What to watch as Padres open Minors camp

Abrams' return, Hassell's rise, Westman's new role among spring storylines

March 4th, 2022

It was only a back-field scrimmage at the Peoria Sports Complex, but in the eyes of new Padres farm director Ryley Westman, it represented a lot more than that.

Padres prospects played seven unofficial innings against Mariners prospects on Wednesday, three days before Minor League camp is officially slated to open. Many of those San Diego Minor Leaguers have been at the team's complex in Peoria, Ariz., for weeks already, working with staff.

It's a stark difference to the past two springs. In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic shut down Minor League camp before it could take off. In '21, camp went ahead, but with limitations on interactions among players and coaches. This year, Westman says, is "full steam ahead."

"To have these guys out here, to have a full staff without the limitations of not being able to meet sometimes with players, this is all exciting for all of us," Westman said. "We're doing team fundamentals. We're doing classroom sessions. There's just so much to gain, physically and mentally, because it's been such a roller coaster the last two years.

"To have this opportunity, get these guys interacting, working together, sweating with each other, it's exciting, and it's an important time for their development."

Big league camp remains on hold during the lockout. But Minor League camp, featuring players who aren't on the 40-man roster, has begun to ramp up in Peoria, with the Minor League season slated for its usual mid-April start. Saturday marks the official report date for Padres Minor Leaguers, with full-squad workouts set to begin on Sunday.

Officially, Minor League games won't begin until March 18. But after Padres prospects go through their morning routine -- typically featuring workouts, stretches, drills and a guest speaker -- there's almost always a game-like setting awaiting them in the afternoon. Sometimes it's an intrasquad scrimmage. Sometimes it's a controlled back-field game against a rival.

"We can sit down, we can take ground balls, throw it across the diamond," Westman said. "But truly, as soon as you put that game environment, you have to have that internal clock going. That two-hopper that you've got to get rid of quickly. That ball in the gap off the bat. ... You're getting variables in a game that you can't recreate in just a practice setting. There's just so much to be gained in a speed-of-the-game setting."

There are plenty of storylines to look for in Westman's first big league camp as farm director. Here are a few:

Fresh faces abound
The Padres' overhauled staff, of course, isn't limited to manager Bob Melvin and co. at the big league level. Across the system, the Friars have new coaches and managers in place, including at Triple-A El Paso, where Jared Sandberg is at the helm after spending the past two seasons as Mariners bench coach.

Philip Wellman remains the manager at Double-A San Antonio, while Brian Esposito, formerly the Pirates' Triple-A manager, helms High-A Fort Wayne. At Low-A Lake Elsinore, Eric Junge, in his 10th season in the organization, is entering his first as a manager, having worked mostly on the pitching side in the past.

The Padres also shook up their development staff when they replaced Sam Geaney, who had spent the previous seven seasons as farm director under general manager A.J. Preller. Westman spent the last two seasons as assistant to Geaney, after five years as the team's catching coordinator.

Moving into Westman's prior role as assistant director of player development is Mike Daly, who has close ties with Preller and Westman from his time in Texas. Westman cited Daly's offseason work as integral in piecing together the team's Minor League coaching staffs. Now, Daly is in camp with his new club for the first time.

"He's shown up every day with some way to help the organization, some way to help the players," Westman said. "His mind's constantly working, watching practice and drills, and at the end of the day, it's, 'Hey how can we make this better, how can we make this more efficient?' Bringing him on board has been huge."

Abrams back in action
CJ Abrams' 2021 season was cut short when he suffered a broken leg and sprained left MCL in a collision while playing for Double-A San Antonio last June. This spring, the Padres' top prospect is back -- and with a little added muscle entering his age-21 season.

"We're seeing the strength come," Westman said. "He's always a guy with tremendous skills and ability. He's always fun to watch. But as this body is turning into more of a man, you're seeing more oomph behind the baseball. Speed times increasing, backhand throws across the diamond -- the physicality is exciting to see."

Abrams' skill set has dazzled ever since the Padres selected him at No. 6 overall in the 2019 Draft. He's one of the sport's fastest prospects, his glovework has always been smooth, and his bat-to-ball skills are elite.

"He's a helluva ball-striker," Westman said. "I'm just excited to see, as we get more into games, what does the zone recognition look like? He's continued to add this strength, and he's always had tremendous ability to put bat on ball. I'm excited to see the power that potentially comes with that. CJ is in a very good spot."

Abrams batted .296/.363/.420 in 2021 before his season-ending injury, and he could be in line for a big league callup in '22 if his steady progression continues.

Hassell on the rise
Speaking of top-shelf lefty-hitting prospects, Robert Hassell has evidently picked up where he left off.

The 20-year-old outfielder, ranked as the sport's No. 43 overall prospect has been an early standout. Hassell boasts some serious offensive tools. But more than anything, the Padres have been impressed with the way Hassell is thinking the game this spring -- his work ethic and his understanding of the way pitchers might want to attack him.

"His mind has probably been the most impressive thing," Westman said. "And that's a big compliment, because physically, he can do a lot of stuff."

Hassell's name was mentioned last summer and earlier this winter in trade discussions, but there's a reason the Padres have clung to him so tightly. The former first-round pick impressed as an 18-year-old at the team's alternate training site during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. In his Minor League debut in '21, Hassell batted .303/.393/.470 with 11 homers and 31 steals.

Others to watch
No doubt, Abrams and Hassell are the biggest names to watch over the next month. But as the Padres have begun to replenish their system, following several spending sprees at the big league level, there are a few intriguing additions.

Namely, Preller's first two picks from the 2021 Draft. Outfielder James Wood and shortstop Jackson Merrill have big-time upside, and both impressed while making their professional debuts last summer. They're ranked No. 5 and No. 6, respectively, in the organization. A big season could conceivably put them both in the discussion for a spot in MLB Pipeline's top 100.

Pitching-wise, left-handers Robert Gasser and Ethan Elliott made strides in 2021, and the Padres are eager to see if they can start to assert themselves at the upper levels of the Minor Leagues. Meanwhile, righty reliever Kevin Kopps, winner of the Golden Spikes Award at Arkansas last season, is entering his first Spring Training. He's a potential fast-riser who could even impact the big league club this season.

"We're full steam ahead trying to get these guys in the best position possible," Westman said. "We want to get them in position to break camp healthy and to build up their skills and talents to go out and have a big season."