Padres Farm Report: Spotlight on Lake Elsinore

The situation may be bleak in San Diego this year, but a mere 74 miles to the north, things are looking pretty good. Let’s take a quick drive up I-15 and see what’s happening with the Storm…

Lake Elsinore Storm in a Box:
Record: 53-61
Runs Scored: 648
Runs Allowed: 629
BA/OBP/SLG: .275/.357/.400 (California League: .274/.343/.413)
ERA: 4.89 (CAL: 4.57)
DER: .628 (MWL: .629)
Source: Baseball-Reference.

First, the bad news. The pitching at Elsinore has been brutal. Only two teams, Rancho Cucamonga and High Desert, have higher team ERAs so far in 2008. High Desert has a good excuse, playing half its games in one of the most extreme environments in all of affiliated baseball. The Diamond, home of the Storm, historically has favored pitchers relative to the league.

On the offensive side, the Storm are second in runs scored per game. Although their OPS as a team is essentially the same as that of the Cal League as a whole, they are tied (with Lancaster, another team with a ridiculous home park) for the lead in OBP, which means more scoring opportunities. And unlike some teams, the Storm have converted those opportunities into actual runs.

What’s nice about the Padres High-A affiliate is that legitimate prospects are leading the charge. Sure, there are a few minor-league veterans beating up on inferior competition, but Cedric Hunter (whom I ranked #4 in the system entering 2008), Kellen Kulbacki (#6), Mitch Canham, and Eric Sogard all are enjoying fine campaigns at Elsinore.

Others of note include third baseman Rayner Contreras, and right-handers Cesar Carrillo, Ernesto Frieri, and Drew Miller. Highly regarded pitchers Corey Kluber and Cory Luebke began the season at Elsinore, but struggled and were shipped back to the Midwest League mid-season.

Cedric Hunter: .313/.360/.417; 1.000 BB/K, .071 BB/PA, .104 ISO, .238 XB/H

Hunter’s overall numbers aren’t overwhelming, but a few things call attention to themselves. First, Hunter is 20 years old; the average age for hitters in the Cal League this season is 22.7. Second, he’s controlling the strike zone; sure, more walks would be nice, but he’s been extremely tough to strike out despite being one of the younger players in the league. Third, he’s tied for 12th in the league in doubles, so it’s not like he’s making contact at the expense of power; Hunter probably never will be a big home run guy, but the combination of good strike zone judgment, doubles power, and youth is one I love to see. As was the case last year at Fort Wayne, Hunter is hitting a little better than league average, which is just fine for a kid playing against competition that is 2-3 years older than he is.

Kellen Kulbacki: .349/.441/.622; .854 BB/K, .125 BB/PA, .273 ISO, .371 XB/H

Kulbacki is fourth in the league in homers, and he didn’t even join the Storm until early May. He started the season on the disabled list, got off to a shaky start at Fort Wayne, and then struggled early on at Elsinore before hitting his stride in a big way. His overall numbers as a pro are a tidy .310/.398/.535 in 664 plate appearances. Kulbacki has taken some criticism for his defensive play, but the few times I’ve seen him this year, he looked comfortable and competent in right field to me. Even if I’m totally wrong in my assessment, his bat should make the issue disappear. Guys who hit like that tend to be forgiven any defensive shortcomings they may have. The 22-year-old Kulbacki sometimes draws comparisons to Brian Giles for his combination of on-base skills and power. For the record, at the same age, Giles hit .327/.407/.452 at Double-A.

Mitch Canham: .284/.392/.428; 1.000 BB/K, .151 BB/PA, .144 ISO, .347 XB/H

Canham troubles me. He’s an offense-first catcher whose main weapon is the ability to draw walks. His game calls to mind Scott Hatteberg, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I can’t seem to find defensive stats for Canham at the moment, but I recall earlier in the year noting that he’d allowed a lot of passed balls and stolen bases; he draws praise for his handling of pitchers, though, so maybe he can stay behind the dish. Although Canham is a left-handed hitter, he’s performing very well against southpaws (.304/.415/.493). Overall he’s having a solid campaign, but personally I’d like to see a 23-year-old do a little more damage in the Cal League.

