The California League is by far the best place to hit in the system. If a player doesn’t hit in Lake Elsinore, he’s not going to hit anywhere, period. Why? Despite a name which brings to mind a rather volatile climate, most of the games, especially in the southern half of the league, are in the high dry air of the California desert where the ball flies off of the bat and the infields are rock hard.
Pitchers who have had success in the short-season and the Midwest Leagues by feasting on batters adjusting to wooden bats and cold weather find that the tables have been turned. After a full year, instructional leagues and Spring Training, batters have kicked their aluminum habit. Throw in some short outfields; good hitting backgrounds and you have a hitter’s league.
Although the California League’s is a hitter’s league, it is also a proving ground for starting pitchers. In order to succeed here, a pitcher is going to have to do more than pitch “smart” or change speeds; he‘s going to need at least three pitches and be able to bounce back from a pounding he can take on any given night. Lake Elsinore is where the Padres start to find who is and who isn’t a candidate for pitching in the major leagues.
Anyone who’s listened to the Storm games knows that one of the more entertaining broadcasters in baseball is Sean McCall, who is liable to say anything and everything in a baseball game. McCall has been calling the Storm games since 1996, second in tenure in the California League and has seen many of the better Padres prospects, including Jake Peavy, come through the Diamond.
We caught up with McCall in the off-season after a year that saw him see some of the Padres’ stars of the future.
First, a great season by the Storm only marred by the Giants sending down higher-level guys at the end. What was the best thing that happened to the Storm this year?
Sean McCall: For me, it was a season to remember offensively. There were so many record breaking performances, 30 runs in one game and not allowing a run on the other side. Winning thirteen in a row, six mid-season All-Stars, four post-season All-Stars. It was the most impressive offense that I have ever seen since I’ve been here.
You had the Padres second baseman of the future in Lake Elsinore this year in Matt Antonelli. How did he look defensively and is he as good as everyone believes?
Sean McCall: One thing I love about Matt is he has a great attitude and his work ethic. His success this season just goes to show you his potential – that he was athletic enough to move from the corner to the middle infield, and he passed with flying colors. We saw his defensive growth in turning double plays, how he would approach balls from the backhand and glove side. He really matured defensively and shows signs of being a really gifted defensive player.
I thought Chad Huffman was the player of the year in LE while Denis had Matt, what about Chad Huffman impressed you the most. He had a .924 OPS and had 76 RBIs in 84 games.
Sean McCall: Again, he is another player that was learning and adapting to a new position and became a very solid player. I love watching a player for the first time and then seeing him two months later and how much they have improved. He became a very good outfielder, good accurate arm and made some athletic plays out there. He has great confidence as a player, especially at the plate. He started slowly but never doubted himself.
And his power?
Sean McCall: I do think he will hit for power. He hit 10 home runs against right-handed pitchers and he will get his extra base hits. Now that he is committed to baseball year round, he split his time in college between football and baseball at TCU, he will have even a greater chance to be a better baseball player. He’s going to get stronger, runs well, and I think he can become a decent major league player who hits for power at the plate.
Kyle Blanks, a.k.a., “Gigantor”, put up some monster numbers but tailed off some in the second half. What happened?
Sean McCall: I thought he played injured in the second half, but if you look at his body of work over the season, he did pretty well. He can play first base but sometimes defensively he may not have had enough confidence, but he can play there. This year he hit every home run except one against right-handed pitching.
Kyle is really very athletic and mobile. Quite a few opposing managers didn’t believe how well he could run, which is why he had 11 stolen bases during the year and had four triples.
Last year, David Freese really impressed us quite a bit. Everyone knows he can hit but his defense and especially his arm impressed me this year. And we netted Jim Edmonds for him in a trade with St. Louis.
