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Three Padres to watch in spring training

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The San Diego Padres have a relatively incomplete roster going into this season compared to years past. That’s why spring training is as important a time as ever in which to evaluate their talent.

San Diego, which opens spring training Feb. 22, has just two outfielders on the 40-man roster (Fernando Tatis Jr. and Jose Azocar) and two unproven pitchers (Pedro Avila and Randy Vasquez), who are predicted by FanGraphs to round out the starting rotation.

In contrast, San Diego has a rich farm system that will certainly funnel players to the big leagues this season. The Padres extended non-roster invitees to seven of their top-15 prospects – catcher Ethan Salas, shortstop Jackson Merrill, pitcher Robby Snelling, pitcher Drew Thorpe, pitcher Adam Mazur, third baseman Graham Pauley and outfielder Jakob Marsee.

A lot of answers regarding the Opening Day lineup will be answered based on spring-training performances. Here are three players to watch:

Outfielder Jose Azocar

Azocar must replace last season’s starting center fielder, Trent Grisham, who was dealt to the New York Yankees in the offseason. While never a gifted hitter, Grisham was consistently one of the top defensive players at his position. 

Per Baseball Savant, Azocar was within the 97th percentile in sprint speed and 74th percentile in arm strength last year. He has a .982 fielding percentage in center field, but it’s his lack of offensive production during his two years in the Majors that is concerning.

FanGraphs predicts he will have a .632 on-base plus slugging percentage in 2024, well below league average in 2023 (.734). His career slash line of just .249/.341/.633 is also concerning, so a good performance in spring training could significantly boost his chances.

Catcher Ethan Salas

Anyone hoping Salas could make his MLB debut during the 2024 season should probably pump their brakes, because San Diego has a capable catcher in Luis Campusano. 

Salas has rocketed through the minors. At only 16 last year, he made his first appearance in the Cactus League, grounding out in his lone at-bat. As a 17-year-old, Salas saw time in Low-A, High-A and Double-A during the regular season. He was the youngest player to record an inning in the Texas League (Double-A) with the next closest being 19-year-old Yamal Encarnacion of the Houston Astros. 

In January, Dennis Lin of The Athletic wrote Salas could make his MLB debut before he turns 20. 

Right-hander Randy Vasquez

Vasquez was one of the key pieces the Padres acquired in the deal that sent Juan Soto to the Yankees. Per MLB.com, he’s San Diego’s 15th-best prospect and at 25, he’s primed to stick in the Majors. He’s predicted to be the fifth starter in the rotation with just 41 days of service time, making him relatively unproven.

Despite the lack of experience at the MLB level, he has shown the ability to perform when called upon. In 2023, Vasquez played in 11 games (five starts), positing a 2.87 ERA, and 1.274 WHIP. His ability to start when needed is encouraging.

Even if he doesn’t make that Opening Day roster, Vasquez is a strong candidate to be called up at some point. No matter which scenario comes to fruition, Padres fans should keep an eye on Vasquez, who could be a key player this season.

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