Summary: After playing some very bad baseball in 2015, the Storm put a much better product on the field finishing only two games under .500 at 69-71, and Lake Elsinore fans saw two of the best position products the Padres have below Double-A in second baseman Luis Urias and center fielder Michael Gettys, who arrived in the second half.
The bad news was shortstop Javier Guerra, who many - including us - thought was the best prospect in the Padres’ system had a miserable year hitting only .202. The good news was two young talents in outfielder Franchy Cordero and right fielder Franmil Reyes finally began to tap into their enormous potential that they had regularly put on display in the back fields of Peoria during the spring.
Approach: We use a simple formula for the awards. A player is eligible with whichever team he appeared for the most. For the top prospect, we take into account not just what the player did this year, but his age and potential impact in the major leagues.
Level: The San Diego Padres’ High-A affiliate in the California League is mainly comprised of second- and third-year players. While Lake Elsinore is a pitcher’s park by Cal League standards, that’s more a reflection of how many stadiums on the circuit are more similar to video games than typical ballparks.
Player of the Year: 2B Luis Urias .330/.397/.440, 26 2B 5 3B 5 HR
Despite being more than four years younger than the league average at 19, Urias led the Cal League in hitting and, by all measures, played a very good defensive second base. There are many superlatives that all of us are going to use; here are mine. In the second half he hit .347/.420/.493 and he only struck out 36 times in 506 plate appearances on the year.
He has a unique ability to put the barrel of the bat on the ball and is very good at not swinging at balls outside the zone. He has the ability to play shortstop, but is better suited to second - although he does have a shortstop’s arm. His only negative this year was seven stolen bases in 20 attempts.
Runner-up: RF Franmil Reyes .278/.340/.452, 32 2B 3 3B 16 HR, 83 RBI
For me it was close between Cordero and Reyes, but Reyes’ second half is what put him over the top when he hit .320/.386/.522 after hitting .233/.290/.379 in the first half. He was second to Urias in hits, but led the team in doubles, home runs, RBI and total bases with 223. A huge man at six-foot-five, 245 pounds, if he can continue his second half into Double-A in 2017 he is going to draw some attention.
Player of the Year: 2B Luis Urias
Despite a breakout year with Fort Wayne in 2015, most experts had Urias in the back half of their top 30 lists, with some even completely leaving him out. They all cited his lack of power and arm strength as a reason for ranking him so low. Urias responded with 36 extra-base hits including five home runs. He also showed his increased arm strength when he moved over to third. Looking at his season stats, Urias had 40 walks and only 36 strikeouts. It’s a great season when your walk and strikeout totals are close to 1:1; it’s almost unheard of to have your strikeouts and extra base hits to be at 1:1. If that wasn’t enough, for the final feather in his cap, Urias is still just 19 and four years younger than the average age of his competitors.
Runner-up: RF Franmil Reyes
Two months ago, Franmil Reyes might not even have made the “others of note” section. His first two months featured a batting average just north of .200 and an OPS at 600 including just two home runs. Over his last three months he became a different player. He clobbered 14 home runs, walked more, struck out less, and had an OPS close to .900. It was all capped off in August when Reyes hit .358/.414/.613. At 21, Reyes is still young for the league, and while he seems to have been with the team for years, next year should be his first crack at Double-A.
Player of the Year: 2B Luis Urias
My biggest mistake of my top-30 prospect list last season was placing Urias at #28 -- an oversight that won’t happen this year. The 19-year-old won the Cal League Rookie of the Year, MVP and a batting title on his way to an amazing year. The teenager started to develop power, delivering 36 extra-base hits, including a career-high five homers. (Six if you include his brief stint in Triple-A). The infielder also walked 40 times, while striking out 36 times against pitchers far older than him. Urias may have been the best all-around player in the system in 2016.
Runner-up: INF Josh VanMeter: .267/.355/.443, 21 2B, 2 3B 12 HR, 51 RBI, 48 BB, 64 K.
Franmil Reyes and Franchy Cordero were strong contenders for me but I will give the slight nod to VanMeter. VanMeter, 21, missed most of last season with a leg injury. The organization moved him to third to accommodate Luis Urias and the left-handed hitter found his power stroke. He hit a career-high 12 dingers for the Storm and was tied for the team lead before a late-season promotion to San Antonio. VanMeter made consistent contact and made the Cal League All-Star team in 2016. While he scuffled a bit in Double-A, he will represent the organization in the Arizona Fall League later this month.
Player of the Year: Luis Urias
Urias emerged with one of the most impressive seasons in the organization in 2016. A year ago, he might easily have been mistaken for a bat boy in the clubhouse. But he’s started to grow into some strength and parlayed his preternatural ability to barrel just about any pitch into a league MVP award. The native of Sonora, Mexico, finished his third consecutive season with more walks than strikeouts and more than tripled his previous extra-base production. While he held his own in 33 starts on the left side of the infield, he will continue to advance primarily as at second base, where his bat-to-ball skills help him profile as a big league contributor.
Runner-up: 3B Josh VanMeter
While I’ve been driving the Franmil Reyes Bandwagon for several years, VanMeter’s performance for the Storm was the superior one. The 21-year-old found a defensive home at third base and blew through the first half of the year in the Cal League after missing almost all of 2015. On a per-plate appearance basis, VanMeter led the club in homers and total bases, and he drew more walks in 95 games than anyone else on the team managed all year. Despite the rough end to the year in Double-A San Antonio, VanMeter more than reestablished himself this year, and showed that his bat can be enough to carry him as a prospect.
Others of note:
There were a number of questions about Franchy Cordero coming into the year, but the former shortstop did a lot to answer many of them. Having seemingly found a defensive home in center after finally moving off the infield dirt last summer, the 22-year-old posted a .783 OPS for the Storm before moving up to San Antonio to create space for Michael Gettys in July. While he still struck out at an alarming rate, it was definitely a building block year for Cordero. when he made contact, Edwin Moreno did plenty of damage. Unfortunately, the left-handed slugger, who posted a team-best .469 slugging percentage, whiffed in 30 percent of his plate appearances, often flailing wildly at pitches out of the zone. He’ll need to improve his pitch recognition if he’s going to unlock his underlying abilities. When Josh Naylor came over in the Andrew Cashner trade, he supplanted Urias as the youngest player on the roster - and in the league. The 2015 first-rounder out of Canada had only eight extra-base hits in 144 plate appearances, ensuring that he’ll be back in Elsinore to open the 2017 season.
The biggest - and worst - storyline of the year in Elsinore was the absolutely brutal showing of Javier Guerra in his first season in the organization. Not only did the strike out in a third of his plate appearances on the way to a .589 OPS, he committed 30 errors while regularly misplaying balls. There’s no way to sugarcoat it, Guerra was a disaster on both sides of the ball, and he regularly seemed to be checked out mentally. After shutting him down with a non-baseball injury in August, the Padres will have to figure out how to try to help the talented Panamanian convert on his raw ability in a reboot year in 2017.
2016 MadFriars’ Lake Elsinore Storm Player of the Year: Luis Urias
Top Prospect: Luis Urias
Urias is not likely a future star. But his hitting, while lacking big power, is one of the best tools in the organization and we expect him to continue to thrive against higher-level pitching because of both his mental and physical approach. With enough skill to play above average defense at second base and enough acumen to eventually contribute at third base as well, Urias is likely looking at a long and productive big league career. And in a city that knows a thing or two about watching a player collect batting titles, Urias is a good bet for at least one before he’s even reached his peak years in the mid 2020s.
Tomorrow we look at some of the top arms on the Storm in which may be the toughest league in the system to pitch.