres felt that Yonder Alonso was a better fit for Petco, with the potential for a higher batting average/on base percentage but less raw power than Anthony Rizzo, and that led to Rizzo being traded instead of Alonso. The team’s top three pitching prospects, all acquired by trade, RHP’s Casey Kelly and Joe Wieland and LHP Robbie Erlin, are all plus to plus/plus command types who are going to pound the strike zone and limit big innings. And the Padres top position drafts the past three years have been full of line drive hitters who show the ability to control the strike zone; guys like 3B Jedd Gyorko, OF Jaff Decker and 2B Cory Spangenberg.

Overall, the Padres farm system ranks with the best in the game. It lacks a truly elite prospect and the contribution from international scouting remains minimal but the system is broad and deep from top to bottom in talent. The Gonzalez, Latos and Mike Adams (Erlin and Wieland) trades have been outstanding and the production from the draft, with the exceptions of the Karsten Whitson and Donovan Tate stumbles, has been steady, with the 2011 draft being a potential star. The Padres under the leadership of owner Jeff Moorad have not shown any hesitance in spending money on young players and the recent hiring of former Mets GM Omar Minaya might signal an increased investment in foreign talent.

2011 Draft

The Padres were gifted with four extra picks among the first 58 selections in the 2011 draft, which is a good recipe for a standout draft. They would have preferred not to have had the first pick, No. 10 overall, as that was the pick they received for not signing high school RHP Karsten Whitson with their 2010 first round pick. Whitson enjoyed a standout freshman season at Florida and projects as possibly the top overall pick in the 2013 draft.

The other three picks, all in the compensation round, were the rewards for losing RHPs Jon Garland and Kevin Correia and C Yorvit Torrealba to free agency. None would have figured strongly into the team’s 2011 plans regardless, but to get players in return is a bonus.

San Diego made a clever move in the first round to get the two players they wanted and make it affordable. The talk all spring was that they were all over Indian River IF Cody Spangenberg, a first rounder for most teams but probably someone who was slotted to go somewhere between the Padres picks at No. 10 and No. 25. San Diego decided to elevate Spangenberg to the No. 10 slot and were able to work a deal at a well below slot value of $1.83M, then spent a more market-like $2.75M on high ceiling high school right handed pitcher Joe Ross at No. 25. The money the organization spent on those two picks is right in line with what the bonus slots in the new CBA will be for the 2012 draft, only the Padres reversed the spending order to make sure they were able to pick the two players they most wanted.

With their trio of extra picks, the Padres selected Florida high school RHP Mike Kelly, North Carolina high school catcher Brett Austin and McNeese State SS Jace Peterson. Unfortunately, Austin decided to honor his commitment to North Carolina State but the other two players represented more of the talent Petco specific talent scheme introduced above. Kelly is a very athletic 6-foot-5 right hander with a heavy sinking fastball and the present ability to throw strikes. Peterson, a former D1 defensive back, has plus/plus speed, can play multiple positions and drew 43 walks and stole 30 bases as a junior in 2011.

Where the Padres might have made their biggest impact in the draft, though, was in picking All-American catcher Austin Hedges and signing him away from a UCLA commitment for a $3M signing bonus right before the deadline. Hedges bat might make him somewhat of a long-term project but he has superior defensive tools and skills. San Diego’s wealth of riches behind the plate, where big league starter Nick Hundley was arguably their top position player in 2011, and Yasmani Grandal, their top minor league prospect, gives the Padres plenty of reason to be patient with Hedges.

Pitching was the major theme of the rest of the draft and the Padres picked up a number of mature college pitchers who could move quickly through their minor league system, including third round pick RHP Matt Andriese (UC Riverside) and RHP Mark Pope (Georgia Tech).

The team also made three more excursions after Hedges into modest “well above slot” signings, two of them on college standouts who slid well past their anticipated draft positions. The Padres gave Ohio high school RHP Matt Wisler a $500K signing bonus in the seventh round and were able to nab undersized but high performing Auburn shortstop Casey McElroy for $200K in the 11th round and strong-armed Oklahoma RHP Burch Smith for $250K in the 14th round.

Top 10 Prospects

1. C Yasmani GrandalBaseball-reference player profile

Much like Yonder Alonso below, Grandal found himself in a logjam in Cincinnati behind top prospect Devin Mesoraco and was part of the Matt Latos trade along with Alonso and RHPs Edinson Volquez and Brad Boxberger.

But while virtually Padres top prospect list on the internet has Alonso above Grandal, I’m going to respectfully disagree and put Grandal at the top. And it certainly isn’t just because I’ve seen former Aflac All-American Grandal play about 50 times, driven him around Marietta, Georgia at tournaments and really like the young man personally.

This is my reasoning:

Grandal plays a premium defensive position and there is no question that he’s going to stay at that premium defensive position and most likely be at least a solid Major League defender there, if not better. That has significant value over a first baseman.

