Image credit: Jeisson Rosario (Photo by Bill Mitchell)
FORT WAYNE, Ind. — The Padres have one of the best minor league farm systems in baseball. A big reason for their rise has been the organization’s newfound aggressiveness in the international market, culminating with paying nearly $80 million dollars in bonuses and penalties in 2016.
Cubans Adrian Morejon and Michel Baez have received significant attention, but the organization is equally excited about some of the more traditional 16-year-old players they also signed in the 2016 class. Sam Geaney, the Padres’ director of player development, characterized them in Spring Training as the “second wave of prospects” the organization will have coming through the system.
“I’ve always linked them together because they are very close friends off the field,” Geaney said during a July visit to see low Class A Fort Wayne. “They are very good for each other because they really push and hold each other accountable. They are roommates and, more than anything, they both have an advanced approach at the plate. They see the baseball very well and we sometimes forget that they are only 18.”
The Dominican-born Rosario is one of the best defensive center fielders in the Padres’ system. Offensively, he posted a .404 on-base percentage in the Rookie-level Arizona League last summer, and this year at low Class A Fort Wayne he hit .271/.368/.353 with 18 stolen bases and a walk rate approaching 13 percent.
“It’s something I have really worked on ever since I signed with the Padres,” said Rosario, when asked about his strike-zone judgment. “It was never something that came naturally.”
The 6-foot-1, 191-pound Rosario is probably best known for his Ozzie Smith-style backflips after team wins—something his circus-loving older brother taught him. But that’s just one of his party tricks. While he bats and throws lefthanded, he is ambidextrous. It doesn’t take much to get Geaney to take out his cell phone and show videos of Rosario taking grounders at second base and throwing righthanded.
“I’ve always been able to do things with both hands, except hit from the right side,” Rosario said, laughing. “I’ve never been very good at that.”
Defensively, he appears to glide to balls anywhere in the outfield, but he echoes what all of his coaches want to hear: the need to not do something great just once, but consistently.
“The biggest thing that I need to do is get more consistent and not make the same mistakes,” Rosario said. “There is always something to learn, and when I stop I learning I know I am doing something wrong.”
While Rosario’s athleticism jumps out, Ornelas draws attention as a physical specimen at a lean, 6-foot-4, 215 pounds. But he wasn’t always that way.
“We really love how much he has improved athletically from when we first signed him in 2016,” Geaney said. “He has always been able to swing the bat and have a very good idea of the strike zone, but when you start to combine an increased athleticism it really starts to get exciting.
“He arrived as a slightly below-average athlete and now he runs better, and his arm has picked up. It’s a real testament to his work ethic on how much he has improved. Like a lot of kids that we sign at 16, there are a lot of things that begin to change. He has impressed us a lot athletically in how far he has come.”
The lefthanded-hitting Ornelas joins Luis Urias and righthander reliever Andres Munoz among the growing list of Mexican players the Padres have targeted, but the Tijuana native didn’t grow up a Padres fan.
“My favorite team was the Red Sox because of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, but I always liked the Padres a little bit too,” Ornelas said. “My dad played professionally, and he was the one responsible for me becoming a lefthanded hitter.”
At 17, Ornelas posted a slash line of .276/.399/.408 in the Arizona League last season, and the organization believes that because of his plate discipline, more power will develop as he moves up the system. This year, while his overall numbers of .252/.341/.392 in 86 games weren’t great, he did hit .310/.424/.430 in 43 home games, giving the organization a glimpse of his potential.
A hand injury in mid-July sidelined him for the rest of the year, but the Padres were happy with what they saw from both Rosario and Ornelas in their first full season.
“I thought they did great,” Geaney said after the season. “They are two of my favorite kids. What we saw in Jeisson this year surpassed our internal expectations. I thought his defense was very solid all season and he got stronger as the year went along. Tirso’s time was cut short with some hand issues, but he continued to make an impression of the type of athlete and hitter that he is developing into.”
“I wish I could say it is something that we do, but those guys are kind of a special breed when it comes to their plate discipline,” said Fort Wayne manager Anthony Contreras.
“For the most part, they are very stubborn about what they are trying to do at the plate. It’s exciting because they are only 18. I look back at myself when I was that age and no way could I have done that.”
John Conniff is the publisher of MadFriars.com, a website that covers the San Diego Padres minor league system.