Prospect-rich camp a chance for many Friars
SAN DIEGO -- Ryan Weathers needed a moment just to remind himself that, yes, this was really happening.
In a normal season, he'd probably have been on a mound somewhere in the California League, pitching for Lake Elsinore. Instead, he was in an empty Petco Park in mid-July, and it all felt a bit surreal. Then, Fernando Tatis Jr. strode to the plate.
"I was fan-girling when I was facing him," joked Weathers, a 20-year-old left-hander and the team's No. 9 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline. "Then Manny Machado steps in the box, and I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, I'm pitching to Manny Machado, what am I doing?' I had to lock it back in and be like, all right, you've actually got to pitch now. That was really cool, and it was just good to see where I'm at and see how my stuff plays against them."
Plays pretty well, actually. Weathers pitched two scoreless frames on Sunday, including a strikeout of Tatis. Padres brass came away impressed -- specifically because Weathers, whose fastball sat in the low 90s last season, was routinely hitting 95-97 mph on Sunday.
Weathers is just one example of a Padres prospect holding his own against big league competition this month. There are perhaps a dozen more.
No team in baseball skewed more prospect-heavy in its 60-player pool than San Diego. The Padres called upon each of their top 14 prospects, per MLB Pipeline, and that doesn’t include outfielder Robert Hassell III and right-hander Cole Wilcox, who aren't ranked yet because they were just drafted.
"It's a great opportunity for these guys, even just to be around it," said Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer. "These guys get to watch Tatis take batting practice and Manny taking ground balls at third. For those guys to have eyes on these guys on a day-to-day basis, see the work ethic ... it's extremely beneficial.
"Those guys have been great. They work their tail off, and they're asking the older guys the right questions. They truly want to get better, and then when the game comes, you can see the competitiveness. These guys want to come at you, and they want to prove themselves. It makes for a competitive camp."
That last part is key. Weathers is among a group of about 10 to 12 prospects who have almost no chance of cracking the big league roster this season. The Padres insist they're still going to play a key role in the team's success.
Consider this: Without a Minor League season, players left off the Opening Day roster will only have one source of game action to stay fresh. They'll be playing nightly intrasquad games alongside prospects at the team's alternate training site. It's imperative that those prospects perform to a certain standard.
"The expectation on you is to go out and do your job and perform like a big leaguer would," said 19-year-old outfield prospect Hudson Head, who has been a semi-regular participant in the nightly big league intrasquads.
Head, Weathers and other lower-level Padres prospects have a unique day-to-day experience at Summer Camp. There are about 40 players competing for places on the Opening Day roster who work out at Petco Park, while the prospects group spends its days at the University of San Diego.
They meet with player development staff each morning to go over the previous night's intrasquad game and lay out that day’s expectations. Then they stretch and work on defensive drills before going through batting practice.
"It's a smaller group here with the prospects, so it's more personal with all the coaches and stuff," Head said. "You get more one-on-one time. And if we have scrimmage or get live at-bats, we're facing big league arms and seeing big league competition. So I think, if anything, it might even fast-track [our development]."
Each night, a small handful of those prospects are chosen to participate in the intrasquad game so the Padres can fill out two lineup cards. The rest of the Minor League group watches the game from the stands, taking notes for their meeting the following morning.
Sometimes prospects play defense exclusively, giving the big league regulars extra at-bats. But the Padres haven't been shy about working their youngsters into game action. Weathers turned heads with his performance Sunday. Offensively, infielders CJ Abrams and Tucupita Marcano have been standouts. Abrams' elite bat-to-ball skills have translated against big league pitching. Marcano, meanwhile, has looked sharp all month, and he took Padres reliever Pierce Johnson deep on Monday night.
"They can hold their own,” said Padres catcher Austin Hedges. “It blows me away, because I remember when I was their age, if I was in some sort of big league camp, I'd be scared out of my mind playing against guys like Hoz and Machado on the same field. They don't seem fazed at all."
When Padres general manager A.J. Preller began constructing his pool of 60 players for the 2020 season, his first focus was on the big league club. But he knew there was little chance the Padres would approach using 60 players for a 60-game season.
Thus, Preller deemed it critically important to use a few of those places to ensure player development. It made it easier that he knew he could count on those prospects to perform.
"We all get to make each other better," said Weathers. "There's constant communication -- that's a big key to making each other better. And then, obviously, the competition."
Added Head: "It's good for all of us. You get to learn what it takes to be a big leaguer every day."