The Padres treated TinCaps fans to long stints in Fort Wayne from San Diego first-round draft picks Hudson Potts (2016), MacKenzie Gore ('17) and Ryan Weathers ('18). But 2019 first-round selection CJ Abrams, now the No. 2 prospect in all of baseball according to Fangraphs, played only a few games with Fort Wayne at the end of 2019 and then skipped the team entirely this season, going directly to Double-A.
With Abrams not in Fort Wayne in 2021, the TinCaps did not have a first-round pick on their roster for most of the campaign. That is until this weekend, when 2020 No. 8 overall pick Robert Hassell III made his debut in High-A. Hassell, playing center field, hit leadoff for Fort Wayne in an 8-6 TinCaps loss to Dayton today and he was joined in the lineup by a pair of fellow Low-A Lake Elsinore call-ups who are very good prospects in their own rights: catcher Brandon Valenzuela and infielder Euribiel Angeles. Angeles hit second this afternoon, while Valenzuela was the clean-up hitter and the trio, which ranked near the top of Low-A West in nearly every major offensive category, reached base a combined five times in its first game with the TinCaps.
"It was awesome," Hassell said of getting promoted with his teammates. "It was good for me to see them in the dugout today and it was good for them to see me. That's definitely pretty special. We've been grinding together all year. ... It's the first experience (with a call-up) for all of us, so that made it special, for sure."
TinCaps manager Anthony Contreras has been impressed with all three players since he saw them in spring training and the fall instructional league last season. He predicts that, after an adjustment period, the newcomers will continue the success they had with the Storm.
"Seeing the performance they put on down in Lake Elsinore, once they get their feet under them and get their bearings straight and rhythm with this team, I expect them to jump on board and pick up where they left off there," Contreras said. "It's going to be some learning curve, as well, obviously you have a learning curve at this level – Valenzuela's going to have to learn our pitching staff and get comfortable with those guys – but complete confidence in those guys to adapt and finish as strong as they can the remainder of the season."
As for Hassell, Contreras expects big things.
"Good bat to ball, he obviously has pop, can drive the ball over the ballpark," the fifth-year manager said of the player ranked the No. 72 prospect in all of baseball, according to Fangraphs. "He's an instinctual player, can run the bases really well, center fielder that can float around, run. ... Has a big package to provide for a team. You're going to draft somebody that high in the first round for a reason. He has the skillset that everybody wants, now it's just getting the experience and reps and him learning the baseball game to keep progressing."
Valenzuela's familiarity with the pitching staff will be a work in progress as it is for every catcher with a new team. The No. 9 prospect in the Padres farm system was diving all over the field in his first game with the TinCaps, trying to corral an array of wild pitches from Fort Wayne relievers. Austin Smith tossed five wild ones and Wen-Hua Sung added two and that flurry of off-center offerings did much to cost Fort Wayne the game as three of them brought runners in to score from third base. Valenzuela did what he could, making athletic moves to try to recover the errant pitches and cut down runners at the plate and once he nearly did so – he slid to grab a ball that bounced to his right and fired it to Smith as the runner slid home. The umpire called the runner safe on the bang-bang play, much to the chagrin of Smith, who thought he'd put the tag on in time. That run put Dayton in front 4-3 in the sixth and the Dragons never trailed again.
The loss meant Fort Wayne split the six-game series with the Dragons, the third straight series the TinCaps have finished even. They have split seven of the last eight series at Parkview Field and have not one in Fort Wayne since the opening set of the season, May 4-8. They only have one home series remaining, beginning Sept. 7 against Lansing.
The TinCaps are mostly out of playoff contention now, sitting at seven games out of the final league playoff spot (only two teams makes the playoffs this season) with 18 games to go. What they can do, however, is play spoiler; their next series is against East Division-leading Great Lakes, which sits only one game out of the final playoff spot. Fort Wayne has a chance to affect the playoff race even if it isn't likely to play in the postseason. Of course, Contreras wants to see his team finish strong for developmental purposes, as well.
"Continue to keep grinding and not let up on the work that's been going on," Contreras said of what he expects from his team in the final three weeks of the season. "These guys are a good bunch of guys that work hard and when you can see the finish line, it's natural to ease off the gas a little bit. But that's where I come in, that's where our coaching staff comes in, to keep them motivated, keep them doing the stuff that got them to this point.
"They've been playing really good baseball up to this point and I think the second half of the season has been night and day difference from the first half. That's usually the way it goes. It's a tribute to their consistency, it's a tribute to these guys putting in the effort. ... They've gotta be smart, do everything we preach every single day so they can get to that finish line and finish strong."
Note: Padres reliever Trey Wingenter, who was scheduled to make a minor-league rehab appearance with Fort Wayne this week on his road back from Tommy John surgery, did not pitch again Sunday. Contreras said he suffered another injury earlier in the week and it is "not looking good" that he'll pitch in the upcoming road series against Great Lakes, either.