PEORIA, Ariz.—Padres fans are going to have to be patient.
The big league team this year could be a disaster. The San Diego rotation is the last refuge for veterans such as Jered Weaver, trying to get one more big league shot. The lineup features Wil Myers, some promising rookies and a whole lot of questions.
The Padres are a better bet for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft than they are for a .500 record in 2017.
But far away from San Diego, the Padres have a whole lot of impatient prospects.
On the minor league back fields this spring, the organization has assembled an experiment that’s never been attempted before. The Padres spent more on international amateurs in the past year (roughly $80 million including overage penalties) than they will spend on their big league roster in 2017. Add in the $13.4 million San Diego spent in the draft and that total dwarfs the projected major league payroll of roughly $60 million—more than $30 million of which goes to players like Matt Kemp, James Shields and Melvin Upton, who are no longer on the roster.
The spending spree just might pay off. Scouts seeing the Padres youngsters this spring have raved about their combination of tools and advanced skills. They look much more advanced than typical 16- or 17-year-olds.
Field Of Teens
For even the top international prospects, the path from July 2 to prominence is supposed to be a long one.
But 17-year-old Dominican shortstop Luis Almanzar isn’t taking it slow. He saw significant time with the Padres’ high Class A group at spring training, where he played against players three, four and five years older than him—and he has looked like one of the better players in those games.
Almanazar has played with the high Class A club because Gabriel Arias, a fellow July 2 signee from last summer, is playing shortstop for the low Class A club. With Arias playing shortstop, fellow shortstop Justin Lopez slides over to third base, even though he has outstanding hands and excellent infield actions. Jordy Barley, the fastest and twitchiest of the signees, plays a lot of second base even though his arm seems far too powerful to end up on the right side of the infield.
“We keep telling them there are three types of competition that they have to face every single day,” Padres field coordinator Luis Ortiz said. “One is that personal competition. ‘What do I have to do to get better today?’
“Then there is internal competition. ‘Hey, there’s only one shortstop who plays every day in the big leagues and there are seven here (in the minors).’ And the third one is external competition—facing the other team. That’s the one everyone gets up for, but if the other two aren’t present, the external competition won’t happen.”
The competition in Peoria has been intense, especially when no other team is invited to stop by.
“They face better pitching when they face each other,” Ortiz said. “Usually a normal intrasquad game is really boring and the guys don’t want to do that. Here the competition is amazing.”
In addition to the four teen shortstops, the Padres have promising lefthanded power in outfielder Tirso Ornelas, a center fielder in Jeisson Rosario and a backstop in catcher Alison Quintero at minor league camp.
“They came to us as very advanced baseball players,” Padres farm director Sam Geaney said. “A lot of what was attractive is they can come quickly.”
It would be an aggressive move to send an international signee to a U.S. complex league in his first pro season. The Padres realized by the end of the instructional league last year that they would need two Rookie-level Arizona League clubs to accommodate all the prospects who are ready to skip the Dominican Summer League. With players like Almanzar, it’s possible that even the AZL won’t be enough of a challenge.
Having two AZL affiliates also ensures that all four of the shortstops will be able to see time at their natural position.
“A lot has been made about us having two teams in the AZL,” Geaney said. “A lot of that revolves around the group of position players we signed. You don’t want to move them off (shortstop) and make decisions when they are so young.”
Balanced Approach To Pitching
The Padres’ international spending spree brought in a bevy of position players. Largely through the $13.4 million spent in the 2016 draft, the Padres restocked their inventory of pitchers as well.
Righthanders Anderson Espinoza and Cal Quantrill and Cuban lefty Adrian Morejon are all Top 100 Prospects, while 2016 draftees Eric Lauer (first round), Reggie Lawson (supplemental second) and Mason Thompson (third) all but guarantee that an excellent arm will take the hill no matter the day. Recently signed Cuban lefty Osvaldo Fernandez will soon join the group.
“You always want to have a balance between guys who are projectable, who down the road have a chance to impact the game at the major league level, and guys who are advanced for their age,” Padres general manager A.J. Preller said. “We have a group where we have lefthanded bats, shortstops and center fielders. We have guys who can come out there against players who are more experienced. It’s a credit to the scouting department.”
The Padres will field what appears to be the thinnest, least talented roster in the majors in 2017. But when it comes to the lower minors, they will be deeper than anyone else. A lot can go wrong between the Arizona League and the majors, and assuredly for a number of these prospects, something will. But there is hope for the future in San Diego.
It will just require a lot of patience, even if the prospects themselves don’t seem like the patient types.