MadFriars’ Preview: 2015 El Paso Chihuahuas

San Diego Padres rookie Rymer Liriano connects for a line drive sacrifice fly to bring in Yonder Alonso from third in the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Colorado Rockies, Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in San Diego.

Lenny Ignelzi/AP

The Padres will send a deep and seasoned team which should do better than last year’s squad to the Sun City. Outfielder Rymer Liriano and catcher Austin Hedges will be the top prospects and the team will feature some strong veteran bats in Cody Decker, Tommy Medica and Jake Goebbert. The bullpen has more than a few guys that should and will be in the big leagues before the year is out and the rotation has some capable arms to fill in big league vacancies.

Three Strikes with Sam Geaney, the Padres Director of Player Development:

MadFriars: Austin Hedges hit .225 over parts of two seasons in Double-A San Antonio. What went into the decision to promote him?

Sam Geaney: For me, a lot of it was just how he performed in spring training. We think he is in a really good place offensively. The defense has always been there and it’s just a question of getting his offensive ability to come out. What we saw in spring was that he was using the whole field; he was on time in the box and in a position to hit. We feel really good about his chances to have a productive year in the PCL.

MadFriars: What is the timetable for Casey Kelly?

Sam Geaney: We are really excited to get him back but we are going to monitor his innings. The plan is to have him pitch out of the pen at first and slowly build up his innings. We have some innings thresholds in mind but will have a better idea once we get into the season.

MadFriars: Cody Decker has always been one of the Padres’ more popular players in the minor league system. What were your first impressions of him and what do you hope to see from him this year?

Sam Geaney: Cody has big-time right-handed power which is difficult to find. He will be entering this year as one of our options in Triple-A. We have a lot of talent down there at the infield and outfield corners in Medica, Goebbert, [Alex] Dickerson, [Brett] Wallace and Liriano. All of those guys Murph (Chihuahuas’ manager Pat Murphy) is going to have to mix-and-match. Cody is also going to get some time at catcher but there may not be many opportunities down there with Austin and Rocky [Gale].

MadFriars’ Top 20 Prospects in El Paso: Rymer Liriano (#3), Austin Hedges (#4), James Needy (#7) and Cody Decker (#19).

Catch a Rising Star: Although he has struggled with his offense the past few years, Austin Hedges is still one of the top prospects in the Padres’ organization and one of the better defensive catchers in baseball at either both the major and minor league level. He ran into problems when he tried to pull the ball into the winds of Nelson Wolff Stadium in San Antonio in Double-A but as Sam Geaney stated, he is much more effective when he goes for a little less and uses the middle of the field.

Starting Pitching: Robbie Erlin would probably be a fifth starter on quite a few major league teams and will be the guy most likely to take a Southwest flight to San Diego for spot starts with the late trade of top prospect Matt Wisler. Erlin, who was briefly in El Paso, last year, relies on command and deception. Fan favorite Jason Lane returns for his 17th year in professional baseball and sixth as a full-time pitcher. Lane does a bit of everything ranging from starting, relieving, pinch-hitting and also playing in the field occasionally. In addition to throwing nearly 150 innings last year for the Chihuahuas, he also hit .362 in 79 plate appearances. James Needy has been the top pitcher on the 2013 High-A Lake Elsinore Storm and 2014 Double-A San Antonio Missions. The 6’7" Needy is not a strikeout guy and instead relies upon a hard tilting sinker to get the opposition to pound the ball into the ground. Some of the parks of the PCL could be a challenge for him, but then again he has pitched in the Cal League. Aaron Northcraft, who came over in the Justin Upton trade with the Atlanta Braves, joins Needy as someone who relies on his sinker. The California native has good size at 6-4, 215 lbs. and was in Baseball America’s Top 30 prospect rankings for the Atlanta Braves for the past two years. With the late trade of Wisler, the organization is still undecided who will occupy the fifth starter slot.

Pen: El Paso will once again have a solid bullpen led by closer Kevin Quackenbush who was the odd man out when the Padres acquired Craig Kimbrel. In San Diego, Quackenbush struck out 56 batters in 54.1 innings for a 2.48 ERA. He will be back with the Padres at the first opportunity. Brandon Maurer is another pitcher who got caught up in some tough bullpen decisions at the big league level and will be back in the big leagues soon. Cory Mazzoni, who came over from the Mets in the trade of reliever Alex Torres is being converted from starter to the bullpen and was touching 98 MPH in camp. LHP Scott Elbert comes over from the Dodgers’ organization with six seasons of major league experience and will join LHP Chris Rearick, who spent time in both San Antonio and El Paso last year.

Infield: Decker, Dickerson, Medica, Wallace and Goebbert will all battle for at-bats between the corner infield and outfield positions and DH, when they play American League-affiliated clubs. Decker led the organization in home runs last year with 27 for El Paso, Medica spent the majority of the year in the major leagues with the Padres and hit over .400 this spring. Both Dickerson and Goebbert performed well last year and have quite a bit of value since they hit from the left side for a big league club that doesn’t have many left-handed hitters. Wallace, a former first round pick from Arizona State in 2008, is now with his seventh organization and should see the majority of his time at third. He hit well in camp and came in looking noticeably leaner than in the past. Second baseman Taylor Lindsay was one of the prospects that came over in last year’s Huston Street deal but struggled at the plate in both Salt Lake City and El Paso. Mexican native Ramiro Pena comes over from the Yankees and Braves’ organization and should solidify the middle at shortstop. Over six major league season he has posted a career slash line of .244/.288/.330.

Catching: Hedges and Rocky Gale are the two best defensive catchers in the Padres’ organization. Gale had his best year offensively last season in El Paso hitting .303/.328/.355.

Outfield: Liriano can play all three outfield spots and may see more time in center with the plethora of talented corner players the Chihuahuas have on the roster. He was spectacular in his brief 16 game stint in El Paso last year hitting .452 but struggled when he was promoted to San Diego. At his best, he is one of the few five-tool players in baseball. The switch-hitting Abraham Almonte came over in last year’s trade of Chris Denorfia to Seattle and will be El Paso’s best option as a leadoff hitter.

On the Spot: With Hunter Renfroe behind him in San Antonio and a loaded outfield in front of him in San Diego, Rymer Liriano may be a potential trade chip for Padres’ General Manager A.J. Preller. Liriano may have the most talent of anyone on the roster, but there is a lot of talent with him on this year’s squad and he could be pressed for playing time if he struggles.

Under the Radar: Even though he’s been one of the Padres’ best pitchers for the past two years, James Needy doesn’t get that much attention because his velocity doesn’t blow people away. But he does eat a lot of innings and usually posts a low ERA and another strong season could give the San Diego native his shot at the big leagues.