You know the names: Fernando Tatis Jr., Luis Urias, MacKenzie Gore, Michel Baez, Joey Lucchesi, Adrian Morejon, Cal Quantrill, Eric Lauer, Anderson Espinoza. They’re the top prospects in a much-ballyhooed Padres farm system, and, by now, their names roll off the tongue like members of your extended family. But away from the bright lights of the system’s top dozen players, there are a bunch of interesting, less heralded prospects lurking in the shadows of Padres prospect geekdom. Here’s a short list of sleeper prospects to follow in 2018, one that could have been much longer given the amount of depth on the farm.
Pedro Avila, RHP
Pedro Avila, miraculously acquired for Derek Norris back in 2016, burst onto the scene last season when he struck out 17 in an eight-inning outing in August. Avila got a staggering 27 swinging strikes that night, a season high. That number was four marks higher than any outing out of Lucchesi, Quantrill, Gore, Lauer, Logan Allen, and Jacob Nix, and Avila reached 19 whiffs three other times to boot.
He did struggle earlier in the year, at High-A Lake Elsinore, before dropping down to Single-A Fort Wayne in the summer, where he collected most of his high strikeout starts. Even then, Avila’s performance in the California League wasn’t bad—he struck out 52, walked 18, and surrendered just two home runs in 43 1/3 innings, but was stung by an abnormally high .397 BABiP and an offense-happy league.
Avila’s a sub-six-foot right hander, and that’s probably the main knock. He can still run the fastball up there in the mid-90s while offering an excellent curveball and a good change. Just 21, if he can follow up last year’s campaign with a similar one in 2018, performing well at the higher levels, he could vault himself closer to the first tier of pitching prospects in an organization jam-packed with them.
Tirso Ornelas, OF
A sweet-swinging left-handed outfielder from Mexico, Tirso Ornelas was one of the seemingly countless prospects signed in the international class of 2016. Just 17 last year, he made his debut in the Arizona Rookie League, hitting .276/.399/.408 in 238 plate appearances. It’s rookie ball, so the numbers don’t mean much, but Ornelas showed an extremely patient approach—almost too patient, perhaps—striking out or walking in 42.4 percent of his PAs.
Most evaluators seem to think he’ll have to move to an outfield corner as he gets older, so he’ll have to hit. But he’s 6-foot-4, has shown a good approach already, and has a chance to add power given the frame. Outside of the obvious names, like Tatis and Urias, Ornelas could quickly become one of the best position player prospects in the system.
Osvaldo Hernandez, LHP
Across three levels—the AZL, Single-A, and High-A—Osvaldo Hernandez, a 19-year-old left-handed Cuban, posted a 5.02 ERA with much better peripherals, as he struck out 11.6 per nine, walked 2.4 per nine, and allowed just three home runs in 52 innings. Generally known as a polished arm for his age, Hernandez gets by with pitching smarts more so than overpowering stuff. Unlike Avila, he didn’t get a ton of swinging strikes last season, so it’ll be interesting to see if he’s able to carry the high strikeout numbers up the minor-league ladder. Still, the stateside debut was impressive overall, and he remains an intriguing yet often-overlooked prospect.
Hansel Rodriguez, RHP
Acquired for Melvin Upton Jr. a couple years back, Hansel Rodriguez posted a 5.62 ERA and a good but not great 2.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio through 10 starts in Fort Wayne last year. Then the Padres moved him to the bullpen and everything clicked. Rodriguez struck out five in an extended three-inning relief appearance on June 13, his first day in the bullpen (an outing I happened to catch in person), and ended the season with gaudy numbers from the ‘pen: 40 1/3 innings, 56 strikeouts, nine walks, one home run, 1.56 ERA. Whew.
It’s usually not advised to get too excited about relief pitching prospects, but Rodriguez went two or more innings in 10 of his relief appearances last year, so it’s possible the Padres could still work him back into the rotation. Even if he stays in the ‘pen, he could have an big future there thanks to his age, performance, and high-octane stuff.
Austin Allen, C
A big-bodied catcher, the then-23-year-old Austin Allen slashed .283/353/.497 with 54 extra-base hits last year at High-A Lake Elsinore. He showed a significant power bump in 2017, smashing 22 home runs after hitting just 10 in his first 165 professional games. Part of that could probably be attributed to the hitter-friendly Cal League, but there were also some positive adjustments out of Allen, a 6-foot-4 catcher who’s learning to get more out of his frame.
Behind the plate, Allen’s still a work in progress. He lacks the lateral mobility of a solid big-league backstop, and below average pop times helped lead to 100 stolen bases allowed in 126 attempts last year alone. On the plus side, Allen’s shown good receiving skills behind the dish thus far, and it’s possible that he could recoup lost value in other areas with his pitch framing. Allen’s blocked by Austin Hedges in the majors, but his left-handed, offense-oriented approach could make him an excellent complement to Hedges in a bench role down the road.
Eguy Rosario, INF
Infielder Eguy Rosario was aggressively placed at Single-A Fort Wayne as a 17-year-old last season, predictably struggled to keep his head above water, and then was sent back down to the age-appropriate AZL, where he posted a .786 OPS and racked up 20 extra-base hits and 16 steals in just 50 games. Add in good performance as a 16-year-old in 2016, good bat speed, instincts, and early experience at both second and third, and there’s a lot to like here. Rosario could be limited some by his size—unlike the two players he’s sandwiched between here, he’s a pint-sized 5-foot-9—but he’s young enough that even solid performance when he gets back to Fort Wayne this year would be promising and ahead of schedule.
Brad Zunica, 1B
Allen and Brad Zunica may as well be prospect cousins. Like Allen, Zunica is big—he’s listed at 6-foot-6, 254 pounds, but he probably weighs more than that. He also found his power stroke in 2017, as a repeat of Single-A Fort Wayne, at age-21, brought about a career-high 18 home runs (in just 330 plate appearances) and nearly a 100-point jump in ISO.
Despite the success, Zunica’s blocked in the organization by Eric Hosmer at the big-league level and Josh Naylor ahead of him in the minors. At his size, it’s unlikely he’ll find a home at another position, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him end up in another organization if he keeps hitting. (An America League squad would make the most sense, where the DH would give him another place to play.) On the plus side, the Padres don’t have much minor-league first base depth, outside of Naylor, so Zunica should get plenty of reps for the foreseeable future.
Robbie Podorsky, OF
Drafted out of McNeese State last year in the 25th round, Robbie Podorsky stole 58 bases in 105 games between college and the pros. He’s fast. Baseball America tagged him the fastest base runner in the entire Padres system, throwing an elusive 80 grade on his foot speed. He can hit a little bit too, as he slashed .325/.397/.428 in his professional debut split between the AZL and the Northwest League, only striking out 6.8 percent of the time. The power could be nonexistent, as he’s listed at only 5-foot-7, but the blazing speed could help him run into extra doubles and triples. Podorsky won MadFriars‘ player of the year honors last year at Tri-City, and the contact-speed profile makes him one to watch going forward.
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