Sean McCall: He was one of my favorite players. If it wasn’t for Chase Headley having the great year that he did, he easily would have been promoted. When comparing David to Chase from last year, I thought he was a better all-around year. He was solid on the backhand and glove side and really coming in on the bunt. Also he has a very good arm. He was a mid-season and post-season All-Star and was able to impress a lot of people with how he could hit in the clutch. He hit .647 with the bases loaded this year, which was amazing. I really liked the way he competes and leads.
Last but not least, I thought Craig Cooper was one of the more underrated players in the Padres system. What can you tell me about him?
Sean McCall: I like his versatility, and he knows how to swing the bat. He’s a better first baseman than outfielder right now. He hasn’t shown the home run potential yet that players like Antonelli and Huffman have, but I think he could. He flew under the radar, but he flew high under the radar. He was here all year and was so important to us all year, very reliable. He had nearly 50 extra base hits and 80 RBIs, so he produced for us this year. He has a really good attitude and work ethic.
One the pitching side I was able to see Wade LeBlanc in San Antonio and was just blown away by how much he can keep batters off-balance with his two changeups and inside fastball. What did you think of him?
Sean McCall: He was fun to watch. Wade is very confident. Even though he went 6 and 5, he had great peripheral numbers and was very impressive at this level. He kept hitters off-balance, has an outstanding changeup and when his curve and fastball are going he can be nearly perfect. In June, he got 22 out in a row, and I was letting my producer know that we have to save this tape [laughs]. He went nearly 27 scoreless innings down the stretch and I really liked his progression.
Manny Ayala was a great find by the Padres out of the Independent Leagues. Can you give us an idea of what he throws and your impressions of him?
Sean McCall: Manny has a low-90s fastball, slider and a very good change. His fastball is a little straight but he became a prospect by trusting his abilities on the mound. He was voted to the mid-season All-Star team and also made the post-season All-Star team even though he was promoted mid-season.
Also Matt Buschmann really developed as the season went on. What was behind his turnaround?
Sean McCall: At some point along the way, I think it was an adjustment in his arm angle, something clicked in early June against San Jose, and he was able to locate his fastball. He had much more confidence, and it really helped his slider and change. He fielded his position very well, doesn’t walk batters and he became our ace. He was named to the post-season All-Star team, which was very well deserved and could have been a candidate for Pitcher of the Year in the Cal League if had been a little better earlier in the year. It’s a shame he wasn’t able to finish the year because the Padres didn’t want him to overwork his arm so he couldn’t really be part of our post-season run. He’s a great competitor, very tough and at the same time very cerebral. I was very impressed with Matt Buschmann.
Finally, Steve Garrison was one of the three players that came over in the Scott Linebrink deal. He doesn’t seem like the biggest guy in the world what do you see in his future?
Sean McCall: He’s a young kid with a great attitude and work ethic. One thing I was very impressed by with him was what a pro he was really taking care of his side work and running. He’s very positive for a player so young, and he really knows how to pitch and has a good sense and feel of the game. He doesn’t have a big fastball, but he can throw four pitches at any point in the count and has good command of all of them. He has a lot of confidence in himself.
Who were your Pitcher and Player of the Year for the Storm?
Sean McCall: I’m in agreement with the organization; I had David Freese and Matt Buschmann. LeBlanc and Ayala did well and we had some good relief but Buschmann just improved so much from the beginning of the year to the end. He really became an MVP-type pitcher. For the players it was a heck of a race. Antonelli at one point got on base in 59 out of 60 games. Huffman and Blanks both put up some good numbers, but I was just impressed with Freese’s all-around game and leadership.
Who did you think was the top pitching and position prospect?
Sean McCall: For pitching I’m going to split. For the first half it was Wade LeBlanc who seemed very skilled and polished for this level. In the second half it was Matt Buschmann. As far as a prospect goes, I would probably have to go with Matt Antonelli. With all the pressures of being the number one pick, moving to another position, and the Padres asked him to do so much – he did it all, which was just really impressive. We were lucky we had some very good players this year.