MadFriars’ End of the Year Review: El Paso

Rymer Liriano

Summary: El Paso had an impressive season in their first year in AAA baseball. Despite starting the first 24 games of the season on the road, the Chihuahuas still finished the season with a .500 record and drew 560,997 fans to their beautiful new downtown stadium, Southwest University Park.

How much of a change was it from last season in Tucson? Last year the Tucson Padres didn’t even draw half that number (200,077) in a full year with more home games.

The Chihuahuas got quite a bit of national attention thanks to Twitter superstar Cody Decker, especially for his prank on Jeff Francoeur that went viral. There were some top prospects in the Sun City this summer, led by star pitcher Matt Wisler and infielder Jace Peterson and pitcher/pinch-hitter extraordinaire Jason Lane was one of the feel good, and more unique stories, in the minor leagues.

Top Players: Cody Decker was also the best player with the Chihuahuas. He led the organization and team in home runs with 27, was first on the Chihuahuas with 79 RBI in 134 games and was first in total bases with 234. If you like non-counting statistics Decker, 27, finished with the second best OPS on the team at .852 with anyone who played in at least half of the team’s number of games.

Outfielder Jake Goebbert, 26, who came over in the Kyle Blanks trade with Oakland in mid-May, had 37 extra-base hits in 79 games which helped to propel him to San Diego. Infielder Jace Peterson, despite being bounced back and forth like a yo-yo this season, also played well at multiple positions and hit .306/.406/.464.  If Peterson can play shortstop defensively, he is a top prospect because of his superior athleticism.

The Padres somewhat surprisingly sent their top pitching prospect Matt Wisler up to AAA a month into the season, where he struggled at first before coming on in the end. Wisler also showed the Padres what he was made of by improving every month as he learned to command his fastball better and keep the ball down. If his changeup has come around with the consistency that he believes, he could have a shot at being in a major league starting rotation at 22.

Jason Lane led the team in innings pitched, had two great outings with the Padres and hit .362/.444/.580 in 79 plate appearances all at the age of 37. The bullpen also had quality arms in Jerry Sullivan and Dennis O’Grady.

On the Beat: Felix Chavez was one of several reporters who covered the Chihuahuas for the El Paso Times on a regular basis as the Chihuahuas easily received the most media coverage of any farm team in the organization. In an interview with MadFriars‘ Felix spoke of why the club worked so well in El Paso when other teams in the past had failed along in addition to discussing some of the players.

MadFriars’ Announcer Series: Matt Mika, who was responsible for all of the Chihuahuas pre-game shows and press releases, gave his thoughts on this year’s squad and having Cody Decker explain to him baseballs’ "code duello."

Randy Smith is the the Padres Direct of Player Development and gave his thoughts on if he believes Jace Peterson’s future is at shortstop and the organization’s future plans for Jason Lane.

Minor League Announcer Series: Tim Hagerty by Ben Davey, MadFriars

Tim Hagerty may have set a record for covering more of the same affiliates’ farm teams in different locations for the same club than probably anyone else in professional baseball.

He started in 2004 with the Idaho Padres in the short-season Pioneer League after graduating from Lyndon State College in Vermont. That was followed by his second stop in the Southern League with the AA Mobile Bay Bears and followed with a trip to AAA Portland with the Beavers.

When the club moved to Tucson after the Beavers couldn’t secure a new stadium, Tim went with them for the next three seasons before coming to El Paso.

MadFriars: What were the fan reactions to the new field?

Tim Hagerty: Amazed. Everybody was. It’s a spectacular ballpark with a stunning backdrop.

The fans are the stars of this show. They’re rowdy and knowledgeable. It’s the only minor league stadium I’ve seen give curtain calls to players after important home runs.

Jeff Francoeur said on our pre-game show El Paso’s ballpark is louder than he ever heard Kauffman Stadium in his three years with the Royals. A solid compliment for Chihuahuas fans.

MadFriars: Matt Wisler struggled to gain confidence early in the season, but by the end of the season seemed to regain his top prospect status.  What did you see change in Wisler?