There is no objective evidence beyond Alonso’s 88 Major League at bats in September, a very small sample size, that Alonso is a better hitting prospect. The switch-hitting Grandal, who is 20 months younger than Alonso by the way, hit .305-14-68/.901 OPS between Hi A/AA/AAA in 2011, which is superior to any minor league season Alonso has put up. He slugged an even .500, which surpasses Alonso’s career best.

2. 1B Yonder AlonsoBaseball-reference player profile

Alonso never attended a Perfect Game showcase while attending Coral Gables High School, not coincidently just down the street from University of Miami. But he was very well known as the cleanup hitter on the Florida Bombers teams that won the WWBA 18U National Championships in 2004 and 2005. Alonso also played some third base and caught as a teenager, but that was also when he was listed at 6-1/210 instead of 6-2/240. But no one has really cared where Alonso played, it’s all about the bat.

Alonso has found himself in a couple of logjams already in his young professional career. The Reds, from who the Padres acquired Alonso as part of the Matt Latos trade, had former MVP Joey Votto at first base. When Alonso joined the Padres, they had top prospect 1B Anthony Rizzo (who would have ranked higher than Alonso on this list) along with incumbents Jesus Guzman and Kyle Blanks. The Padres cast their lot with Alonso by trading Rizzo straight up for hard throwing Cubs reliever Andrew Cashner.

The 25 year old Alonso’s status as a top prospect is based in significant part on the uncharacteristic power that he showed in September last year, where he hit 5 home runs in 88 at bats (.330 BA/.943 OPS). He is a mature hitter who is going to hit for a high average and control the strike zone, but it’s unrealistic to think that he’s going to hit for home run power in San Diego. First, no one hits for home run power in San Diego, which could well be the primary reason why the Padres preferred Alonso to Rizzo. Second, Alonso, before last September, hit 36 home runs and slugged .466 in over 1,300 minor league at bats. There is a very good chance he’s going to be closer to Lyle Overbay as a big leaguer than to someone like Joey Votto or Adrian Gonzalez.

3. 3B Jedd GyorkoBaseball-reference player profile

Simply put, Gyorko can flat hit. He was regarded as one of the best bats in the 2010 draft but lasted until the second round essentially because he is a 5-foot-10 right handed hitting third baseman. If the 2010 draft were re-held again tomorrow, Gyorko would be a sure fire first round pick. He led the minor leagues in hits (192) and was second in RBI (114) while hitting .333-25-114/.952 OPS with 64 walks and 45 doubles between Hi A and AA. Then just to make sure everyone was paying attention, he led the Arizona Fall League in hitting at .437.

Gyorko is unlikely to be a candidate for a Gold Glove during his career, but is a sure-handed fielder with playable range and arm strength at third base.

While Gyorko is the likely third baseman of the future in San Diego, it’s worth noting that he’s still behind James Darnell (.310-23-79/.953 OPS between AA and AAA) in the organization’s third base hierarchy. Darnell would easily rank among the top 10 prospects in most organizations, but comes in only 12
th in the Padres very deep system.

4. LHP Robbie ErlinBaseball-reference player profile

Some eyes were raised when the Rangers took a 6-foot high school left hander with a mid to upper-80s fastball in the third round in 2009, but that’s proven to be a very wise scouting decision. Erlin has bumped his fastball up to solid average on the Major League scale but it’s his outstanding command and big sharp curveball that has him on the cusp of the big leagues at age 21.

Erlin, along with his right handed clone Joe Wieland, was acquired from the Rangers in July for RHP Mike Adams as Texas was looking to upgrade their bullpen for a post season push. Erlin was already pitching in the Texas League and made a seamless move over to the Padres San Antonio club, going 1-0, 1.38 with 31 K’s in 26 innings the rest of the season. His overall numbers for 2011 split between Hi A and two AA teams: 9-4, 2.99 in 147 innings with 154 Ks and only 16 walks. In three years, Erlin has only walked 34 hitters in 266 innings and has a career WHIP of 0.94.

5. OF Rymer LirianoBaseball-reference player profile

Liriano is the best “tools” player the Padres have in their minor league system and essentially the player they thought they would be getting when they drafted Donovan Tate with the third pick in the 2009 draft. He’s built more like a college football running back at 6-foot, 211 pounds than a typical Dominican 20-year old, and has an explosive combination of speed (66 steals in 2011), arm strength and power potential. He took a huge step forward offensively in the Midwest League in 2011 (.319-12-62/.882 OPS) and could put up huge offensive numbers in 2012 depending on how long he stays in the offensively friendly Cal League. While he has the speed to play centerfield, has arm strength better profiles him as a well above average right fielder.

6. RHP Joe WielandBaseball-reference player profile

While Wieland and Robbie Erlin really aren’t clones (see above), they come as close as you’ll find. They grew up about 280 miles apart, Wieland in Reno, Nevada and Erlin in Scotts Valley in Northern California. Both were drafted by the Texas Rangers (Wieland fourth round, 2008 and Erlin third round, 2009) and not only were signed by the same scout (Butch Metzger), but are advised by the same agency (Sosnick Cobbe Sports). Of course, they were then packed together while both pitching in AA Frisco and traded to the Padres last July for RHP Mike Adams.

