MadFriars’ Preview: 2014 El Paso Chihuahuas

Synopsis: A first season in a brand new park is always exciting. The Chihuahuas will have a strong pitching staff led by Burch Smith, Keyvius Sampson and Juan Oramas and some solid position players. How far their starters go will determine the success of the season.

Three Strikes with the Padres Director of Player Development and International Scouting Randy Smith:

What is the most important thing that Burch Smith needs to work on?

Randy Smith: Right now Burch is a very good pitcher. The velocity and fastball command are there along with the breaking stuff. He just needs to be a little more consistent.

Rico Noel is frequently mentioned as the top defensive outfielder in the system. What makes him so good?

Randy Smith: He plays a very shallow centerfield and gets some great jumps. Rico also has very good closing speed and just covers a lot of ground.

Do you plan on using Jason Lane as a pinch-hitter as well as a pitcher?

Randy Smith: Knowing Murph (Pat Murphy, the manager of the Chihuahuas) he’s going to use his whole roster each and every night to get that win. So yeah, I think he could see a few at-bats.  Jason had a real good spring for us and will start, but he can also come out of the pen.

MadFriars’ Top 20 Prospects in Tucson: Burch Smith (#4), Keyvius Sampson (#13), Reymund Fuentes (#16) and Juan Oramas (#20).

Note: RHP Casey Kelley (#9) will begin the year on disabled list and should be back by early June.  OF Alex Dickerson (#11) is out for the year with a badly broken ankle.

Catch a Rising Star: Burch Smith pitched better in his second stint with the Padres and because of a big fastball that sits in the mid-90’s he has promise. The key will be improved command of his fastball and the development of a more consistent changeup.

Starting Pitching: In addition to Smith, the rotation contains a few other pitchers on the brink of the big leagues. With Sampson it’s a question of how consistent the slider, his third pitch, will be. If it’s on he’s a big league starter. LHP Robbie Erlin is with the big club now, but could return when Josh Johnson is healthy.  Keep an eye on Oramas, who was a big reason the Missions won the Texas League title last year. He doesn’t look like the classic pitcher at a stocky 5 feet 10 inches, but the Mexican native has a great ability to change speeds and mix arm angles. Lane, a former outfielder, is attempting to make a comeback both as a pitcher and pinch-hitter at 37. There is always seemingly room for a lefty that can go long or short out of the pen and it will be interesting to watch him pull double-duty.

Pen: Quackenbush will be the closer and has been one of the more successful Padres’ minor league closers since being drafted out of South Florida in 2011.  His career numbers are solid with a 1.15 ERA and 62 saves in three seasons. According to the San Diego Reader’€™s David Dodd, who covered the Padres’ last year, he has greatly improved his secondary pitches, primarily his slider and adding a nasty splitter. Quackenbush makes his living by being deceptive with his four-seam fastball as opposed to blowing hitters away with its velocity and if he can add these two pitches, it could be his ticket to the major leagues. Reyes, who was a starter in previous seasons, is much better out of the pen with his live arm. Campos nearly made the Padres out of camp and sported a 0.88 ERA in 30.2 innings with the Missions.

Infield: Blanks should see time at both first and at the corner outfield positions in his attempt to rejoin the Padres. Conrad, a San Diego native, is a ten-year veteran of both the majors and minors and also played for Pat Murphy at ASU. He can play both second and third. Ryan Jackson came over from the Astros for INF/OF Jesus Guzman and will serve as the primary depth in case a shortstop goes down in San Diego. Decker should see time at first, catcher and maybe even the corner outfield spots. There is also a possibility that Tommy Medica (#14) could be in El Paso when Padres’ outfielder Carlos Quentin comes off of the disabled list.

Catching: Adam Moore came over from the Royals and should share the catching duties with Gale and Decker. Gale is considered the organization’s best defensive catcher after Austin Hedges.

Outfield: Fuentes had a big bounce back year in San Antonio and the former Boston first round pick looked like he again gained strength this offseason. Fuentes is a very good all-around player and can play all three outfield positions. Noel is considered the organization’s best defensive outfielder and the slight Coastal Carolina graduate has a bigger arm than his build would attest. Both players can run and should cause some damage at the top of the order. Jeff Francoeur is a former top prospect who needs to be more selective at the plate to get back to the big leagues. He has talent, but three other organizations haven’t been able to change his hack friendly approach.

On the Spot: Keyvius Sampson was very good in San Antonio, but really struggled in AAA Tucson last year with a 7.11 ERA. He needs to show he can command the slider to stick as a starter with some quality pitchers behind him in San Antonio.

Under the Radar: Juan Oramas posted a 0.65 ERA over five August starts last year and could be effective out of the pen or as a starter. After Erlin, he is probably the best lefty in the upper levels.