Summary: Minor League baseball in Tucson ended with a whimper, not a bang, as the 2013 Tucson Padres limped to a third place finish in the PCL’s Pacific Southern Division. Even more than in recent years, the Triple-A club served as a taxi squad for the big club, with 21 different players appearing for both Tucson and the Padres during the season. The franchise will relocate to El Paso, Texas, for the 2014 season three years after being evicted from Portland to make way for an MLS squad.
Approach: We use a simple formula for the awards. A player is eligible with whichever team he appeared for the most. For the top prospect, we take into account not just what the player did this year, but his age and potential impact in the major leagues.
Level: Triple-A is made up of a mix of players on their way up, on their way down, and just hanging on. At this level, many players are good enough to be in the major leagues but, thanks to roster configuration, organizational needs, and perceived or real shortcomings, they are just waiting for their shot. The Pacific Coast League’s Pacific Division features six of the most offense-inflating parks in affiliated ball, making it difficult to divine great meaning from many players’ stat lines on the circuit.
Pitcher of the Year: RHP Sean O’Sullivan
8-5, 3.83 ERA; 99 K, 31 BB in 115 innings
The El Cajon native signed a minor league deal with his hometown club last winter and promptly headed out to rack up service time in the PCL for the fifth consecutive season. The big-bodied righty worked a team-high 115 innings, turning in the second-best ERA among Tucson starters. O’Sullivan, who turned 26 in September, earned another brief opportunity in the big leagues, but he couldn’t get hitters to chase out of the zone and returned to Tucson having walked more than he struck out in the Majors.
Runner-Up: RHP Burch Smith
5-1, 3.39 ERA; 65K, 17 BB in 61 innings
Smith totally overmatched Texas League hitters for two months before jumping directly to the majors. After a painful debut, he came back to Tucson, where he settled in and was the best pitcher on the staff for the better parts of June and August. Smith was more overpowering than O’Sullivan, striking out more than a batter per inning and giving up about a half run less per nine, but the big gap in innings was enough to swing the season award to O’Sullivan.
Pitcher of the Year: RHP Miles Mikolas
4-2, 3.25 ERA, 26 SV, 17 BB, 40 K in 61 innings
While this might seem like an out of left field pick, Mikolas get my vote because he was the dependable force in the back of the bullpen. The T-Pads had 20 different starting pitchers and just as many relievers. While some players were constantly on the shuttle to and from San Diego, Mikolas, for whatever reason, stayed almost completely in Tucson. He was the one player you could count on every game and led the team with 54 appearances and 26 saves. He has a mid 90’s fastball with solid secondary pitches and profiles as the prototypical “power” bullpen arm.
Runner-Up: LHP Colt Hynes
1-0, 1.80 ERA, 4 SV, 11 Holds, 2 BB, 42 K, in 35 innings
Hynes, 27, worked on becoming more of a pitcher than a thrower during spring training. He showed what he learned by having arguably the best half season of any Padre.
Say what you will about his work in the majors, but Hynes was as good as any pitcher in the PCL. He allowed just one earned run over his first 16 innings, walking one and striking out 21.
Pitcher of the Year: Sean O’Sullivan
As David mentioned, O’Sullivan threw more innings than anyone on the T-Pads and with the exception of Burch Smith, also posted the best ERA of any starter having to pitch in the hitter friendly PCL. O’Sullivan is the classic example of why this level is so frustrating to players, because he should be able to be some major league team’s fifth starter with his sinker/slider combination.
O’Sullivan’s value is as a starter. He simply doesn’t throw hard enough or have the command to be effective in short bursts out of the bullpen.
Runner-Up: Burch Smith
I agree somewhat with Ben on Mikolas, who was the only Tucson pitcher to show up anywhere in the Pacific Coast League season leaders; He finished second in games completed and third in saves while he led the organization with 26. However, he didn’t have the strikeout or hit ratios that you like to see in a reliever.
Burch Smith only appeared in 12 games for the T-Pads, but made a pretty good case that there really isn’t much for him to conquer at this level. His big fastball is simply too much for minor league hitters. If Smith can continue to develop his secondary pitches and - equally important - refine his fastball command, he has a good chance to be in the major league rotation in 2014.
Others of Note:
For the first time in his professional career, Robbie Erlin finished a season with an ERA above 3.00. An extreme fly ball pitcher, the 22-year-old lefty’s game definitely doesn’t play to the environment of the PCL, and hitters ripped him for a .307 average on the year. Compounding that problem, the 34 walks he surrendered were more than the total of his last two seasons combined. Look for a significant bounce back from him next season. After a brutal first half of the year, Anthony Bass posted a respectable 3.29 ERA after the break. He’ll head into the offseason hoping he can use the strong second half as a springboard back to finding the success he had in 2011. Bullpen arms Brad Brach, Miles Mikolas, Nick Vincent and Brad Boxberger all had their strengths for Tucson, and all spent significant chunks of time in San Diego as well. They can expect more of the same in 2014.
MadFriars’ 2013 PCL Pitcher of the Year: Sean O’Sullivan
Top Prospect: Burch Smith
Smith has a fastball which he can simply throw past most minor league hitters. As he learned in his first audition with the big club, he’ll need more to get hitters out at the highest level. Fortunately for him, he has more, in the form of a still-developing slider and change. The hard-throwing righty might yet be destined for the back of the bullpen, but as he showed in his September return to the Majors, he has plenty to offer as a starter as well.