Chihuahuas roster takes shape at Padres spring training

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Chihuahuas roster takes shape at Padres spring training

The El Paso Chihuahuas are coming off of their most successful season on the field, however the 2017 roster will look drastically different.

The El Paso Chihuahuas are coming off of their most successful season on the field, however the 2017 roster will look drastically different.

File Photo The Prospector

The El Paso Chihuahuas are coming off of their most successful season on the field, however the 2017 roster will look drastically different.

File Photo The Prospector

File Photo The Prospector

The El Paso Chihuahuas are coming off of their most successful season on the field, however the 2017 roster will look drastically different.

Jason Green, Sports Editor

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On Valentine’s Day, pitchers and catchers reported to the San Diego Padres’ sprawling training camp in Peoria, Arizona. Pitchers and catchers from every level of the massive system that it takes to build a Major League Baseball team reported at once, from the 18-year-olds drafted last June to the grizzled 30-something-year-old veterans hoping for one last shot at the big time.

Joining pitchers and catchers by the end of the week were every player in the system, including most of the 2016 Pacific Coast League Champions—the El Paso Chihuahuas. Some of the players from that team have moved on to other systems and other training camps, some will be moving up to San Diego in all likelihood, and some may be coming back to El Paso to continue to prove their worth to the higher-ups in the Padres organization.

Championship-winning manager Rod Barajas will be returning to the Chihuahuas for the 2017 season, but until spring training is finished and the Padres’ roster is finalized—Barajas and Chihuahuas’ fans are left to guess who will comprise the roster for the team’s fourth season.

Catchers

At the Major League level, catcher Derek Norris was traded to make room for last season’s catcher Austin Hedges to permanently take his spot behind the plate for the Padres. Hedges has long been rated as one of the best defensive catching prospects in minor league baseball and in the last two seasons with the Chihuahuas, and his batting has clearly caught up.

In 2015, Hedges batted .324, with just two home runs, before being called up to San Diego and basically languishing on the bench. With a full season in El Paso in 2016, Hedges put it all together with a .326 average and 21 home runs.

This season, another familiar face could very well be behind the plate for the Chihuahuas yet again. Rocky Gale has played for the Chihuahuas during every season of their existence and looks like he may be starting opening day 2017 as well. Despite a career .255 average, Gale has never batted below .278 as a Chihuahua.

The second catcher spot should come down to two other non-roster invitees to spring training, either Hector Sanchez, who played 55 games as a Chihuahua last season, batting .324, with 13 home runs, or Tony Cruz, who spent almost all of last season with Omaha, batting .264.

Infield

Another familiar face should be back in El Paso in 2017 with infielder Brett Wallace. Wallace was with the Chihuahuas in 2015, batting .305 with eight home runs. After being called up in 2015, Wallace batted .302 with five home runs for the Padres and earned a one-year Major League contract for the 2016 season.

In 2016, Wallace came off the bench almost exclusively for the Padres and batted .189 with six home runs.  Wallace was re-signed to a minor league contract this past offseason.

With first base, third base and most likely the bench spots locked up in San Diego, expect Wallace to man first base at Southwest University Park this season.

Another familiar face that could find himself back in El Paso is second baseman Carlos Asuaje. Despite a phenomenal season that saw him bat .321 and secure PCL all-star honors, Asuaje may end up as the loser in a three-way battle for the starting second baseman job in San Diego.

The consensus seems to be that former Chihuahuas Ryan Schimpf and Cory Spangenberg will secure the job as a platoon. Schimpf batted .217 with 20 home runs after his call-up to San Diego last season. Spangenberg batted just .229 during an injury-riddled 14-game season.

Although Asuaje’s numbers appear to be better than the two incumbents, minor league numbers can sometimes be deceiving. Using “major league equivalencies” invented by Bill James, the founder of Sabermetrics, we find that Asuaje’s stellar 2016 translates to a .257 average with 102 strikeouts and 33 walks in 535 at-bats in the Major Leagues.

The rest of the infield for the Chihuahuas could end up a little full, with shortstop Jose Pirela expected back for another season. Joining him could be new signees—with familiar names for frequent PCL watchers—second baseman Dusty Coleman, third baseman Jamie Romak and Christian Villanueva.

Outfield

If you want to see the 2016 Chihuahuas outfield again, simply turn on the TV and watch a Padres game. Starting in center field? Manny Margot. Starting in right field? Hunter Renfroe.

There will be some turnover in the Chihuahuas outfield, but El Paso fans can be proud of the prospects who have moved on. For as young as last season’s outfield was, 2017’s outfield could very well be the oldest in El Paso’s four seasons.

Three outfielders were signed to minor league contracts in the offseason and all have Major League experience. Nick Buss and Collin Cowgill spent time in the Major Leagues in 2016 with the Angels and Indians, respectively. Jamie Romak returns to the PCL, where he played with Reno in 2015, after playing in Japan with Yokohama in 2016.

Pitching

The Padres pitching situation is very fluid, with starting pitcher Jered Weaver signed as late as Feb. 19. With several spots in the bullpen still up for grabs, the Chihuahuas’ pitching situation is entirely dependent on which way Padres Manager Andy Green decides to go.

A few former Dodgers’ top prospects could be calling the Sun City home in 2017, as they look to find again the minor league dominance that once saw them seemingly destined for Major League stardom.

Zach Lee was rated as high as no. 45 by MLB.com prior to the 2012 season and still carries a 4.29 ERA with 614 strikeouts in 794.1 minor league innings. In 2015, the former first- round pick made his lone start in the Major Leagues, a loss to the New York Mets.

Hong-Chih Kuo was signed Feb. 18, after spending the last three seasons playing baseball in his home country of Taiwan. Kuo has battled injuries since he worked his way through the Dodgers’ system to earn an All-Star appearance in 2010. That season, Kuo set the Dodgers’ franchise record for lowest ERA in a season with a 1.20.

However, Kuo’s injuries worsened in 2011, he was unable to latch on with the Mariners, then the Cubs, and returned home on a three-year contract to play in the Chinese Professional Baseball League.

One of the only true prospects to potentially appear on the Chihuahuas’ roster to begin the season could be pitcher Dinelson Lamet, the Padres no. 9-ranked prospect according to Baseball America. The 24-year-old has moved through the season rapidly since moving over from the Dominican Republic.

Last season, an improved slider saw Lamet move to El Paso for the first time, where he found adversity for the first time in his young career. The future MLB set-up man should return to AAA this season to continue to hone his 93-95 mph fastball and still improving breaking ball.

With a new season and complete roster turnover comes another challenge for Barajas, who proved his worth last season by winning the PCL Championship. However, last season’s roster appears to have been laden with future MLB All-Stars. This season may just prove to need to be Barajas’ most impressive managing job yet. Chihuahuas fans will be hoping it is.