The opening of the minor league season on Thursday will mark the start of one of the most important years for player development in the history of the San Diego Padres.
Having spent the last year focusing on acquiring as much minor league talent as possible through trade, the draft and a massive foray into the international market, this season will be critical in the team's latest - but much better thought out - "build-from-the-ground-up" strategy.
One of the key messages the player development staff has preached is that where a player opens the year isn't as important as where he finishes it. Last year, several players who didn't even break on a roster, most notably Trey Wingenter, went on to establish themselves as potential big-league contributors.
With a huge amount of young talent in the system, the Padres will take a slightly more conservative approach with assignments for most of their youngest pitchers than they did last season. Whereas Jacob Nix, Austin Smith and Logan Allen all opened last year in Fort Wayne, the teenaged hurlers acquired in the last nine months will likely start to arrive in the Midwest League around mid-May.
Barring any last-minute injuries or other changes, here's where we expect our Top 20 Prospect to open the 2017 season.
Big League Club:
For the first time in a long time, the organization can reasonably expect to get significant contributions from multiple products of the system. In addition to Austin Hedges, the Padres will rely on the two top position player prospects to contribute this year.
Manuel Margot (1) The potential of Margot and a cluster of injuries to other outfielders in the mix for the big league roster mean that our top prospect will open the 2017 season in the big leagues, where he could be an impact contributor on both sides of the game.
Hunter Renfroe (3) The former first-rounder will be asked to slide into the middle of the Padres' order from day one and contribute with his prodigious power.
El Paso Chihuahuas:
Coming off a Pacific Coast League championship run led by the names above, this year's club will have slightly less prospect fire power, but it's still a strong delegation:
Carlos Asuaje (10) The 25-year-old middle infielder is heading back to the Sun City, where he'll try to build on a year that earned him the PCL's Rookie of the Year honors
Dinelson Lamet (12) The hard-throwing righty, now 24-years-old in his third stateside season, will work on refining command of his emerging change-up and likely start some games for the Padres later in the year.
Phil Maton (19) Maton's fastball doesn't have the biggest velocity, but it's still often unhittable. He almost won a spot in the big league bullpen in spring training, but because he's not on the 40-man roster, he might not be the first call-up during the season.
San Antonio Missions:
The Missions' roster to open the year will likely be the thinnest in the organization, though with a rotation that includes Brett Kennedy and Enyel de los Santos and a strong bullpen, the club should still be competitive in the Texas League.
Luis Urias (5) The Sonora, Mexico, native was the Cal League MVP last year and has worked to add more power to his swing over the offseason. He won't turn 20 until June, but the second baseman - who will also get some looks at shortstop - will likely be among the top hitters in the Texas League this year.
Lake Elsinore Storm:
The Storm roster is going to be stacked to open the year. The Padres will have a decision on how to balance giving this group a chance to win together with pushing their college pitchers up the ladder, but if you want to see the future for the Padres, make the drive up Interstate 15 early this season.
Anderson Espinoza (2) The precocious 19-year-old hurler has lightning in his arm. This will be the first year he needs to start showing that the ability can translate into on-field success.
Cal Quantrill (4) The Padres' top pick last year has the make-up and stuff to be a front-of-the-rotation starter in the majors. Now two years post-Tommy John Surgery, he'll likely be used cautiously this year.
Michael Gettys (7) After making big strides last year, the center fielder will be asked to show a bit more strike zone control to earn his way up to San Antonio later in the year.
Eric Lauer (8) The lefty from Kent State will use his four-pitch mix to try to make his first professional season a memorable one.
Jacob Nix (9) The Southern California native will start the year on the disabled list for the Storm, but should be ready to join the team in mid-April. While the influx of younger pitchers has taken him a bit off the radar for some system watchers, he has a legitimate chance to finish the year as a top 100 prospect in the game.
Josh Naylor (11) The big man will be back for a full season in the Cal League after drawing a tough assignment when the Padres acquired him from Florida via trade last summer. He'll still likely open the year as the youngest position player on the circuit.
Fort Wayne TinCaps:
The TinCaps open the year with an incredibly young and dynamic infield. While they will have to wait a bit for the next wave of high-profile pitching, they still have plenty of interesting arms to open the year.
Fernando Tatis, Jr. (13) A year after surprising many in his stateside debut during White Sox extended spring training, Tatis, who was acquired for James Shields, will be the starting shortstop from day one in Fort Wayne.
Chris Paddack (14) While he'll technically appear on the Fort Wayne disabled list, Paddack won't throw from a mound until somewhere around instructional league.
Hudson Potts (16) Tatis and Potts are a fantastic one-two punch of 18 year old infielders (though neither is likely to be the youngest member of the TinCaps infield).
Logan Allen (17) After missing some time with arm soreness last year, Allen has been electric in spring training this year. Don't expect him to stay in the Midwest League for too long.
Jorge Ona (18) The high priced Cuban slugger will make his U.S. debut for the TinCaps.
Extended Spring Training:
The back fields of the Peoria Sports Complex will be one of the most popular destinations in the country for pro scouts as the assembled players wait for their chances to make a roster. The ranked players below are just the tip of the iceberg of talent that will be on the fields through the spring.
Adrian Morejon (6) The crown jewel of the Padres' historic foray into international free agency, the Cuban lefty will wait to make his official debut until later in the spring.
Mason Thompson (15) and Reggie Lawson (20) The two high school pitchers from last year's draft will both be in Fort Wayne before this year's draft, but both will be monitored to top out at about 100 innings this year.