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Minor League Look-in: El Paso Chihuahuas

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A glance at the players closest to contributing to the MLB team.

SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game
Prince looks so handsome in the Kazoo double-flapper helmet!
Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

On this day off, I thought it could be useful to take a look into the minor leagues to see what’s going on down on the farm. AAA tends to house the players closest to contributing to the MLB team, so let’s see what’s been going on in El Paso.

Position Players

Christian Villanueva (25, 3B, RHH): The departure of Jamie Romak to Korea opened up third base for former top prospect Christian Villanueva, who missed much of spring as he was still recovering from injuries that shelved him for all of 2016. Always considered a premium defensive prospect at third base, the question was whether he could hit. Well, he’s hitting now, to the tune of .340/.379/.604 with four homers and a stolen base across 16 games this month.

Franchy Cordero (22, CF, LHH): His .273/.324/.478 line seems more like what they would like him to do at the MLB level, but this is Cordero’s first year in AAA. He’s showing power and speed with his seven stolen bases, five homers, and league-leading seven triples while playing well in his new position of centerfield (he was converted from SS in the 2015 season). Patience is important with young players, but he is on the 40-man roster, so he could get a call up at some point this season.

Jose Pirela (27, OF, RHH): Since coming to the Padres as part of the Chase Headley trade, Pirela has proven himself to be the epitome of the AAAA player. Once again he’s having a nice season at the plate, hitting .320/.380/.568 with eight homers, leading the team in longballs thanks to Romak’s departure. His ability to play basically anywhere but SS and CF gives him some value, but at age 27, his opportunities to break through at the next level are limited.

MLB: Spring Training-San Diego Padres at San Francisco Giants Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Jabari Blash (27, OF, RHH): All Jabari Blash has done since being optioned to El Paso is hit. He’s hitting .344/.500/.625 with two homers and three doubles. It seems like he can recognize and punish AAA pitching but hasn’t been able to take that to the next level. This is his first option season and he’s under team control for years, so the team could wait for the late bloomer to turn a corner, keeping him on the 40-man roster as a reserve corner outfielder.

Rafael Ortega (26, OF, RHH): After spending most of 2016 on the Angels’ big league roster, Ortega is making a strong argument for promotion this season by leading the team in doubles and stolen bases while hitting .308/.373/.458. He’s been pushed to the corner outfield posts by Franchy Cordero, but he’s very capable in center at the MLB level as he showed last year.

Carlos Asuaje (25, 2B, LHH): After winning the PCL’s Rookie of the Year award, Asuaje’s sophomore campaign has been a struggle to say the least. He’s floundering away with a .222/.335/.319 line, where it seems like the only thing he’s done well is draw walks. With a plethora of options at second base ahead of him, he’ll likely spend the entire season in El Paso as he works to get back on track. This is a surprising downturn for a cerebral player who’s hit well on his way up to his level.

Pitchers

Dinelson Lamet (24, RHSP): This young man is having a great start to his season, as he leads all Chihuahuas starters in ERA, WHIP, and is among the league leaders in27, RHSP) strikeouts. He’s only given up two home runs across eight starts, and his 50:20 K:BB rate is more impressive when you consider that he’s one that over 39 innings, so he’s striking batters out at a 30% clip, or 11.5 K/9IP. He’s been dominant. With an open 40-man roster spot, there’s a chance he could get a call up soon to bolster a struggling rotation on the big league squad. Then again, he could be a part of the Padres’ picture for years to come, so there’s incentive to hold off on starting his arbitration clock prematurely.

Walker Lockett (23, RHSP): Considered a rotation candidate before the season, Lockett has struggled to a 4.35 ERA, and the advanced stats suggest that he’s been lucky to keep it that low. The PCL is an unabashed hitter’s league, and Lockett’s finding that out the hard way. Having a spot on the 40-man roster still opens the chance that he could get a cup of coffee this season, but management is probably more interested in generating found value off the waiver wire than promoting a kid earlier than necessary.

Atlanta Braves v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Matt Magill (27, RHSP): Until his last start, Magill was making a strong argument for addition to the 40-man roster and a shot at a spot start with the MLB team. Then he went out and issued six free passes. His hot start has cooled off significantly, as his ERA has rose from 1.55 after his first four starts to 4.17 after nine - that’s what happens when you give up four or more earned runs in four consecutive starts. Magill needs to get his hands back on the wheel to earn that chance, and the MLB team needs someone to step up.

Tyrell Jenkins (24, RHSP): The athletic and talented Jenkins is slowly getting on track this year. His 4.81 ERA doesn’t inspire much confidence, but he’s been going deeper into games and limiting damage as of late. The control/command issues that have plagued his promising career to date were expected to take some time to work out, so consistent progress is the goal with Jenkins, possibly working toward MLB service later this season.

Zach Lee (25, RHSP): Like Jenkins, the coaching staffs need to work with Lee to get his control and command issues reeled in to turn the former top prospect back into a potential rotation option. His one solid MLB start was a very nice surprise, but his early performances in El Paso suggested that there were some smoke & mirrors at work. He’s been on the 7-day disabled list after getting pulled after 1-1/3 innings of his most recent start, then missing his last turn in the Chihuahuas’ rotation. No public word on the nature of the injury.

San Diego Padres v Seattle Mariners Photo by Rich Pilling/Getty Images

Logan Bawcom (28, RHRP): Another under-the-radar minor league signing, the journeyman righty has been dominant out of the El Paso bullpen. In 23 innings of work across 15 games, Bawcom has struck out 26 hitters and held opposing teams to a 1.96 ERA. He’s being used as a swingman, going over three innings of work twice this season.

Phil Maton (24, RHRP): The righty with the high-spin-rate fastball was the talk of spring training, but his season has been rough so far. In his first full season at AAA, his 4.24 ERA might be a result of some bad luck, as his 3.10 FIP suggests that he’s pitched much better than the ERA would suggest.

In the context of this year’s MLB season, the organization may be looking for added value from many of these players. If a Logan Bawcom or a Christian Villanueva can earn a promotion and show some future value at the MLB level, he could be a useful piece for the team’s near future (like Brad Hand) or become a valuable part of a trade to further bolster the team’s long-term prospects. At the same time, exciting young players like Dinelson Lamet and Franchy Cordero are learning what it takes to succeed at the higher levels, experience that may push them onto the big stage sooner than later. With the struggles that the big league team is going through, it’s important to keep an eye on the future.