2019 Minor League Team Of The Year: Amarillo Sod Poodles
Phillip Wellman managed Double-A Mississippi to a Southern League title more than a decade before his Double-A Amarillo Sod Poodles claimed a Texas League championship in September. At this point in Wellman’s player development career that has spanned four decades, perhaps only one accomplishment can trump the feeling the 57-year-old had as he celebrated on the field in Tulsa.
“I’m ready to see the big league club win,” Wellman said. “We’ve got to get some of these young stallions, some of this talent translated into big league wins. As happy as I was for us and the kids who came through here at this age, I still work for the San Diego Padres. I want to come in after our game and watch the last three or four innings of the game in San Diego, see that we’re 20 games over .500 and go, ‘Hell yeah.’
“I think it’s coming.”
Wellman would know.
He led the Padres’ Double-A affiliates to the playoffs the previous two seasons before Amarillo’s championship run in 2019, with a good portion of the nucleus of all those teams made up with the sort of homegrown talent that Padres general manager A.J. Preller has doubled down on after his initial all-in effort in San Diego crumbled.
Thirteen of the Padres’ midseason top 30 prospects suited up this year for Amarillo. National League rookie of the year contender Fernando Tatis Jr.’s stay was on a rehab assignment after jumping all the way to the majors in 2019 after a half-season in the Texas League in 2018.
The Padres’ top two pitching prospects, MacKenzie Gore and Luis Patiño, arrived after the Sod Poodles won a first-half title. Both hit their innings caps before the Texas League playoffs, leaving the sheer depth of one of baseball’s best farm systems to fuel a championship run for a city starved of affiliated baseball for 37 years.
Amarilloans ate up what the Padres offered.
In fact, the Sod Poodles sold out their new downtown ballpark 40 times in their inaugural campaign, including 23 straight home games from June into August, en route to drawing 427,791 in the regular season, second among all Double-A teams in 2019.
Credit both the allure of baseball’s return to the Texas panhandle and the quality of players trotted onto the Amarillo diamond.
Righthander Pedro Avila, called up for a spot start in April, was the first Sod Poodle brought directly to the majors. Catcher Luis Torrens was the last as a September callup.
In between, the likes of Andres Muñoz, Michel Baez, Adrian Morejon, Ronald Bolaños and David Bednar made their big league debuts after pitching in Amarillo in 2019.
"That was a very strong Double-A lineup and a very aggressive group of relief arms,” Padres farm director Sam Geaney said. "We graduated a lot of players off that club. It’s a testament to their talent and the work that they did that they continued to play very good baseball.”
Graduations weren’t all that Amarillo had to contend with.
Cuban outfielder Jorge Oña was lost to a shoulder injury after batting .348/.417/.539 through his first 25 games. Righthander Reggie Lawson missed most of the year with elbow trouble. Avila’s own elbow issues limited him to 12 innings, and even 20-year-old third baseman Hudson Potts didn’t rebound in the second half (.754 OPS) until after missing nearly a month with an oblique injury.
Two newcomers helped at the top of the order. Outfielder Rodrigo Orozco hit .263/.339/.328 with 15 steals in the leadoff spot after arriving via a trade with the Blue Jays, and minor league free agent and two-hole hitter Ivan Castillo won a batting title with a .313 average and finished among the league leaders with 30 doubles, 135 hits and 43 extra-base hits.
"They fed off each other,” Wellman said. "For a while, it was ‘we go as those two guys go.’ They got on base and we won.”
Beyond those two, outfielder Edward Olivares and 2018 third-round second baseman Owen Miller finished one-two in the Texas League with 221 and 218 total bases.
Six Sod Poodles—Olivares, Potts (16), Brad Zunica (16), Torrens (15), Buddy Reed (14) and Miller (13)—reached double-figures in homers, allowing Amarillo to go 66-22 when scoring four or more runs.
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That proved especially helpful for a pitching staff that fared far better on the road (3.62 ERA) than at a windblown, hitter-friendly Hodgetown Stadium (5.25 ERA) that the organization figures to use as a developmental hurdle not unlike the atmosphere for pitching prospects assigned to Triple-A El Paso.
“The game is the best teacher in these circumstances,” Geaney said. “A lot of our pitchers understand that if they weren’t making quality pitches, if they weren’t attacking the hitter with every pitch, they would pay a price for it.”
In the rotation, righthander Lake Bachar—a 2015 fifth-rounder after kicking for the football team his first two years at Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater—reminded everyone of his upside with a two-month stretch in which he recorded a 1.87 ERA.
“He just grew up,” Wellman said of Bachar, who joined Torrens, Castillo and Olivares as TL all-stars; Wellman was the manager of the year. “He learned to say, ‘I’m not going to throw the towel in. I’m going to keep battling.’ ”
Amarillo’s final piece arrived at the trade deadline when Preller turned Franmil Reyes and lefthander Logan Allen into 22-year-old outfielder Taylor Trammell.
While Trammell never quite hit his stride at Double-A during the regular season, the Padres told him not to fret and certainly not to tinker.
“That was the message sent down to me,” Wellman said. “Let him go relax. Let him go play. That’s what I told him. Just go be Taylor Trammell.”
Something clicked late in August. Trammell hit a pair of home runs while hitting .394 over his final nine games of the regular season and then .310/.356/.643 with three more homers in the playoffs. The last arrived in the top of the ninth at Tulsa in Game 5 of the Texas League finals via a go-ahead grand slam to bring Amarillo back from the brink of elimination.
The Sod Poodles were down to their final three outs when Kyle Overstreet and Reed walked to start the ninth. Peter Van Gansen then loaded the bases with a picture-perfect bunt, before Trammell cleared them with a long drive to right field. Potts added a three-run shot for good measure.
“The first two weeks or so I was pretty much trying to find my swing again,” Trammell said. “After that I felt really good . . . I finished the season out strong.
“I’m really happy with the way I finished the season, the way the team finished the season and the way everything panned out.”