PEORIA, Ariz. -- The Padres have been the darlings of baseball this offseason -- not merely for what was a very active winter that saw new general manager Josh Byrnes make seven trades and also sign two free agents, but for the high marks their Minor League system has received.
Several national media outlets have anointed the Padres' Minor League system as either the best in the game or pretty close to it.
Through trades, players selected in the First-Year Player Draft and inroads with international players, the Padres have improved a farm system that not long ago struggled to churn out Major League-ready players.
where to watch
A look at where the Padres' Top 20 prospects are starting the 2012 season:
Click here for the complete Top 20 list on Prospect Watch.
Players like pitchers Joe Wieland and Robbie Erlin (obtained on July 31 from the Rangers for pitcher Mike Adams), catcher Yasmani Grandal and first baseman Yonder Alonso (obtained from the Reds for pitcher Mat Latos) and others like homegrown players second baseman Cory Spangenberg (2011 first-round pick) and outfielder Rymer Liriano (non-drafted free agent) have the Padres hopeful that the Minor Leagues can eventually send players to Petco Park in San Diego.
Wieland and pitcher Casey Kelly (obtained from the Red Sox in the Adrian Gonzalez trade) pitched a lot of innings in Spring Training and could be ready to join the Padres sooner than later. Over in the Minor League camp, pitching was the clear highlight.
"The young pitching has been phenomenal," said Randy Smith, the Padres' vice president of player development and international scouting.
With the Minor League season getting under way, fans can keep track of the Padres' top prospects throughout the year on Prospect Watch. And get scores, stats, news, schedules, tickets and more for all of the Padres' Minor League teams on the Padres' affiliates page.
Fort Wayne, the Padres' Class A affiliate in the Midwest League, includes several players who were a part of the 2011 Draft class. Pitcher Joe Ross (25th overall) and catcher Austin Hedges (a second-round pick) figure to be two of the youngest players in that league. Ross turns 19 on May 21, while Hedges is already 19. Infielder Jace Peterson, an exciting, athletic player with raw tools, is getting his first full professional season in Fort Wayne.
Triple-A Tucson includes a handful of players who aren't far from helping the Padres, like Kelly and Wieland. It wouldn't be surprising if both earn promotions to the big league team at some point in 2012. First baseman Matt Clark, who had a big spring with the bat, has a lot of power and should put up big numbers in Tucson. Grandal is also a player the Padres are awfully excited about. Switch-hitting catchers don't come around too often.
Two third basemen with plus bats figure to be with Double-A San Antonio -- Jedd Gyorko and Edinson Rincon, though Rincon will see a lot of time in left field. Both players got a lot of playing time in spring with the big league team in Arizona. Pitcher Keyvius Sampson, the Padres' Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2011, are skipping Class A Lake Elsinore and advancing to the Texas League.
Debuts and Draftees
Right-handed pitcher Michael Kelly, the 48th overall selection in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, will make his pro debut with Class A Fort Wayne. He pitched well in Minor Leagues camp this spring.
Ross, the younger brother of A's pitcher Tyson Ross, appeared in one game with the Padres' Arizona League entry at the end of last season.
Hedges was considered the best defensive player in the Draft, a high mark for a high school catcher. He's shown the Padres enough in instructional league in the fall and in camp this spring to lead them to believe he can begin the season in the Midwest League.
Catcher Jose Ruiz, who signed for $1.1 million last July, is only 17 and will play in the Dominican Summer League. He might not arrive stateside until 2013.
Finally, right-handed pitcher Matt Andriese impressed in 12 games with short-season Eugene in 2011 (1.51 ERA). Like the others, this will be his first full professional season.
New Kids on the Block
Three of the Padres' Top 20 prospects were not only acquired in the offseason but were actually added in the same deal. Alonso, Grandal and pitcher Brad Boxberger (along with pitcher Edinson Volquez) came to the Padres in the December deal that saw San Diego send Latos to the Reds.
After a slow start this spring, Alonso's bat heated up, and the Padres' first baseman hit .312 in Cactus League play. Grandal is a catcher with pop. He advanced all the way to Triple-A in his first professional year in 2011 and figures to get plenty of experience with Triple-A Tucson. The same goes for Boxberger, who is a part of the bullpen in Tucson.
Teams on TV
The Tucson Padres are among a growing number of teams whose games are available on MiLB.TV. The 2012 MiLB.TV package will include more than 2,500 Minor League games streamed live, as well as games archived for on-demand streaming soon after completion.
Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. Keep track of @FollowThePadres on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.