That quartet joins one of the deepest collections of pitching talent in the minors. The Padres have high-upside hurlers at every level of the system, but while the top three positional prospects also have All-Star potential, their ranks thin out much more quickly.
1 Robbie Erlin LHP
The Padres shut down Erlin for several months during the season out of an abundance of caution. That's appropriate for such a valuable commodity. Erlin assuaged fears when he got back on the mound in August and further solidified his position as one of the best lefthanded prospects in the game when he went out to the offense-friendly Arizona Fall League and – as he has at every level of the minors – posted a sub-3.00 ERA. The Scotts Valley native is more than a crafty lefty, working with a fastball with both solid velocity and good movement. While he likely will start 2013 in the minors, it would not be a shock to see him starting in the Majors well before the All-Star break.
2 Rymer Liriano RF
Some scouts and observers continue to murmur about Liriano's mental approach. That's absurd. The 21-year-old Dominican has a complete package of tools to make a difference in every aspect of the game, and has shown a remarkable ability to make adjustments and improve at each stop. His pattern of slow starts is frustrating, but he continues to overcome early setbacks with scalding hot stretches. He has demonstrated strong acumen in adjusting not just on the field, but dealing with cultural transitions as well. His speed may eventually disappear, but his power is just starting to translate into game situations and will more than make up for any downturn. Even after a strong showing in the AFL, Liriano would be well served to spend the entirety of 2013 in the minors, but he has the ability to become a cornerstone of the organization.
3 Jedd Gyorko 3B
The 2010 second rounder is the most MLB-ready position player in the system, although the MLB club isn't necessarily ready for him. The bat-first infielder doesn't have a natural spot on the big league roster while Chase Headley mans the hot corner, but there's nothing left for him to prove in Tucson. The fact that the 24-year-old has only thrived in offense-friendly environments in somewhat concerning, but his simple approach and mechanics bode well for continued success. The club will wait until spring training to decide if they feel best about having him at second base in the big leagues, or letting him continue to torment Pacific Coast League pitching while they see how things shake out.
4 Casey Kelly RHP
The lone remaining valuable piece from the Adrian Gonzalez trade, Kelly's on-field performance in 2012 gave credence to scouts who have argued for patience to let him develop since he was a first-round pick. After a stellar spring training, the righty turned in two tantalizing starts in Triple-A before joining virtually every other player in the Padres organization on the disabled list. He came back to post a 25:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in six more minor league appearances before making his big league debut in August. With a perfect pitcher's frame, fantastic athleticism and strong baseball acumen, Kelly is a guy whose sum is greater than the total of his (already impressive) parts.
5 Austin Hedges C
Catchers with Hedges' impressive defensive skillset can be incredibly valuable even with limited offensive contributions (see the pre-2011 version of Yadier Molina). When they suddenly produce offensively as well, they become elite players (see 2012 version of Yadier Molina). A second-round choice in 2011, Hedges was roughly 20 percent better than Midwest League average at the plate as a 19-year-old in his first professional campaign. That puts him in the same category as guys like Brian McCann and Carlos Santana (and yes, Jarrod Saltalamacchia too). That's good company to keep and reason to expect him to surge up national ratings lists following a campaign in the Cal League.
6 Max Fried LHP
The top lefthanded high school pitcher in the 2012 draft, Fried has everything you want in a young pitcher. He's already got above-average velocity, has a good feel for a great downer curve ball and can use his changeup effectively, and his frame and mechanics just scream projectability. Fried, who doesn't turn 19 until January, will likely begin the year in Ft. Wayne as the anchor of an incredibly young, interesting pitching staff and has the combination of stuff and acumen to become a top-of the-rotation starter.
7 Joe Ross RHP
The 2012 campaign was a disappointing professional debut for the righty from Oakland, but he finished with a flourish in Eugene and remains one of the more talented arms in a deep system. Ross, who will still be 19 for the first two months of next season, has great raw stuff to work with and relies on better mechanics than his talented yet oft-injured older brother. After missing the middle half of the season, Ross came back to short season Eugene, where he overmatched many opponents with a combination of a mid-90s fastball and strong supporting breaking and offspeed pitches. He needs to keep his ball down more consistently, but the 2011 first rounder is not far behind Fried as the best of an impressive crop of teenage pitchers in the system.
8 Matt Wisler RHP
While he came out of high school with much less acclaim than Ross in 2011, Wisler is the one who delivered a dominant performance in his first professional season. The seventh-rounder from Ohio finished in the Midwest League's top 10 for virtually every ratio statistic, including top the circuit FIP and finishing third in ERA. In 114 innings, he posted a healthy 113-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio and allowed just one homer all year. Wisler still has projection in his frame and, despite flying under the prospecting radar, is an enticing combination of current ability and future upside.
