Summary: In their first year as a Padres affiliate, the Chihuahuas finished with a winning record. In the second, they made the playoffs; this year, they won the PCL title, finishing one game short of the overall Triple-A championship.
Despite a patchwork pitching staff for most of the year, El Paso was able to put four to five prospects on the field who have a legitimate chance of becoming major league regulars.
Catcher Austin Hedges, outfielders Manuel Margot, Hunter Renfroe and infielder Carlos Asuaje dominated most of the discussion about the team - and no, we are not going to refer to them as the “Core Four” - but other players such as late additions of pitchers Walker Lockett, Phil Maton and Dinelson Lamet played a big role in propelling them to the championship. Outfielder Alex Dickerson, who had a slash line of .382/.425/.622, and infielder Ryan Schimpf, who blasted 15 home runs, both played big parts in the team’s success before earning promotions midway through the season.
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.
Technically, Hedges does not count as a prospect because he had too many big league at-bats in the team’s ill-advised decision to promote him during 2015. Because of his age, 24, and the fact that he spent all but eight games this year in El Paso, we are going to count him as a prospect for the purposes of this review.
Level: The Triple-A level is a combination of development and a taxi squad for major league teams. At this level, many players are good enough to be in the major leagues but, thanks to roster configuration, organizational need, and perceived or real shortcomings, they are just waiting for their shot.
The Pacific Coast League features some of the more offense-inflating parks in affiliated ball, making it difficult to divine great meaning from many players’ stat lines on the circuit. While El Paso’s park was not as bad for pitching as others in the PCL, notably Las Vegas and Colorado Springs, it is still very much a park where offense is served.
Player of the Year: RF Hunter Renfroe .306/.336/.557 69 XBH, 30 HR 105 RBI
While Renfroe may not quite have put it all together, this was pretty close. He led the organization in home runs, RBI and was fourth overall in batting average. He was tied for the lead in the PCL in home runs, first in extra-base hits, second in slugging percentage and fourth in runs scored.
The only downside is he has some pretty big home-road splits with a 1.049 OPS in the Sun City and .846 elsewhere. The plate discipline is still not quite there, but his approach has grown by leaps and bounds from a year ago. Defensively he is a plus right fielder with a big arm and has the ability to fill in at center.
Runner-up: 2B Carlos Asuaje .321/.378/.473 32 2B 11 3B 9 HR 10 SB 49 BB
At the beginning of the year I didn’t rank Asuaje in my Top 30 prospects, which was a big mistake. The slight left-handed hitting Venezuelan (by way of Florida) had a monster year in his first season with the Padres organization. He led the regulars in on-base percentage, topped the PCL in hits, at-bats and runs scored, and was second in triples. He had a batting average of .321 at home and .322 on the road. Among the three candidates for second base on the big club next year alongside Ryan Schimpf and Corey Spangenberg, he is by far the best defender.
Player of the Year: RF Hunter Renfroe
Margot, Asuaje and Hedges all had great seasons, but let’s be clear: Hunter Renfroe was the league MVP. When you get voted the top player in a 16-team league, I think that means you get the player of the year for your team. Renfroe lead the PCL in home runs and RBI, and was top 10 with 163 hits, 69 extra base hits, 95 runs. Should we also mention his defense? Renfroe has an absolute cannon for an arm and played stellar defense all year in right.
Yes, there are negatives to Renfroe. Mainly that he only walked 25 times all year. This would be more alarming if his strikeout rates were abnormally high (which would come from not having a good eye at the plate). On the contrary, the Padres have worked with Renfroe on putting a good hard swing almost anytime he sees a strike. If it’s in his zone he hits it. Can anyone really complain about a .306/.336/.557 line for the season?
Runner-up: CF Manuel Margot .304/.351/.426 21 2B, 12 3B, 6 HR, 30 SB, 36 BB
Margot has a slight edge over Asuaje for a few reasons. Both players made excellent contact, hit for a high average, and scored exactly 98 runs. Asuaje has a bit more power, but Margot wins dramatically in both speed and defense. Margot led the team with 30 stolen bases. The more remarkable thing is that the next closest was Asuaje with 10. Margot also plays gold-glove quality defense, as was evident in the Futures Game when Margot made an insane catch at Petco. Margot is also one of the youngest players in the league, and at only 22 (as of September) he still can get better.
