While the bullpen was erratic at times, blowing many a save opportunity, the starters were formidable. Five pitchers with five or more starts posted ERA's under 3.00 and the top pitchers, Manny Ayala, Matt Buschmann and Wade LeBlanc combined to go 29-14 with a collective 2.63 ERA.
Matt Buschmann seemed to be two different pitchers from the first to the second half, what was the big reason for his success in the second half?
Grady Fuson: "He started hitting his spots better. We toyed around with his arm angle to not let it get below the three-quarters mark and he dominated the outer half with his two-seamer. Great kid, great makeup and we were really pleased with what he did."
A guy you called up in August led the organization in saves, R.J. Rodriguez. How much has he improved from last year in Eugene and what does he need to do to get better?
Grady Fuson: "The breaking ball is the big thing with him. He relies on the fastball and a good changeup, but his breaking ball is going to need a little more depth."
Overview: We used a simple formula for the awards, whichever team the player or pitcher appeared at the most determined their eligibility. For the top prospect we took into account not only the future potential that the player or pitcher may have along with their performances, but also the needs of the organization which will allow them to rise the fastest.
The aforementioned three pitchers really stood out for their work in Lake Elsinore. Three out of five days, the Storm knew they would receive a quality start. Losing streaks could not begin to fester with a trio like Ayala, Buschmann, and LeBlanc at the forefront. While many of the faces changed down the stretch, they were still able to ride the wave into the playoffs.
11-3, 2.22 ERA
Right-handed starting pitcher
Ayala had the toughest assignment of any pitcher when the season opened, facing off against Bartolo Colon. He would give up one run over six innings and take the loss. He made 17 starts for the Storm before being promoted to San Antonio, allowing two runs or less in 13 of those outings.
The right-hander always comes out of the gate swinging. He rarely allowed runs the first time through a lineup, working with mechanical ease by throwing first-pitch strikes and setting them up for his plus-changeup - the finisher. Ayala rarely hurts himself with walks and pitches out of trouble with the best of them, allowing just seven hits in 69 at bats with runners in scoring position, a paltry .101 batting average. He is the epitome of control, using an effortless delivery to get results.
Others of Note: No player improved as much as Buschmann. The righty had a 4.57 ERA on June 3 after getting shelled over two innings. He put together a string of nine straight outings where he allowed two runs or less and accomplished the feat in 12 of his last 13 starts. LeBlanc used his pinpoint control and mound savvy to baffle hitters. Brooks Dunn was having a good year before his suspension. Mike DeMark was the lone reliever to post a solid year, as many others disappointed, including John Madden. Bigger things were expected of Brent Carter, Richie Daigle, and Steve Delabar.
Three starting pitchers paced the Storm this year: Wade LeBlanc, Manny Ayala and Matt Buschmann. Steve Garrison, who was acquired in the Scott Linebrink trade, also pitched well in the short time he was in Lake Elsinore.
6-5, 2.64 ERA
Left-handed starting pitcher
Picking between these three guys was one of the toughest choices in the system, but I gave it to LeBlanc on the basis of some unreal peripherals, mainly 92 innings pitched with 90 strikeouts against 17 walks. Throw in the fact that he only allowed 72 hits, with batters hitting .212 against him in the hitter friendly California League – the numbers speak for themselves.
He was able to bear down with runners in scoring position, holding the opposition to a paltry .178 average. In 10 of his 16 starts, he allowed two runs or less, averaging nearly six frames per start.
Others of Note: Ayala is a great example of how scouting the Independent Leagues can really pay off. Ayala had an 11-3 record with a 2.22 ERA. His peripherals were nearly as good as LeBlanc's with K/BB ratio of 74/19 and holding batters to a .247 average. The big right-hander got in better shape from last season and improved his command of the Padres' system second pitch of choice, the two-seam fastball. Buschmann was with the Storm for the full year and led the team with 12 wins. His numbers after the All-Star game were very good, going 8-2 with a 1.67 ERA in 11 starts with a 65/11 K/BB ratio in 75.1 innings pitched. In the first half, batters hit .314 against Buschmann, in the second half .220. Lefty Steve Garrison, 20, made seven starts with a 2-3 record and a 2.79 ERA. Garrison held Cal League batters to a .205 batting average, allowing only 32 hits in 42 innings pitched to go along with a 28-to-6 K-to-BB rate. Brent Carter won nine games, but his ERA was 6.77 and batters hit .337 off of him this year.
Jon Link was the best minor leaguer that the Padres gave up and pitched very well for the Storm this year, leading the team in saves with 13 in 15 save opportunities and striking out 45 in 41 innings pitched. With the White Sox affiliate, Winston Salem Warthogs [a great minor league name], he was 1-0 with three saves in as many opportunities with 19 strikeouts in 17.1 innings pitched.
Manager's Commentary – Carlos Lezcano: "That changeup is a big league changeup," he said of LeBlanc. "That is the difference for him. It is going to carry a long way."
Top Prospect: Wade LeBlanc
Denis and John agreed on the top prospect
Southpaws can be tough to evaluate. They generally don't have the fastball that excites and make their living by painting the corners and changing speeds. LeBlanc demonstrated he has a firm understanding of all the aforementioned traits, using his mound intelligence to setup hitters and finishing them off when necessary. A top pick last year, LeBlanc made tremendous strides in his second season and figures to be even better moving forward. He understands the game and continues to challenge himself to up the learning process. His assortment of breaking pitches is the equalizer and only fastball command stands between him and the majors.