Padres' international scouting dominance on full display with prospects in spring camp

March 23rd, 2024

PEORIA, Ariz. -- It can be tough sometimes to follow the pendulum that is the Padres' farm system, one minute giving up a ton of prospects to acquire someone like Juan Soto, then bringing in a bunch of young players … for someone like Juan Soto, only to send some of those players away (in the recent Dylan Cease trade). But one thing is a constant: The organization seems to know what it's doing in going aggressively after talent in Latin America.

In 2023, the Padres signed the top amateur player in the international market, using nearly all of their $5,825,500 pool to sign Ethan Salas. He's now their top prospect and No. 8 overall on the Top 100 after making his pro debut in full-season ball and finishing the year as a 17-year-old in Double-A. He made a strong impression on the big league staff during his time in Major League camp this spring.

Could 2024 be a repeat? The Padres have already gotten the first part done, once again signing the top player in this year's international class, Leodalis De Vries, for $4.2 million, once again using the bulk of their pool. And while it's unfair to expect a Salas-like climb, it does appear that the switch-hitting shortstop will move faster than many international signees, being brought to the complex this month for Minor League camp. He was named to the Padres' Spring Breakout roster and appeared in a Cactus League game, just eight weeks after signing.

"From personal experience being down there, it's really hard to sign good players," said Padres assistant director of player development Mike Daly, who has international scouting experience and will also manage High-A Fort Wayne in 2024. "Huge credit to [VP of amateur and international scouting] Chris Kemp, [international scouting assistant] Alvin Duran and [international scouting supervisors] Trevor Schumm and Billy McLaughlin. Those guys are really plugged in down there. They're constantly improving their process and then putting the Padres in a really good position to be able to sign those quality players year in and year out."

One of the biggest things the group seems astute at evaluating is how a player carries himself on and off the field. Salas and De Vries came with obvious physical gifts, but having an idea that they could handle being moved aggressively is checking off a very large box, one that allows the Padres to move future superstars toward San Diego at a more rapid pace.

"What really seems to separate guys is the makeup and how they're wired or driven," Daly said. "De Vries was at our complex in the Dominican Republic since he signed and we brought him over with the start of Minor League camp, gave him the opportunity to experience it here in Arizona in March and then we'll take it from there."

Like Salas then, De Vries is skipping the Dominican Summer League and will stay in extended spring training. The most likely scenario is that he'll begin at the Arizona Complex League (which Salas skipped), with the earlier start date (May 4) helping to hopefully make it a smooth transition from workouts to real games.

"These guys are gifted players," Daly said about Salas and De Vries. "We feel really comfortable with Ethan in terms of his makeup and mentality and mindset, and every indication we've gotten in our time being around Leo ever since he signed -- but also from the work that our scouting group did beforehand -- was this kid is wired to be able to handle it on the field and off the field. Once we see how he handles himself here, then we'll have a better idea of how quickly he progresses.

"In the words of legendary scout Don Welke, 'push the gifted,'" Daly said. "I think we've shown we're very willing to have players advance in the system."

Camp standout: Carson Montgomery

A big-time high school prospect in 2020, Montgomery's commitment to Florida State and the pandemic-shortened Draft sent him to pitch for the Seminoles. He had an uneven college career -- including losing his rotation spot in 2023 -- but the Padres thought he was worth a $200,000 gamble in the 11th round. He didn't throw a pitch after signing, with a broken wrist keeping him out of instructs, so the club was getting its first look at him this spring. Suffice it to say, they like what they see, and he earned a spot on the Padres' Spring Breakout roster.

The right-hander has worked hard to rediscover his old form, and the early returns are very promising. He's been showcasing a solid four-pitch mix in camp, with a four-seamer in the 93-95 mph range, an effective slider that's been up to 87 mph, an 83-84 mph changeup and a slower, 80-82 mph slurvy breaking ball. The big thing will be his command after walking 7.4 per nine at Florida State last year, but he's been much more around the zone in the early going this spring.

Breakout candidate: Homer Bush Jr.

The son of the former big leaguer of the same name, Bush's .370/.478/.500 line with 25 steals at Grand Canyon University in 2023 helped him land in the fourth round of that summer's Draft. He kept the good times rolling by touching Double-A in his first full season and finishing with a .325/.422/.440 line with 22 more steals in 44 games. The one thing that has been questioned for Bush has been his impact and if there's power in there. The 6-foot-3 outfielder hit just four homers in his college career and added three during his pro debut.

"It's rare that guys that are that big and physical don't ultimately hit for power," Daly said. "Our focus now for him is to continue to hit line drives, use the whole field. We feel really good once he continues to progress with the bat in terms of barrel accuracy and being able to hit line drives as he gets more at-bats and gets more experience. He's going to be able to drive balls in the gap and then drive balls out of the ballpark."

The speed will always be there, not that he's been content to just show up and let that natural gift do its thing. He's worked to improve, wanting to best his 60-yard dash time of around 6.25-6.3 seconds the Padres timed him at after signing. This spring, he came in at 6.15.

"He worked extremely hard in the offseason," Daly said. "Guys that are that big and physical and love to play, who can run and have a feel to hit and play all over the place, we're very excited about the possibilities this year for Homer."

Something to prove: Dylan Lesko

When the Padres took Lesko in the first round of the 2022 Draft, they knew they'd have to wait for any kind of return on the investment. He had undergone Tommy John surgery in April of that year and would need time to rehab and get going. He did that with 33 innings in 2023, and now it's time for him to show what he's really all about.

"We knew the 2023 season was going to be just to get him back on his feet, get him back in games, get him comfortable being back on the mound. And he was able to do that," Daly said. "This is the year we've all been eyeing. He's fully healthy. It's a real opportunity to really go. We're excited about where he starts and finishes. He's been an incredible worker for us and we knew the talent was really good. Our scouting group did a heck of a job really knowing Dylan as a person and his drive. He's really poised to have a breakout 2024 season."