Player of the Year: RF Hunter Renfroe
It’s hard to choose anyone here aside from the 2016 PCL MVP. Renfroe looked poised to win the triple crown in the hitter-friendly league but cooled off considerably in August. Still, Renfroe homered 30 times, drove in 105 runs and hit over .300. Some may question Renfroe’s discipline but he is an aggressive hitter who looks for a pitch to drive early in the count. The outfielder did cut his strikeouts down and while his home/away splits are a cause for concern, the former first-rounder proved that his power can play in a brief run at the big league level.
Runner-up: C Austin Hedges .326/.353/.597, 20 2B, 21 HR, 82 RBI, 51 K, 13 BB
Asuaje and Margot each played more games and were productive as well but I am going to give the nod to the young catcher who isn’t a prospect. Hedges hammered 21 bombs and his OPS approached 1.000. I don’t know if Hedges will be an offensive force at the big league level, but his power surge is certainly encouraging. Hedges did most of his damage in June, when he hit nine homers, including seven in a ten-game stretch.
Player of the Year: Hunter Renfroe
In most years, what Carlos Asuaje or Austin Hedges did would be plenty to earn the nod here. But there’s a reason Renfroe earned the league MVP award, and it’s why he’s the top performer this year. He’s shaved his strikeout rate at every stop, and while there’s been much wailing and gnashing of teeth about his walk rate this year, Renfroe has shown the ability to post quality walk rates in the past, and I believe in his ability to do so again once he’s fully integrated the lessons from this season into his game.
Runner-up: C Austin Hedges
Twice in three years, the Padres made stunningly poor decisions with Hedges, rushing him to Double-A in 2013 and then squandering a year of development time in 2015. Despite these obstacles, the player everyone knew at the time of the draft would need close to 2,000 minor league at-bats has finally gotten close to that total, and shown that his bat is ready to play enough to let his top-tier defense shine. Hedges posted a .950 OPS this year despite missing time with a hamate injury that usually saps a player’s power significantly. He managed a patchwork pitching staff masterfully, and would have gotten a much longer look in the Majors if his service time wasn’t an issue.
Others of Note: After getting a brief taste of the big leagues last year, Alex Dickerson was back in El Paso to open 2016. But after blasting his way through the first month, he rejoined the Padres, and by the middle of the summer, he was done shuttling back and forth. The Poway native was a major cog in the Chihuahuas offense up until that point, posting an OPS of 1.047. While Dickerson was very much a known commodity coming into the year, Ryan Schimpf was not. A minor league free agent signee who’d whiffed in two previous attempts at Triple-A. But the bat-first infielder demolished the PCL to the tune of a .355/.432/.729 slash line before his own mid-June promotion. Cult hero Jabari Blash languished on the big league bench as a Rule 5 pick early in the year, but he wound up back in Triple-A after clearing waivers and the Padres got control of him in a trade for cash. There, Blash proceeded to do the two things he’s always done prodigiously - hit for power and strike out. The club will have an interesting decision to make about Blash’s spot on the 40-man roster this winter.
2016 MadFriars’ El Paso Chihuahuas’ Player of the Year: Hunter Renfroe
Top Prospect: Hunter Renfroe (Jay, Charity, Davey)
Were Hedges an eligible prospect, this would be a much tougher decision. But since he’s not, it comes down to Renfroe’s top-of-the-charts power against Margot’s all-around game. The last time the Padres had a middle-of-the-order threat like Renfroe in Triple-A, they cashed him in via trade for Kevin Brown. With no push for the World Series on the immediate horizon, Renfroe will have the chance to prove himself as a true slugging corner outfielder who can power the offense for many years.
Top Prospect: Austin Hedges (Conniff)
[NOTE: John has trouble following basic directions, but he's the publisher, so he gets to cast his vote here even though it doesn't follow our policy.]
Of all the players who spent the majority of their time in the Padres’ minor leagues in 2016 he easily has the highest upside. Defensively, Hedges has the ability to dominate a game and his breakthrough season at the plate, where he hit for both average and power, has transformed him into one of the top prospects in baseball. Renfroe, Asuaje and Margot will all be candidates for big league jobs in 2017, but Hedges will take over San Diego’s catching position, and will hold it as long as they can afford him.
Tomorrow we look at the top pitchers in El Paso.