Fernando Tatis Jr. and Chris Paddack made the Opening Day roster in 2019, having never seen Triple-A. Ryan Weathers was pushed to his Major League debut last postseason. Even this spring, Tucupita Marcano parlayed a strong Cactus League into a spot on the bench in The Show, and Luis Campusano won a job as the club's backup catcher.
The San Diego Padres have been aggressive with their most talented prospects in recent years. In many ways, that won't change in 2021. Except for maybe at the top level.
The Padres were one of the most aggressive teams of the offseason, adding Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove among others in win-now moves made to compete with the World Series champion Dodgers in the National League West. Those three starting pitchers all came in trades that hurt the farm system but still left five Top 100 prospects in place (including Weathers and Campusano). It's worth wondering how aggressive the club can get with the other three -- most notably top pitching prospect MacKenzie Gore and No. 8 overall talent CJ Abrams. The trouble for those two is a more loaded Major League roster means fewer open spots as the season wears on.
"We have been aggressive with a player like Tucu making the a club or Tatis a couple years ago or Ryan," said Padres senior director of player development Sam Geaney. "But we expect to -- and it looks like we will -- have a very good Major League club this year, so it is going to be harder for some of these guys. I think that the bar to clear to be a Major League player is going to get more and more difficult to clear in a positive way."
Gore noticed that acutely in 2020. Coming off a 2019 season in which he posted a 1.69 ERA with 135 strikeouts in 101 Minor League innings, the left-hander entered play at the organization's alternate training site at the University of San Diego as the club's top prospect. However, he was passed over by Weathers when there was a playoff bullpen opening because he lacked consistent command in his alt-site looks. Gore was clearly still working through those same issues in this year's Cactus League when he mixed moments of his normal brilliance with eight walks in only 11 frames.
On his day, the 22-year-old can show four above-average to plus pitches from a unique delivery featuring an iconic high leg kick. But potential alone isn't going to punch Gore's ticket to San Diego, and to that point, Geaney says the club has begun to see more of the old version of the 2017 first-rounder as he's continued to face competition in April alternate-site play.
"Honestly, it's been quite encouraging," Geaney said. "We continue to have high expectations, as does MacKenzie for himself. But I think the way the fastball has played this spring, the swings and misses he's gotten in the strike zone and the flashes of above-average secondary stuff, all of that has been there. I think it's just making sure that the time is right, and I think he will tell us when that is."
Abrams, on the other hand, is set to make his first true push through the organization. The 2019 first-rounder had his first full season wiped away by the cancellation of last year's Minor League season, and he showed up this spring like a player intent on making up for lost time. Abrams' Cactus League play forced the Padres to keep him around, and he ended up featuring in 25 games in Arizona, second-most on the club. He finished with a .240/.283/.420 line, two homers and three steals in that time. Those numbers may not jump off the page, but Abrams' 80-grade speed and impressive defense from both shortstop and second base made him a continual option for Jayce Tingler and the rest of the Padres staff.
That hasn't stopped with the conclusion of Major League camp. At only 20 years, Abrams is likely headed to High-A or Double-A to open what will be his first real full Minor League campaign in May. But for now, he remains with the alternate-site group in Arizona -- where he continues to see time at short and second -- as the Padres keep up their tradition of challenging their most talented young players.
"He had a very, very good Major League campaign in the spring and was with the Major League team for a long time," Geaney said. "I think he looked quite advanced. We've obviously moved some of those guys who were in Major League camp who were early cuts to Minor League camp, but for the time being, we've chosen to keep CJ with that group of players."
Again, the Padres' aggression in 2021 won't be defined by who they push to baseball's top level and when. As with Abrams so far, the club can continue such an approach with how they assign players within the Minors ahead of Opening Day on May 4. But those who do reach San Diego could be even more fully formed than ever before.
"While we have been aggressive," said Geaney, "there's no guarantee that's going to continue because -- health-willing and performance-willing -- we will have some pretty established players around the diamond in San Diego."