TH: Pitching coach Mike Cather noted Wisler fell behind in counts in his first few Triple-A starts because was trying to throw too hard against more experienced hitters. Cather’s advice was to mirror his San Antonio approach. Then, better results came.

It’s incredible to think he’s only 21. I think he’ll be a dependable Major League pitcher for years to come.

MadFriars: By now everyone knows Jason Lane’s story, and even saw his success at the big league level. But how was he in the clubhouse?

TH: Manager Pat Murphy calls Lane his bench coach and then points out he’s "only half joking." Lane stood next to Murphy during most games and contributed like a player/coach would.

I’m not sure the baseball world grasps how strong Lane’s at-bats still are. He had 81 plate appearances and hit .362. Murphy told me "I’d hit him fifth every day if I could."

He could be a valuable weapon for a National League team seeking a long reliever who doubles as a pinch-hitter.

MadFriars: Jerry Sullivan missed over a year dealing with injuries. Yet by the end of the year had become the top bullpen arm on the team. What was your evaluation of Sullivan?  

TH: A Triple-A reliever is a good spot for advancement. Sullivan had two stints in Double-A this season yet became the Triple-A closer by August when previous closers like Kevin Quackenbush and Blaine Boyer were promoted to San Diego.

He throws hard and has excellent control, striking out four times as many batters as he walked.

MadFriars: Rymer Liriano came up and lit the league on fire. How did he look at the plate?

TH: He played in 16 El Paso games and had multiple hits in 11 of them. Sometimes new arrivals from Double-A take a series or two to get going but Liriano was aggressive and successful right away.

He also made a throw in Salt Lake City that was the buzz of the clubhouse for days after.

MadFriars: Jace Peterson kept on moving from AAA to the majors only to sit on the bench and be sent back down. Did you notice a difference in Peterson between when he first got to El Paso and the end of the season?

TH: Jace was always positive throughout his transaction-filled season. Pat Murphy calls him "a winning player." The data backs up that compliment, El Paso had a 36-24 record when Peterson started.

MadFriars: Galvez has always been a hitter without a true position. This seemed to continue in El Paso as he was playing a different position every day. How did he look at the plate, and is there any position that he can be solid defensively?

TH: This year he added first base and has now played 1B/2B/SS/3B/LF in his professional career. Galvez was on the field many afternoons with Padres roving instructors like Eddy Rodriguez improving his defense.

Galvez told me he is a free agent. I think he could be a steady utility prospect for the Padres, or a different Major League club.  

MadFriars: Speaking of hitters who bounce around positions, Cody Decker led the team with 27 home runs, but like Galvez seemed to bounce around positions including catcher. How did he look behind the plate?

TH: Pat Murphy said Cody improved in all aspects of catching, especially blocking balls. His catching skills helped the team in other ways, like when Pat was willing to use the backup catcher as a pinch hitter, something many managers weren’t able to do. Cody’s presence allowed Pat to run the risk of having both catchers in a game.

MadFriars: El Paso was one of the most talked about teams this year, partially for the uniforms, but mainly for Cody Decker’s videos. How did the team handle the non-baseball attention both locally and nationally? How did Jeff Francoeur handle it?

TH: Francoeur was the perfect victim. He admired the pranks and even bought the team a post-game food spread to show his appreciation.

It was nice how Francoeur connected to this community. On and off the air, he shared how much he and his family loved El Paso. He told me the first thing he did after his first Padres game in Chicago was check that night’s Chihuahuas score on his phone.

As for Cody, he’s a gift for a team broadcaster. You never know what he’ll say next. I know Major League rookies are supposed to be seen and not heard, but I hope veteran players make an exception when he gets up there. He’s too funny to be muzzled.

MadFriars: Is there anyone on the team, that is not already in San Diego that Padre fans should be keeping an eye on?

TH: Reliever Chris Rearick quietly posted a 2.72 ERA with four times as many Ks as walks.

Catcher Rocky Gale has always shined defensively and this year improved his offense. I think Rocky could be a reliable emergency option if the Padres are in a catching pinch, like when Eddy Rodriguez or Chris Robinson filled in the past few seasons.

MadFriars: Last question, who was the top pitching and position player prospect that you saw this season?

TH: I would vote Matt Wisler and Rymer Liriano.

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