Over the last two and a half years, the Padres' organization has made a number of significant changes to their approaches in player development. From seemingly small adjustments like having music playing throughout the back fields during workouts to boost energy levels, to a major investment to grow the staff that works with their minor league prospects, the organization has made a priority of making sure that once players get into the system, the team maximizes their development.
While that work has happened with input from dozens above and below him in the organization, ultimately the responsibility for all of that work falls to Sam Geaney. He took time out during spring training to talk with MadFriars about some of the mechanics of the team's decision-making, approaches on development, and what is driving their thinking at a time when the club is "all-in" on acquiring and developing players who have the chance to go on to be impact big-leaguers.
MadFriars: With all the players you have in camp, you have a lot of decisions to make. How do you feel about where you are in your ability to really evaluate guys compared to when you last saw them in the fall?
Sam Geaney: I think it’s an ongoing process. You do give credence to the body of work last year, but there’s a lot of guys in this camp, who I think had really good offseasons and I think improved themselves on and off the field in the weight room. And it’s not really by surprise either. We stayed in touch with these guys and knew what they were up to in the offseason. So, you want to allow for those kinds of positive developments, but I think there’s no exact science as far as how much you evaluate spring training versus factoring in last year. There are obviously examples of guys having very strong springs and that being indicative – or not – of good things.
With only two-plus weeks of games, you don’t really have that many chances to get from 220 to 150 players?
Sam Geaney: I think the number’s probably a little higher than that. We’re going to have two teams in extended, two teams that will turn into three teams obviously with the draft. And there’s maybe a handful of guys who are going to join us from the Dominican for the AZL teams, but there are also maybe a couple guys that you’re seeing here who are going to play in the Dominican this year. I think the number’s going to be somewhat larger. At the minimum, it’s going to be somewhere in the range of 35 or 40 pitchers I’d think, plus. So it’s a little beyond that 150 number I’d say.
With the number of guys you’ve got, and tighter competition through the system, that potentially lets you be a little less aggressive with assignments. How do you balance wanting to get guys out to clubs with wanting a little extra time to see some guys who might otherwise get passed.
Sam Geaney: I think two points. I think we’re at a point where it’s going to be a very strong Triple-A club. Last year, obviously we had a lot of our guys there – Hunter and Hedges and Margot. This year’s going to be a little bit of a conventional six-year free agent team from the looks of it, though some of that can change. But it has created a – not a back-up, but I think in a good way, we’ve had guys playing at that Double-A last year where they were, just in number of professional at-bats, it might have been a little before their time. But that’s where we were, but now we’re in a different spot.
I think as far as the young guys, when we sit down in the offseason and think about making those decisions, I think that generally, we’re going to shy away with the younger group, from being super influenced by what we see in a short spring training. One way of looking at it, you line up your 30 to 50 top prospects and look at where you want to place those guys. And a Double-A depth situation should not and will not get in the way of placing our young, top prospects. They’re going to go where they need to go in terms of their development right now, and then we’ll kind of work backwards.
The Rays have gone really slowly with their young pitchers early and then accelerated their development pace as they get closer to the big leagues. As you’re getting to a place where you’ve got a chance to do it, do you see moving toward that sort of approach?
Sam Geaney: I wouldn’t say it’s going to exactly mirror what the Rays are using, but it’s been a constant discussion. Obviously, we took one approach last year, sending a lot of those young starters out and, with a lot of work the staff did, getting Nix and Smith and Cosme around 100 innings. So that was one route.
We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what’s going to ultimately give us the best chance to develop 10, 15, 20 of these guys into major league starting pitchers and we have some ideas. Without getting too much into it, it’s probably going to be a little bit of a departure from last year based on some ideas from our group – baseball operations, player development, scouting – have about what’s going to be the best way to build these guys up so that they’re prepared to handle a major league workload in a couple of years.
Do you see longer times to get to inning totals?
Sam Geaney: No, I wouldn’t expect a significant departure there. I think generally, the hope would be to get these younger guys to around 100 innings in whatever their throwing period is – whether that’s April through the end of August, or that’s May 15 through instructional league, or that’s May 15 through the end of August. There are several different ways to get to first year numbers for these guys.
If your goal is 100 innings total, but you’re still going to have guys throwing innings out here in extended, how do you make sure that they internalize that and that you’re not really getting them 130 innings, with 30 of them simply not appearing on a stat sheet anywhere?
Sam Geaney: I think it’s really not altering or changing, but refocusing how these guys – and this is really an industry question about developing pitching. I think it bleeds in from everything we do, from our throwing programs, our side sessions, our arm care, strength and conditioning – it’s all connected. It’d be easy if you could just say, ‘our guys need to throw and do this on their side days’ and they’d be able to throw 140 innings in Double-A. All those are things we spend a lot of time as an organization thinking about – we want guys to develop the feel to pitch and pitch deep into ballgames, but things that are increasingly difficult to find out there.
How much are you incorporating some the biometrics and wearable technology into your evaluation – both of specific players and of what is and isn’t working in approach?
Sam Geaney: The generic answer is that we’re using all technologies at our disposal. A lot of it is going to be on the strength and conditioning side, monitoring how these guys recover and how much we’re pushing them. But, as with a lot of things, I don’t think we’re trying to do anything so outside the box, but we’re trying to do things to the best of our ability and gain some competitive advantage.
It seems that Josh Stein’s group has been spending a lot more time over here this spring?
Sam Geaney: Look everybody likes – there’s a lot of good players to watch over here and I wouldn’t read too much into that. This group of players was not assembled via only one approach. It was not assembled entirely via the international class – obviously we had a huge international signing class, but we also had one of our biggest draft classes. And our pro scouting group. So everyone’s been involved in this and everyone across the organization should be proud of raising the stakes for us on the development side. This is where there’s significant investment, which is fun and it’s going to push our staff to be at our best.
You’ve also added around 15 guys to your instruction staff over the last two years, which improves the one-on-one time you get with players, but also has to make it a bit harder to manage it all?
Sam Geaney: It’s a large department. It’s about 80 staff members when you consider the athletic training side, the strength and conditioning side, as well as the on-field staff. I think it’s about using our core circle of folks on the development side – myself and Ben [Sestanovich], Mark [Prior], Luis [Ortiz] and Ryley [Westman]. It’s how AJ operates – he likes a lot of people and ideas, but it does make communication of the essence. Like every organization, we’re continually striving to be better at. Because it’s quite the operation. And it’s about trusting your people. The work Luis and Mark do to run this whole thing and make it all work so that we can sit here and have it go off without a hitch.
A fun thing over the next couple of years, and something we’re going to take a lot of pride in, is developing these young – and even veteran – staff members. Because they’re going to grow and advance in their own careers alongside some of these young players. Hopefully that’ll be here in more impactful roles, but if not, they’ll get to move on and make a name for themselves as baseball men.