This spring hasn't been a first impression for 2020 first-rounder Robert Hassell III. That came when the Padres pushed him to the alternate site last year, where he was the youngest mainstay, and the second impression came as part of Cactus League play, where he featured in 20 games -- an usually high amount for a teenager not even 12 months removed from his Draft date. Those early turns in Arizona didn't go quite to Hassell's plans offensively as he went 3-for-23 (.130) with 16 strikeouts, but the other aspects of his game -- like his 55-grade glove and run tools -- have allowed him to shine upon the start of Minor League camp.
"I think the center-field defense, the way the body looks and the way the body's moving definitely are very, very positive," Geaney said of MLB Pipeline's No. 54 overall prospect. "I think he's made a lot more contact at the plate. He's running very well. So, again, last year was kind of an unconventional start to his professional career, due to not having a an Arizona League or Northwest League season to partake in, but I think he definitely looks like he's in a good spot to hopefully go out and have a semi-normal first professional season."
Alternate training site update
Geaney also highlighted No. 13 San Diego prospect Reiss Knehr as a promising performer this spring. The 2018 20th-rounder continues to look the part of a starting pitcher with four solid pitches in his fastball (which tops out at 95 mph), cutter, slider and changeup.
Knehr dealt with issues in the old California League in 2019, having posted a 5.43 ERA in 17 appearances, but he generated plenty of whiffs with 83 punchouts in 66 1/3 frames. The 6-foot-2 right-hander was a consideration for San Diego's alternate site last year but never cracked the player pool. His opportunity to make an impression with the club's big guns came this spring, and he responded with two earned runs and nine strikeouts in 8 1/3 frames in the Cactus League. Knehr has continued that momentum with the alternate-site group in May and could be poised to jump again, likely with Triple-A El Paso to open 2021.
On the injury front, No. 12 prospect Anderson Espinoza continues to return to the mound following two separate Tommy John surgeries. The 23-year-old right-hander featured in one Cactus League game this spring -- a major moment given his history -- and continues to get looks, both as an opener and a reliever coming out of the bullpen in his alt-site looks. According to Geaney, Espinoza, who was acquired from the Red Sox in a 2016 trade for Drew Pomeranz, is back to throwing in the mid-to-upper-90s and has used his above-average curveball more than his changeup as he returns to the rigors of the mound.
"I think all of the things that initially attracted him to us and made him such a highly regarded prospect at the time are still there," said the San Diego exec.
Prospect we'll be talking about in 2022
Joshua Mears didn't need to announce his presence this spring. As a 2019 second-round pick and the No. 10 prospect in the system, the 20-year-old outfielder already has a solid reputation as a potential big-time slugger. But actions speak a lot louder than reputations, and Mears' crack of the bat on March 10 was loud enough.
In a Cactus League game that day, Mears smashed a 95 mph heater from Rockies right-hander Carlos Estevez and hit it with a 117.3 mph exit velocity. The resulting homer traveled an estimated 400 feet. Only Giancarlo Stanton (120.1, 120.0) and Shohei Ohtani (119) have hit balls harder as measured by Statcast in 2021, including Spring Training and the Major League regular season. That's the level of power associated with Mears, and it's why he could rocket up prospect rankings once he finally sees a full Minor League season in 2021. That said, the prospect still needs to make the most of his hit tool to reach the ceiling with his power, but the Padres are hopeful with the steps he's taken this spring.
"I think he sees the baseball very well," Geaney said. "I think the question is how much we as a group and how much Joshua can find contact on a regular basis so that we see that power because it's pretty special. ... The game and the act of playing six times a week is going to be the best teacher for all these guys."
In the Dominican
Since early February, the Padres have been working in waves in their complex in the Dominican Republic due to COVID-19 protocols. Earlier waves, which have been smaller than typical to maintain distancing, prepared international players for their eventual arrivals in Minor League camp in Arizona. Of late, the spaces previously occupied by the more experienced players are being filled with those who will eventually make up Dominican Summer League roster spots.
The biggest name in that group is 16-year-old shortstop Victor Acosta, who is fresh off signing for $1.8 million out of the Dominican Republic in January. Acosta is a well-rounded player with above-average hitting potential, good speed and a plus glove at the six. Power is the only tool of his projected to be below-average, but that could come in time as he fills out his 5-foot-11, 170-pound frame.