9 Burch Smith RHP
Another late-round, six-figure signee from the class of 2011, Smith is a big-bodied righty from Texas. After winning a national junior college championship, he spent one year pitching for the University of Oklahoma where he flashed strikeout stuff that persuaded the Padres to open the wallet for him. In his professional debut, the 21-year-old rewarded the club, striking out more than a quarter of the hitters he faced and walking just 27 in 128 innings. With the league context, his 3.85 ERA in his first pro season was impressive and several observers think there's more in there.
10 Jace Peterson SS
While he still has edges to smooth out, the former cornerback showed a strong acumen for the game in his first full season. When things are right, he shows ability as a top-of-the-order threat with strong contact skills and great usable speed on the bases. He needs to clean up his defense, but has the athletic ability to be an above-average shortstop. He'll be 23 in the Cal League in 2013, so it wouldn't be a shock if the organization tries to get him a mid-year promotion if things are going well.
11 Keyvius Sampson RHP
Last year, I put him at the top of my list and said that the organization had the luxury of moving him up slowly. Instead, they gave him a massive jump from Low-A to the Texas League and the righty struggled all year. On the up side, he still struck out a batter per inning and was quite effective in the comfortable confines of Wolff Stadium. But overall, the season was a huge disappointment as the still-growing 21-year-old posted a 5.00 ERA. But the raw stuff is still there when his mechanics don't flatten out the fastball and Sampson still has the potential to be an important big league starter.
12 Matt Andriese RHP
Another arm from what could go down as a system-defining 2011 draft for the previous front office regime, the Riverside County native was nearly as impressive as Smith in the Cal League for his inaugural pro season. Old for his draft class, the now-23-year-old faded a bit down the stretch, but showed what he could do during a run in June and July when he was nearly unhittable. His upside isn't quite at the level of Smith's, but he will be in San Antonio with an arsenal that screams mid-rotation inning eater.
13 Adys Portillo RHP
For the first three years of his professional career, the one-time bonus baby left onlookers wondering what could happen if he ever turned his considerable raw ability into on-field performance. For the first three months of the year, he answered the question: stymie opposing hitters. But as much as 2012 was a great leap forward for the big 20 year old, he still walked a ton of hitters in the Midwest League and the wheels came off when the organization aggressively promoted him to Double-A. He still could take another quantum leap forward in 2013 or beyond, but I'd rather put my money on some of the lower ceilings I ranked higher because they are much safer bets.
The forgotten man of the Padres 2012 campaign, Darnell opened the year in Tucson, got a brief cameo in San Diego, then injured his non-throwing shoulder for the second time in nine months just after he returned to Triple-A. The former second round pick murdered the Texas League in 2011 and has the right-handed power profile the club likes. But like Gyorko, where he fits on the current big league club is something of a mystery. I wouldn't be shocked if the organization tries to get him some time at first base early in 2013.
15 Walker Weickel RHP
The towering Floridian is seemingly pulled from central casting as the prototypical big righty pitcher. Already able to work in the 92-93 range with his fastball, most expect some increase as he adds mass in the coming years. He will probably need to leave behind the slow breaking ball for something that isn't quite as recognizable out of his hand, but Weickel has plenty of tools to draw on as he looks to build on a promising professional debut.
16 Joe Wieland RHP
A Tommy John surgery victim after only 27 big league innings this year, Wieland has plenty going for him. Without the injury, he'd be noticeably higher on the list (or, more likely, off it entirely because he would have used up his eligibility). But the notion that coming back from ligament replacement is easy and a foregone conclusion isn't nearly as true as some observers like to pretend it is. It will be late 2013 before he is on a mound anywhere and we won't really have a read until spring training in 2014.
17 Yeison Asencio RF
Now that his age and identity are really known, Asencio is under the gun to move up the system quickly. But as a 22-year-old, he showed a full package of tools for Fort Wayne on his way to the Midwest League batting crown. He has an uncanny ability to put the bat on the ball – he's struck out in just 10 percent of his plate appearances – but walks even less frequently. Scouts are divided on how he'll do against more advanced pitching, but all he's done since coming stateside is hit, and he could get the chance to prove himself in Double-A as soon as the start of the 2013 season. Show up early to watch his throwing arm.
18 Donn Roach RHP
Part of the Ernesto Frieri trade in May, the 22-year-old righty makes his living getting everyone to pound his sinker into the ground. While his stuff and physical attributes may lag behind others on the list, Roach gets guys out. A lot. And he's likely to see better results as he continues up the ranks with better defenses behind him. Held to a severe innings cap in 2012, he will likely open the year back in San Antonio where he worked just 17 innings.
