Starting in October and running through the end of the year, MiLB.com's State of the System series will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each Major League organization, highlights prospects who've made the biggest strides in 2020 and offers a peek at 2021.
If there's one thing San Diego made clear in 2020, it was this: these are not your Padres of yesteryear.
Despite a shortened, 60-game Major League season and no Minor League campaign, the Padres managed to jump into the national spotlight while maintaining one of baseball's most prestigious farm systems. Active at the Trade Deadline, San Diego acquired highly coveted starting pitcher Mike Clevinger along with veteran backstops Austin Nola and Jason Castro. The Padres also strengthened their options at designated hitter with the addition of lefty-swinging first baseman Mitch Moreland and bolstered the bullpen with the acquisitions of Trevor Rosenthal and Austin Adams.
Notably, general manager AJ Preller was able to do all this without giving up the club's top four prospects: MacKenzie Gore, CJ Abrams, Luis Patiño and Luis Campusano.
The result? The organization's first playoff berth in 14 years and a spot in the NL Division Series. The bonus? A Minor League system that remains chock full of talent, including five Top-100 prospects.
With established leaders on the big league roster such as Manny Machado, Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers, along with superstar Fernando Tatis Jr., Rookie of the Year runner-up Jake Cronenworth and Cy Young nominee Dinelson Lamet, the Padres are hoping this year's postseason appearance was the first of many. Given the top-tier talent on the horizon, there are reasons to believe.
System strengths: The Padres may have traded away a good chunk of their prospect talent, but plenty remains in the pipeline. Taylor Trammell, Hudson Potts, Jeisson Rosario, Edward Olivares, Joey Cantillo and Owen Miller were Top-30 prospects in the system when they were dealt at the Aug. 31 deadline. However, holding on to Gore, Abrams and Patiño, among others, allowed San Diego to maintain one of the sport's leading Minor League systems. The organization also saw substantial growth from sixth-ranked prospect Ryan Weathers and 2020 Draft picks Robert Hassell III and Cole Wilcox.
Although the organization remains loaded up and down the ladder, the allure of the Padres' top-ranked prospects is where its prime value lies, according to director of player development Sam Geaney.
"We did lose some very talented players, but the top end of the system is still very strong," he said. "We have very exciting high-end talent in guys like Gore and Abrams, and we are equally as excited about some of the younger players who were maybe going to get their first crack of professional baseball in 2020 and will now get that in 2021."
Hassell and Wilcox definitely fit that description. The club's first- and third-round Draft picks, respectively, impressed at San Diego's alternate site this summer. Hassell, an outfielder, slid into the Top-100 prospect rankings at No. 74, while Wilcox, a right-hander, slots in at seventh in the organization.
Areas for growth: In seasons past, the Padres seemed to have solidified their plans at every position, except behind the plate. While catching depth is still a need, Geaney is encouraged by the development of the group as a whole.
"In 2021, throughout the system, I can see behind the plate growing into a strength," he said. "Luis Campusano touched the big leagues this year. You have Blake Hunt behind him as a young prospect. Brandon Valenzuela is another guy we're very high on who is not yet a household name. Our full-season catching core could be interesting."
Campusano is the team's fourth-ranked prospect and No. 46 overall, according to MLB Pipeline. He played in just one big league game in 2020, homering in his debut, before being placed on the injured list with a sprained left wrist. Drafted in 2017, Hunt is 22 with impressive arm strength and a high offensive upside who spent the entire 2019 season at Class A. Valenzuela, a 20-year-old switch-hitter, hasn't played above Rookie ball but likely will make the jump to full-season action in 2021.
What's changed in 2020: The Padres' list of top-30 prospects added plenty of new names, including outfielders Joshua Mears and Owen Caissie, righty Lake Bachar, southpaws Omar Cruz and Jagger Haynes and infielder Jordy Barley. That's not the only thing that's changed, though.
The Friars selected six players in the truncated 2020 MLB Draft including Hassel and Wilcox. Along with that pair, San Diego nabbed three additional prep players and one more collegiate arm. Competitive Balance Round A pick Justin Lange, the 34th overall choice, hit 100 MPH as a senior this spring at Llano (TX) High School; the Padres added Canadian high school outfielder Owen Caissie 11 picks later and believe he has the potential to develop into a formidable power bat. Fourth rounder Levi Thomas fanned 42 batters in 23 innings during his abbreviated junior year at Troy University while fifth-round pick Jagger Haynes is a left-handed pitcher with room to grow into his long, projectable frame.
Alternate site standout: When the Padres selected Hassell with the eighth overall pick in the 2020 Draft, they knew they were getting a sweet-swinging high school talent who possessed plenty of skill, power and potential. It didn't take long for the 18-year-old to showcase all that at the alternate site.
"He was a player who did pretty much everything you could hope, and he made a very strong impression on everyone," Geaney said.
"This was very much trial by fire. It's a pretty unique experience for him to join us when summer camp started and working, practicing and playing with our Major League team. It transitioned from the alternate site to fall instructional league. He was among those that stood out."
Hassell's offensive prowess impressed the player development department from the get-go, but he also made strides defensively in center field.
"[Hassell] very much came as advertised in terms of his offensive profile and potential," Geaney said. "We saw a very advanced offensive player and we also saw a very good athlete who has a really, really good chance to play center field for a very long time. He got stronger and more physical as he got more acclimated to professional ball."
Impact rookies: While the Padres had no shortage of talented rookies and big league debuts in 2020, their impact freshman shouldn't come as much of a shocker -- especially since he tied for second in the race for National League Rookie of the Year.
Cronenworth's breakout campaign consisted of a .285/.354/.477 line, but his biggest contributions could hardly be measured by statistics. His defensive versatility turned the 26-year-old into an everyday player for San Diego. Cronenworth saw time at first base, second and shortstop, and provided one of the most reliable bats in the lineup. His red-hot August, during which he notched a .355 average and 1.021 OPS, produced NL Player of the Month honors, and his steady play throughout the campaign helped lead the Padres to a playoff berth.
Cronenworth ultimately fell short in the Rookie of the Year face, tying with Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm for second. Milwaukee's Devin Williams took home the accolade, but that didn't diminish Cronenworth's accomplishments in the slightest.
Next big thing: The Padres' next big thing remains a lanky lefty they've been banking on since they selected him with the third overall pick in 2017.
Yes, that would be Gore, baseball's No. 3 prospect and the Padres' most prodigious farmhand.
The 21-year-old North Carolina native has been the club's most prized prospect for the last two seasons, and that didn't change in 2020. He also remains one of the most exciting prospects in baseball. After topping out the 2019 season at Double-A, Gore was able to gain plenty of development time at the alternate site over the summer and the team maintains high expectations for him. While fans hoped to see Gore's debut come in 2020, Geaney stressed he's on track as a starter.
"There a lot of unknowns as far as what 2021 looks like at the Major and Minor League level," Geaney said. "But if he goes out and does what he does, we expect him to be knocking on the door at some point in 2021."
Should Gore debut next year, he'll likely pitch alongside fellow top prospect Patiño, who debuted in August. He showed flashes of brilliance, striking out 21 over 17 1/3 innings but ultimately was saddled with a 5.19 ERA. Some additional development time would aid the seventh-ranked right-hander.
After a long playoff drought and the steady promise of prospects, it appears the Padres are finally poised to make a constant play for contention. With a healthy crop of youngsters waiting in the wings, it could stay sunny in San Diego for quite some time.
Katie Woo is an editorial producer for Minor League Baseball. Follow her on twitter at @katiejwoo.