Yonder Alonso, formerly of the Cincinnati Reds, connects for a solo home run during the game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Brewers defeated the Reds 10-1. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)
A weakness for so long under Kevin Towers, two years with Jed Hoyer and a winter with Josh Byrnes have made all the difference.
Before Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod came to town, there wasn't a whole lot to love about the Padres' farm system. Kevin Towers was known for wheeling and dealing to improve his team, and he had some solid free-agent signings to his credit, but the minor-league system was in disarray almost the entire time he was in charge. That's not news. The renaissance of the system since, however, qualifies as such.
In the two years Hoyer and McLeod were in San Diego, they revamped the farm system through strong drafting and trades. Dealing Adrian Gonzalez hurt the 2011 team on the field, but it also brought in Anthony Rizzo and Casey Kelly, two universally well-regarded prospects who will be under team control for six years after making it to the majors. San Diego needed to think ahead like that, as they consistently had one of baseball's lowest payrolls since the team was (partially) sold to Jeff Moorad and his group.
Without both major free-agent dollars the development of much talent, the Padres would be stuck in a cycle of mediocrity. Hoyer set about fixing that issue, though, by hoping to implement a process in which waves of talent would arise from the minors to replace the departing free agents they could no longer afford. It was one part Boston -- where Hoyer came from -- and one part small-market smarts.
A look at how prospect mavens perceived the Padres farm system before Hoyer came aboard, up through this current year, gives you an idea of how much more consistent their successes have been:
|Five-Star||Four-Star||Three-Star||BA Top 100||BP Top 100||KL Top 100|
The star rankings refer to the tier in which Kevin Goldstein rated Padres prospects. "BA Top 100" is Baseball America, "BP Top 100" Baseball Prospectus, and "KL Top 100" is ESPN's Keith Law. Hoyer and McLeod are now in Chicago with old boss Theo Epstein, but their fingerprints are all over those lofty 2012 rankings.
There have not been many elite talents in the system, but if you're looking for high-end depth, the Padres are unquestionably the top minor-league system in baseball now. Keith Law, who as you can see above was never much of a fan of San Diego's prospects, rated them the #1 farm system in baseball this year. Of Goldstein's top 100 prospects, 10 of them are Padres -- if your average team has three prospects in the top 100, the Padres and their 6 to 10 are on their own level right now.
Of Goldstein's ten Padres prospects, four were drafted under Hoyer's watch. The 20-year-old Cory Spangenberg hit .316/.419/.418 in 330 plate appearances across two levels after signing almost right after the 2011 draft. Jedd Gyorko, a second-round selection in 2010, hit .333/.400/.552 in High- and Double-A last year. In his 945 pro plate appearances, the 22-year-old has a 909 OPS. 18-year-old Austin Hedges is a backstop with high ceiling, rated as a top-100 prospect with just 34 professional plate appearances on his resume. Joe Ross was a high school pitcher picked by the Padres at #25 in last year's draft.
Lefty Robbie Erlin and righty Joe Wieland, also in the top 100, were acquired in the Mike Adams trade. Adams is a fantastic reliever -- one of the game's best -- but he's still just a reliever. Hoyer turned him into two top 100 pitching prospects. Five players on Goldstein's top 100 were acquired via trade by Hoyer-run teams: one of them twice, as Rizzo has been reunited with his old GM again.
It wasn't all Hoyer and Co., though. There are some leftovers from the pre-2010 period that are still floating around in the system. Rymer Liriano, who hit .319/.383/.499 for Single-A Fort Wayne as a 20-year-old, is the most significant of them. Cory Luebke isn't a prospect anymore, but he'll have his first full season in the rotation this year. In addition to those players are the ones that new general manager Josh Byrnes brought in with his own trades. Out went Mat Latos, another highly-touted young player from before Hoyer's time, and in came catcher Yasmani Grandal and first baseman Yonder Alonso. Those two players fill in the rest of San Diego's current top 10.
Byrnes also received relief prospect Brad Boxberger and veteran starter Edinson Volquez, and while neither of those two is expected to have the same impact as Grandal or Alonso, they are both under team control and should be useful for the Padres. The new-found minor-league depth allowed them to deal a prospect out of favor, Simon Castro, to the White Sox in order to get Carlos Quentin's bat into a lineup that sorely needed punch as well.
This isn't the whole system, either -- we've only talked about the "four-star" types. Three-star prospects like James Darnell and Jaff Decker could be in the bigs to stay soon. Darnell is the eventual replacement at third for Chase Headley. Decker has the patience and power to make up for his weak defense in left. Then there's Blake Tekkote, who shouldn't be a starter, but should be a good fourth outfielder for an NL team that can utilize that.
A system that you used to have to squint at to find anything of value is now one you can't possibly take in all at once. The payroll is slowly climbing, but it will be the rise of the prospects that makes San Diego a power out west. And soon.