19 Brad Boxberger RHP
Another of the shiny toys that came over from Cincinnati in exchange for Mat Latos, Boxberger will be a contributor in the Padres bullpen in 2013. If his slider stays sharp – as it was for Tucson in the second half of the year – he could be earning saves by the middle of the season. At worst, the righty from Fullerton should be a solid middle innings option for the club.
21 Zach Eflin RHP
Stop me if this sounds familiar. Eflin is a big, young righty with mid-90s stuff from a baseball hotbed. The supplemental first rounder came down with Mono shortly after reporting to Peoria, so it will be important to see what sort of weight he is carrying when he shows up for spring training. But the 18-year-old Floridian has a lot of projection to go with plenty of current value. He's more likely than the other 2012 teenagers to be held back in extended.
21 James Needy RHP
Coming into the year, Needy had almost fallen through the cracks and actually opened the season bouncing out to the upper levels to fill innings. But by late May he was an important part of the Fort Wayne bullpen and in August he moved into the rotation with great results. Needy is a great example of why organizations give big-armed pitchers multiple chances and should be an anchor for the Elsinore rotation in 2013.
22 Travis Jankowski CF
Another of the club's 2012 supplemental picks, Jankowski is a true center fielder with line drive power and very good speed. Following a long run in the College World Series, Jankowski didn't sign until later than most college picks and got off to a very cold start. But in August, he put things together and ended on a tear. He will likely open 2013 in Lake Elsinore where his gap power could lead to a lot of triples.
23 Walker Lockett RHP
The final of the Padres' quartet of early round high school hurlers from the 2012 draft, Lockett is another big, physical Florida kid who pushed his velocity into the 90s this spring. A fourth-round pick, Lockett also got some attention as a power-hitting first baseman heading into the draft. He, like all teenage pitchers, will need plenty of time to develop, but has significant upside to work with.
24 Jonathan Galvez 2B
While questions remain whether Galvez can stay at second base, the 21-year-old Dominican continues to produce at the plate even as he confounds some scouts. Galvez lost time to ankle and hamstring injuries in 2012, but when he was on the field, he was an important contributor. He isn't fluid defensively, but has made strides and consideration can be given for a middle infielder with a little speed and an 800 OPS.
25 Juan Oramas LHP
I was bullish on Oramas coming into the season, but things went from bad to worse for the lefty as he began the year by returning to San Antonio, was clubbed around mercilessly for two months and finally succumbed to Tommy John surgery at the end of May. I still like his stuff and he'll be just 23 when he gets back on a mound mid-season.
26 Cory Spangenberg
While a concussion midyear certainly didn't help the matter, Spangenberg's first full season was a letdown regardless of the injury as he posted just one month with a wOBA above 300. A slash-and-dash hitter when things are going well, Spangenberg didn't walk much, hit very few line drives and generally didn't take advantage of a beneficial environment in the Cal League.
27 Kevin Quackenbush RHP
Including his stint in the Arizona Fall League after the 2012 campaign, Quackenbush has 157 strikeouts in 109 professional innings, while only 107 hitters have reached base safely against him. He doesn't have the biggest stuff and the club was cautious in keeping him in Elsinore all year, but he'll be entering his third professional season with his earned run total still in the single digits. Not a bad return on the $5,000 bonus the Padres paid the eighth rounder.
28 Matt Stites
A fantastic job of scouting and development, Stites was a 17th-round pick out of Missouri who was generally underestimated because of his size. But the diminutive righty posted a mind-blowing 60 strikeouts against only three walks in 48.2 innings for Fort Wayne. He's added five miles of velocity to his fastball since signing and had a nice showing as the club's Low-A delegate to the AFL. Watch what the organization does in terms of a placement for him in 2013.
Although I'm not normally a fan of ranking middle relievers at any level, Barbato is a bit of an exception. A seven-figure bonus baby in the 2010 draft, Barbato was moved to the pen in 2012 to encourage aggressiveness. The 20-year-old relied on a more consistent fastball to ratchet up his strikeout ratio, cut his walk rate significantly and get a lot of weak contact. Don't be surprised if he swings back to a starting slot in 2013 while the organization sees if he can take his improvements through a lineup more than once.
30 Nate Freiman 1B
The route to the big leagues is not an easy one for a righty-righty first baseman, but Freiman keeps moving down that path each year, and will be in Triple-A for the 2013 campaign. The giant Duke alum had a career high with 24 homers and strangely hit better at home than on the road in the Texas League. It would still be surprising to see the soon-to-be 26-year-old ever hold down a regular big league job, but he has continued to produce even with the odds stacked against him at each level.