Eric Sogard: .304/.399/.434; 1.353 BB/K, .138 BB/PA, .130 ISO, .302 XB/H

Sogard started like the proverbial house on fire, but the flames have been contained for some time now. Actually, he’s been incredibly inconsistent from month to month: 1049 OPS in April, 623 in May, 909 in June, 688 in July. Like Canham, he’s a lefty swinger who has no problem with portsiders (.350/.436/.425). On defense, Sogard has a .970 fielding percentage and 4.98 range factor; I have no idea how that compares with other Cal League second basemen so I can’t offer much in the way of commentary there. I will note that Sogard has spent 20% of his games this year at DH, which may or may not be cause for concern. It could be innocuous, but it’s the type of thing that makes me wonder… Still, I like the offensive skill set, especially if he’s a legitimate middle infielder.

Rayner Contreras: .309/.396/.402; .583 BB/K, .094 BB/PA, .093 ISO, .233 XB/H

Contreras is 21 years old and listed at 150 lbs. He doesn’t hit for the kind of power you’d like to see from a third baseman (or anyone, really), but given his youth, he may have room to fill out and develop some. Contreras had a quasi-respectable .138 ISO at Fort Wayne in 2007, so it’s not like he’s never demonstrated the ability to drive the ball. Although The Diamond is not a hitters’ park, Contreras seems to like it just fine; he’s hitting .374/.456/.545 there vs .242/.333/.253 on the road.

Cesar Carrillo: 6.19 ERA, 4.95 BB/9, 4.95 K/9

There is nothing encouraging about Carrillo’s numbers except for one thing: They show that he is physically able to throw a baseball. Over most of his professional career, that hasn’t been the case, as demonstrated by the 162 1/3 innings pitched in four seasons. When the Padres selected him with the 18th pick overall in 2005, he drew comparisons to Kevin Brown for his lean body and hard sinking fastball. Carrillo has missed a lot of development time, so it’s hard to say what he’s got left or what the future might hold. Carrillo put up terrific numbers in a small sample at Double-A when he was 21. Three years later, he’s struggling at a lower level. Yes, there are extenuating circumstances, but that’s mighty disappointing.

Ernesto Frieri: 4.59 ERA, 2.16 BB/9, 7.88 K/9

I probably like Frieri too much. Coming into 2008, he’d made just seven starts in 102 pro appearances. This year he started out in the bullpen before shifting to the rotation and achieving some success. Frieri is a prototypical Padres pitcher in that he’s around the plate a lot and not overpowering. Unlike many other arms in the organization, though, he is capable of putting the ball past hitters with some regularity. In 285 career innings, he’s striking out just over a batter an inning. He doesn’t get a lot of attention as a prospect, and there may be good reasons for that (6.47 ERA in seven starts since the All-Star break), but I think he’s worth watching.

Drew Miller: 5.43 ERA, 3.00 BB/9, 7.05 K/9

For a guy who reportedly throws hard, Miller sure gets cuffed around a lot. He’s young, there’s time — all the usual excuses — but it’d be nice to see him translate those tools into usable game skills at some point. Miller had a horrendous June (9.82 ERA); throw that out (which you can’t, but humor me) and his season ERA drops by more than a run. He remains a work in progress, albeit an intriguing one.

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Finally, I should make my usual pitch to drive up to Elsinore and catch a game or two if you haven’t done so. My wife and I had a seven-game mini-package from 2001 to 2003, with seats directly behind home plate. We got to see guys like Khalil Greene, Xavier Nady, and Jake Peavy before anyone knew who they were. We sat with the scouts and chatted with several pitchers (Chris Oxspring, Mark Phillips, Mike Thompson) who were charting pitches during the game. The folks at The Diamond always put on a great show, and you just might see someone who ends up in the big leagues. I can’t recommend it enough.