But the real similarity is that there may not be two better control/command pitchers in the minor leagues with legit prospect level stuff than the Wieland/Erlin duo. The 6-foot-3, 175-pound Wieland (taller than Erlin) throws a bit harder, about 2 mph on average, with less fastball life, and works in a changeup and slider more often than the curveballing Erlin, but both result in similar levels of success. Wieland, in fact, enjoyed a more statistically successful 2011 season, perhaps in part due to his extra year of experience, going 13-4, 1.97 in 155 innings with 21 walks and 150 Ks to accompany a 1.09 WHIP.

Erlin gets the nod on this prospect list by virtue of being a year younger at the same level and being left handed. But it is a toss up which clone will get his first opportunity to pitch with the Padres, perhaps as early as this season.

7. RHP Casey KellyBaseball-reference player profile

Kelly was one of the most talked about players in the 2008 draft before going to the Boston Red Sox with the 30th overall pick. An extremely talented overall athlete, Kelly first needed to be convinced not to go to Tennessee to play quarterback (the allure of playing at Tennessee was much brighter in 2008 than it is now), then scouts had to figure out whether he would be better off going out as a power hitting shortstop or a right handed pitcher. Kelly’s preference at that point was clearly as a position player and the Red Sox let him play shortstop in addition to pitching for much of his first two years before convincing him to dedicate himself entirely to pitching.

When the Padres acquired Kelly, along with 1B Anthony Rizzo and CF Rey Fuentes in the Adrian Gonzalez trade in 2010, he was considered one of the most promising pitching prospects in the game. And while there is no question that he still a top prospect, his 2011 season repeating the AA level has taken some of the luster off. While he can still touch 95 mph with his heavy sinking fastball, Kelly’s off speed pitches aren’t of the swing/miss variety (i.e. plus big league), and he only struck out 105 hitters in 142 innings while allowing more hits than innings pitched for the second straight year.

8. 2B Cory SpangenbergBaseball-reference player profile

Spangenberg made a quick two-year ascension from being an undrafted Pennsylvania high school infielder to a top 10 pick in the first round, with one-year stops at VMI and Indian River CC along the way. His value comes from being a left handed hitting middle infielder with some gap power potential and plus/plus running speed that he uses very aggressively on the base paths. Spangenberg has been a top performer at every step along the way and showed that ability in the Northwest League after signing, hitting .384-1-20/1.080 OPS for the first month of the season before being promoted to the Midwest League.

Spangenberg’s defensive skills are behind his offensive skills, although he is not lacking tools. He played third base in junior college last spring but made quick adjustments to second base after signing. With his tool set and experience at other positions, he could probably play all over the field if the need arose.

9. RHP Keyvius SampsonBaseball-reference player profile

Sampson burst onto the prospect scene as a high school sophomore when he was named the Most Valuable Player of the 2006 WWBA National Underclass Tournament by virtue of both his pitching (touching 92 early in his sophomore year) and overall play as a centerfielder. He later became an Aflac All-American, working regularly in the 92-94 mph range and hitting as high as 96 mph as a high school senior before he slid to the Padres in the fourth round in 2009.

Sampson is a 6-foot right hander whose curveball is his third best pitch, not a common demographic for a top prospect, but his explosive fastball, plus change up and combination of athleticism and competitiveness (Sampson often served as a combination head cheerleader/bat boy at WWBA events even when pitching) enabled him to dominate the Midwest League in 2011. He has had some injury concerns since signing but none were evident during this past season.

10. RHP Joe RossBaseball-reference player profile

The Padres gave Ross $2.75M as the 25th pick in the 2011 draft, almost $900,000 more than they gave Cory Spangenberg as the 10th pick and a reflection of the relative value of strong armed young pitching prospects.

It would have been just as easy to have put Padres second round pick C Austin Hedges in this spot, especially since Hedges received a slightly higher bonus ($3M) than Ross. However, Ross ranked just as high on most team’s boards as Hedges, if not higher, and if the right handed pitcher stays healthy will likely have a quicker path to the Majors than the young catcher.

Ross’s resume includes everything you’d want to see on an 18 year old pitching prospect. His older brother, Tyson, pitched with the A’s last year, so he has strong big league bloodlines in the family. In fact, Joe is much more polished and projectable than his older brother (who was drafted in the second round out of Cal in 2008) at the same stage. Ross was an 2010 Aflac All-American after throwing up to 94 mph at the 2010 Perfect Game National Showcase, and continued to improve his senior year, touching 96 mph and showing rapid improvement in his change up, which could be his second best pitch.

Others in the Conversation: RHP Brad Boxberger, 3B James Darnell, OF Jaff Decker, CF Rey Fuentes, 2B Jonathan Galvez, C Austin Hedges, RHP Mike Kelly, LHP Juan Oramas, SS Jace Peterson, OF Donovan Tate, OF Blake Tekotte

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