MadFriars’ End of the Year Review: Lake Elsinore

Right handed pitcher Ryan Butler pitches for the Lake Elsinore Storm.

Cherished Memories

Summary: After posting the system’s best record at 75-66 in 2014, the Storm took a big step backward this year, falling to 50-90. How bad was Lake Elsinore? They became the first team to fail to win 20 games in the league’s second half since the 2003 High Desert Mavericks by posting a 19-51 record.

The California League is notoriously hitter-friendly. While several stadiums are at elevation with strong winds, the Storm’s home field, The Diamond, plays more neutral than the league as a whole.

Top Players: Despite struggling later in Double-A San Antonio, shortstop Jose Rondon was the top performer for the Storm, hitting .300 with 17 stolen bases in 57 games. Former Ole Miss star outfielder Auston Bousfield was the top prospect, showing a balanced skillset offensively and in centerfield. Catcher Ryan Miller also showed some promise. Second baseman Fernando Perez, who was expected to be a mainstay of the Storm offense, had an off year. First baseman Marcus Davis was more like the 2013 version than the guy who carried the Emeralds in 2014.

Top Pitchers: In our preseason overview, we projected Ryan Butler, Zech Lemond and Justin Livengood to front a solid rotation. That’s certainly not how it turned out for a club that, despite playing in one of the more pitching-friendly ballparks in the league, posted a league-worst 5.21 ERA. Ronald Herrera, an undersized prospect out of Venezuela, was the top pitcher for Lake Elsinore and earned a promotion later in the season to San Antonio.  The top prospect was Ryan Butler, a hard throwing right-hander out of UNC-Charlotte with a big fastball and developing secondary pitches. The club is optimistic he can stay in the rotation, but he also has a fallback as a shutdown reliever.

Sam Geaney, the Padres’ Director of Player Development, was perplexed at the Storm’s struggles but still saw promise in some of the players that were at the Diamond this year.

Announcer Series: Sean McCall has been the voice of the Storm for the past 20 years and is one of the better announcers in minor league baseball.  Sean sees his role as more of a reporter/broadcaster than a scout/pundit so he is reticent about spouting his opinions on them. For that reason he always requests that we ask the man who fills in for him, Tyler Zickel, for his thoughts/opinions on the talent that he saw in front of him.

Minor League Announcer Series: Tyler Zickel

Tyler is in his second year as the Assistant Director of Media Relations and a part-time broadcaster.  As with most people in the minors, he held a variety of positions ranging from preparing statistics to managing the Storm’s website and social media, and even dressing up as one of Lake Elsinore’s sponsored mascots. Tyler is also a former college shortstop for Whittier College so he also brings the perspective of a former player to the booth.

MadFriars: It was a really tough year for the Storm, particularly in the second half.  What happened?

Tyler Zickel: It’s hard to say. Nearly half of our Opening Day roster skipped Low-A and had to grind through their first full professional season against players who had much more service time. I have to give credit to the group this year; they pushed through to the end despite looking up at the rest of the league.

There were some good players who passed though this year with the Storm. One of the best of them was right-hand pitcher Ryan Butler early in the season.  What impressed you about him?

Tyler Zickel: His composure during innings or outings that didn’t favor his stat line was, and will be, one of his greatest strengths. His ability to extract the positives out of his performances and rationally examine the negatives without allowing them to seep into his next outing is part of the reason he moved up to Double-A after a month and a half. That composure returned when he finished the year with us as a reliever, despite the numbers not being what we’re used to seeing from Ryan Butler.

All of us liked Ryan Miller and this year we thought he made some strides behind the plate and with his offense.  What did you see?

Tyler Zickel: Hard worker, true professional. Ryan approached every day with the mindset of "How can I get better today?" He found a way to return from a back injury that sidelined him for over a month, and when he did it was as if he never left. He’s the ultimate team guy too; he was always willing to put his own stats to the side in order to chase a win.

Nick Torres, a mid-season call-up from the TinCaps, finished second overall in the minors in doubles.  What parts of his game do you think he needs to improve upon at the next level?

Tyler Zickel: First and foremost, Nick Torres is one of those guys who "gets it." He carries himself with a quiet confidence that pays huge dividends both on and off the field. He’s got a great arm, and performed admirably in right field when contending with the 36-foot high wall here at The Diamond. Others can comment on what they feel he needs to do to improve; I’m just grateful for the opportunity to have gotten to know him as both a player and person. He’s one of the great ones.

Eric Yardley was a nice story this year.  What does he throw and how was he able to get Cal League batters out?

Tyler Zickel: Just like any other pitcher: throwing strikes and making clutch pitches when the team needed him to. Plus, have you seen his delivery?  I think it’s pretty self-explanatory.

We liked Zech Lemond a great deal coming into this season but he really struggled as a starter.  He seemed to be more comfortable as a relief pitcher.  Did you see any differences between his approach as a starter rather than as a reliever?

Tyler Zickel: Zech Lemond is a true competitor. On field and off, he’s going to compete. His mindset every fifth day was to go out and completely shut down his opponent; that’s an impossible task even for a big league pitcher. The move to the bullpen was an opportunity for him to work one or two innings each outing and rebuild his confidence as a professional.

We talked about this briefly in Lake Elsinore, but I was impressed with shortstop Chase Jensen.  What did you think of him as a player?

Tyler Zickel: I think very highly of Chase Jensen. He’s a fluid fielder who filled the role left by Jose Rondon (who was promoted to Double-A in short order), and he has surprising pop. He, like Nick Torres, has a way about him that exudes both confidence and collectedness. I’m excited to see what he’s able to accomplish in the future.

Fernando Perez had a disappointing year at the plate.  What does he have to do to improve in that facet of his game and what is his best position in the field?

Tyler Zickel: We know Perez can hit; he led all Padres’ minor leaguers in RBIs in 2014. The level change, plus the ever-increasing pressure to perform as a numbered prospect may have had an impact. But I think instructs and the Fall League will do wonders for him to get him back to his 2014 form heading into next year.

Kyle Lloyd led the organization in strikeouts again but didn’t put up overall numbers similar to what he did in Fort Wayne last year.  What do you like about him as a pitcher and where does he need to improve?

Tyler Zickel: Kyle is a grinder, and he had to adjust to multiple moves between the rotation and the bullpen for the sake of the team in 2015. I can’t speak to what he needs to improve (I’ll leave that to the much more educated baseball men in the organization), but his mental toughness and game day preparedness were unmatched.

Who was the best hitter and best pitcher for the Storm that you saw this year?

Tyler Zickel: Auston Bousfield and Eric Yardley were about as consistent as they come at this level, so much so that they took home MVP and Pitcher of the Year Award honors, respectively.