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.
On the mound the Storm were led by a few pitchers that could eventually find their way into the back of the big league rotation in Walker Lockett, Brett Kennedy and Chris Huffman. The bullpen was the strength of the squad, led by Phil Maton who also played a significant role in El Paso’s run to the PCL title.
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: A mere 75 miles from PETCO Park, Lake Elsinore provides the best opportunity for Padres fans to see prospects coming through the system before they reach the big leagues. While The Diamond is a pitcher’s park by Cal League standards, that’s more of a reflection on how offense-heavy the game can be at other sites across the league. The High-A (or Advanced-A) league features a range of players in their second to fifth professional campaigns, and the Padres have tended to rely on a pitchers in their first full seasons to soak up innings for the Storm.
Pitcher of the Year: RHP Brett Kennedy 3.90 ERA, 109K, 44BB, 114H in 113.2 innings
Kennedy spent the first six weeks of the season overwhelming Midwest League hitters with a running fastball that he can place to all four quadrants of the plate before joining the Storm in mid-May. Once he got to Elsinore, he was consistently in charge, though his season stats are skewed by two starts in High Desert in which he combined to give up 16 runs in six innings. While he walked too many early on as he adjusted to the league, he settled in well and only issued 22 free passes over his final 75 innings. Kennedy profiles as an innings-eater at the back of the rotation, and should anchor the staff in San Antonio in 2017.
Runner-Up: RHP Chris Huffman 3.78 ERA, 98K, 43BB, 126H in 131 innings
While I’m still not exactly sure how he does it, Huffman has now delivered two straight years of high quality work. His velocity isn’t great and his breaking ball gets loopy, but the righty from Fort Defiance, Virginia, keeps hitters off balance and just doesn’t hurt himself. Although he opened the year in the bullpen, Huffman was in the rotation by the end of April and got the nod as the All-Star Game starter after Dinelson Lamet was promoted in early June. While his ERA spiked in the final six weeks of the season, the 23-year-old also started putting together more strikeouts, something he’ll have to carry over when he moves on to San Antonio next year.
Pitcher of the Year: RHP Brett Kennedy
At first glance, Kennedy’s 3.90 ERA isn’t that impressive. However, when you subtract those two disastrous starts in Adelanto (RIP), his ERA drops to 2.69. Kennedy breezed through Fort Wayne and was Lake Elsinore’s best pitcher in his time in Riverside County. Kennedy averaged nearly a strikeout per inning and was the Storm’s most consistent starter.
Runner-Up: LHP Brad Wieck, 1.54 ERA in 26 G (41.1 IP) 16 BB, 62 K
Wieck, acquired last year from the Mets, flourished in his full-time role in the bullpen. The 6’9 lefty deployed a mid-90’s fastball with a sweeping slider to keep Cal League hitters off-balance. The southpaw also made the Cal League All-Star team. Wieck is a guy who has the stuff to be more than just a lefty specialist; in fact righties had a much harder time with him while he was with the Storm.
Pitcher of the Year: RHP Brett Kennedy
Kennedy is a great reason why wins are overrated. In 18 fewer innings than Chris Huffman, he has 11 more strikeouts, and if it wasn’t for two truly awful starts in a venue so bad it no longer has a Cal League team, his ERA would have been 2.69. That would be impressive in any league, and amazing in this one. Watching Kennedy reminds me of former Padres prospects like Joe Wieland, Robbie Erlin and Colin Rea. In an increasingly deep system, Kennedy can get overlooked but could also easily slide into a back of the rotation starter on the big club.
Runner-Up: RHP Phil Maton, 1.91 ERA in 25 G (33 IP) 8 BB, 47 K
Here there is no consensus. Not because no one fits the profile, but because Lake Elsinore had an abundance of pitchers for whom you could make a legitimate argument. Although Walker Lockett is eligible for the pitcher of the year, he also only threw half of the innings of Huffman.
What made Lake Elsinore competitive though was its amazing bullpen. Wieck, Trey Wingenter, Maton, Jose Torres, Colby Blueberg and Kyle McGrath all had outstanding seasons. What sets Maton apart for me though, is that not only were his strikeout numbers well above his innings pitched, but he had the lowest WHIP of any qualifying pitcher. In 33 innings he allowed just 25 baserunners, which would be outstanding if it was Kershaw pitching in the Midwest League, but this is a 20th round pick from last year’s draft pitching in one of the most hitter-friendly leagues in the country.
A late season promotion sent Maton to the Pacific Coast League, where he continued his domination allowing just one hit in six innings striking out 12.
Pitcher of the Year: Walker Lockett 2.98 ERA 56 K 12 BB 57H 66.1 IP 11 GS
The two best pitchers for the Storm this season were Dinelson Lamet and Lockett. Although both Kennedy and Huffman pitched more innings, Lockett averaged six innings an outing, had the lowest batting average against and was second only to Lamet in ERA among starters.
Lockett pitched for all four full-season teams and finished atop the organizational pitching rankings with a 2.96 overall ERA in 164 innings with 123 strikeouts against only 24 walks. He should begin the year in Triple-A El Paso next year and will be on the cusp of a call-up to the big club.
Runner-Up: Brett Kennedy
Not much more to add on the 11th round pick from Fordham in 2015 that hasn’t already been written above. Kennedy has three solid pitches to be successful in Double-A, but the key, as with anyone when they go up, will be how consistent he can be with them to continue his success.
Others of Note: Because Lamet threw more innings in Double-A San Antonio we will discuss him in more depth when we get to the Missions. One of the many talents Padres’ General Manager A.J. Preller has demonstrated in the past two years is an ability to flip veteran relief pitchers for high quality pitching prospects. He did it this season with Fernando Rodney and in the 2015 offseason he acquired RHP Enyel De Los Santos for reliever Joaquin Benoit from Seattle - who eventually ended up in a salary dump to Toronto. De Los Santos was up-and-down this season but he's only 20 years old and can touch 97 with his fastball. Right-handed reliever Colby Blueberg had a terrific first half with a 0.90 ERA in 30 innings with 31 strikeouts and only two walks and then a tough second one where he posted a 3.52 ERA, three blown saves and a disastrous 29/23 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Giant right-hander Trey Wingenter, at six-foot-seven, is one of the many very tall pitchers that now populate the Padres’ system. He began the year in Fort Wayne, had a brief taste of Double-A in San Antonio, but spent the majority of the year with the Storm. With Lake Elsinore he struck out 46 against 17 walks in 44.2 innings for a 2.03 ERA.
MadFriars’ 2016 Cal League Pitcher of the Year: Brett Kennedy
Top Pitching Prospect: Walker Lockett
Enyel De Los Santos has more ceiling but before putting him over Lockett we would have to see a little more of it during games. Lockett has a solid ability to throw consistent sinking fastballs to pound the zone and eat innings, which he showed he could do this year. The six-foot-five Floridian had a tremendous bounce back season from last year and should make his debut in San Diego sometime next season.
Tomorrow we chat with Sam Geaney, the Padres Director of Player Development, on the top prospects he saw in Lake Elsinore during 2016.