PEORIA, Ariz.—It takes a bit of detective work to find out when and where extended spring training games are being played in Arizona, as getting the schedules for each team requires some effort, as does knowing whom to contact. Even then, games are sometimes dropped or added without notice. But pro scouts from most major league organizations find their way to the games, especially if an interesting pitcher is scheduled to be on the mound that day.
Mason Thompson is one of those young hurlers attracting plenty of attention this spring. The Round Rock (Texas) High product is one of more than 80 players working out at the Padres complex in Peoria. Selected in the third round (85th overall) in 2016, Thompson began his pro career last summer with five brief appearances in the Rookie-level Arizona League, posting a 2.25 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 12 strikeouts in as many innings.
Earlier in his prep career, Thompson was regarded as one of the top high school arms in his class. He was a member of the USA Baseball squad at the 2013 15U Pan American Championship in Barranquilla, Colombia, earning the win as the starting pitcher in the final game against Cuba.
An elbow injury requiring Tommy John surgery in his junior year limited Thompson to just one pitching appearance as a senior, making him difficult for most teams to evaluate for the draft. The Padres were convinced Thompson would return to form, drafting him in the third round and signing the lanky 6-foot-7 righthander for $1.75 million, the top bonus in the round.
Judging from Thompson's performance in the Arizona League followed by appearances on the Padres back fields in instructional league and minor league spring training games, he might turn out to be one of the better bargains of his draft class.
Thompson has been working with three pitches this spring—a fastball sitting 91-93 mph and touching 95, complemented by his changeup and a 12-to-6 curveball that is a sharp pitch when he stays on top of it. A slider was his primary breaking ball last summer, and the Padres will eventually have him reinstate that pitch to his arsenal.
With his lean frame and solid work ethic in the weight room, it's quite likely that Thompson will add more velocity with maturity, but that's not an issue right now according to AZL Padres pitching coach Pete Zamora.
“When he's working 91 to 93," Zamora said, “he has the ability to dart fastballs knee-high all day and get late swings."
Most of the pre-draft reports on Thompson mentioned his long levers and suggested that like other tall pitchers he might face a longer development path. Instead, Thompson points to his athleticism, having played three sports in high school, and the fact he didn't have rapid growth spurts as a teen as reasons his development won't be slowed down.
“I had gradual growth over the years," Thompson said. “I think that helped me hold that athleticism and continue to build on it . . . I really do take pride in my athleticism at my size."
Zamora agreed, saying, “He knows his body, and he knows how to sync that body up well."
Despite the fact that Thompson was coming off Tommy John surgery, the Padres haven't had to make a lot of mechanical adjustments to his delivery, and scouts watching the young Texan have noted that his delivery is clean and repeatable.
“We've cleaned him up just in order to staying down the hill," Zamora said. “He's so good at everything he does, when you teach him something he can pick it up. There weren't too many glaring weaknesses . . . He gets his arm care and he does his stretching. We want him to believe in an everyday routine."
While it was difficult missing the time on the mound during his final high school season, Thompson believes he learned some valuable lessons during the time away from the mound, most importantly to not take the game for granted.
“I don't know that I would have had that reality check without going through the injury," Thompson said. “It made me appreciate not only the game but the practices, the arm care, the workouts—all of that."
Thompson has plenty of company in the Padres extended spring training camp, with more than enough players to field two teams every day. He's enjoying the bonding among his teammates, knowing that they all share a common goal and can help each other get there.
“It's a work-in-progress for all of us," Thompson said. “(We) come from different backgrounds, from different places. We know that and everybody's ultimate goal is to make in to the big leagues. We want to help each other . . . we want to win, we want to compete together . . . if we can buy in and help each other, it's only going to benefit us in the long run."
In addition to growing up near Austin, home of college powerhouse Texas, Thompson also had Triple-A Round Rock practically in his backyard. Being a regular at Dell Diamond in his teen years helped Thompson build a solid foundation. The opportunity to regularly see how top minor league players, some already with big league experience, went about their business and how they approached the game was invaluable.
“It was huge having that 5, 10, 15 minutes from your home," Thompson said. “It was definitely a big experience and a great thing to have."
GAMES ALL AROUND
Certainly there is no shortage of extended spring training action across the Phoenix area, with 15 major league organizations participating in games or holding camp days every day but Sundays until the first week of June. The Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Rangers and Reds are all fielding two teams on most game days, while other organizations will drop in an extra, unscheduled game as needed.
In addition to short-season players waiting for the June leagues to start and injured players trying to work themselves back into playing shape, extended spring training provides an opportunity for players released by other organizations to find a new home.
Among the notable names dotting the extended spring rosters are one-time Phillies prospect Domonic Brown (Rockies), Cardinals 2012 supplemental first-rounder Steve Bean (Padres), and Miami's 2015 third-round pick Zeke White (Reds).