Pensacola Blue Wahoos 2022 Season Preview

From dominant pitching performances to a new single season club home run record mixed in with Blue Angel flyovers, mullet Thursdays and an occasional chase of a man dressed as a cockroach, it was quite an exciting first season of affiliation for the Marlins and the Pensacola Blue Wahoos.  With home plate just yards away…

Photo by Alabama Aerial Perspective

From dominant pitching performances to a new single season club home run record mixed in with Blue Angel flyovers, mullet Thursdays and an occasional chase of a man dressed as a cockroach, it was quite an exciting first season of affiliation for the Marlins and the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. 

With home plate just yards away from Pensacola Bay, the Blue Wahoos enter the second year in partnership with Miami. Even though their relationship is still so young, majority owner Quint Studer has made two adjustments to Blue Wahoos Stadium that should aid in prospects’ path to loanDepot park. Firstly, the Wahoos made a lighting upgrade swapping out old lamps for LED lamps. Secondly, the playing surface was given a major overhaul. As they do at the new ABC Supply Stadium in Beloit at the A+ level, Marlins prospects at the AA level will be playing on the same synthetic turf used in Miami.

Leading the Wahoos onto their newly remodeled field will once again be Kevin “Smoke” Randel. Smoke, a Marlins’ draftee in 2002, played at every level of the minor league ranks and has now managed at three different levels, starting at A Greensboro in 2014 followed by A+ Jupiter in 2016. He’s been at the helm of the AA level since 2018. Randel also served as a Marlins’ MiLB hitting coach from 2009-2013.

“He’s a really laid back guy,” Griffin Conine said on a JustBaseball broadcast this offseason. ”It helped a lot going to AA. It’s overwhelming going from high A to AA obviously. He treats everyone light in a way. He’s not super hands on. He doesn’t take anything too seriously. He helped me in that way that he kind of let me figure it out on my own.”

Projected Lineup

C Will Banfield
2021 Stats (A+): .181/.258/.308, 6 HR, 42 RBI, 95/25 K/BB

Banfield, the Marlins’ second round pick in the 2018 draft, was a highly prized commodity out of high school and got paid as such. The then-18-year-old made $1.8 million, twice more than his slot value. Since then, Banfield’s spectacular defensive skills have stagnated. Pitchers rave about his game calling and receiving skills and he’s posted a 39% caught stealing rate all while playing against older league average competition. But as great as the defense has been, the bat has severely lagged behind.

Through his first 207 career games, Banfield is a sub-.200 hitter, slashing .199/.263/.322. He also owns a 259/61 K/BB. On occasion, Banfield has shown good raw power, but he lacks much of an approach. He is very pull heavy and his line drive and hard hit rates are minuscule. Banfield has also always posted ground ball rates over or very close to the 40% range.

Because he is still just 22, the ceiling is still that of a starting catcher, but it is lowering by the day. 2022 will be a huge year for Banfield as he is forced up to the AA level because of a wealth of catchers with less experience coming up behind him. This season will be a tipping point for Banfield.

Something to note is that Banfield has not been seen yet at minor league camp. In his stead, undrafted free agent Paul McIntosh has been doing of the catching on the AA field and has looked good doing it. After an impressive showing with the A Hammerheads last year especially in terms of his power potential, McIntosh, 24, could be the backup plan in Pensacola.

1B Troy Johnston
2021 Stats (A-A+): .300/.399/.468, 15 HR, 85 RBI, 103/68 K/BB

Johnston personifies late round lightning in a bottle and DJ Svihlik’s mastery. A 17th round draft pick in 2019 out of Gonzaga, the 24-year-old lefty was the epitome of two terms: scientific and simplistic.

A self proclaimed ‘cage rat’ during his younger years, Johnston spent much of his time studying the intricacies of handling a baseball bat. This paved the way for him to become a .312/.387/.515 three year collegiate hitter (and a .300/.346/.403 bat during a showing in the wood bat summer leagues after his freshman year). Johnston’s natural bat to ball skills translated well to his first showing in pro ball in 2019 when he hit .277/.373/.399 with Batavia. Only one thing was missing: power.

This past season in Beloit, the power found him. After beginning the season in A Jupiter where he hit an insane .349/.427/.446, Johnston slashed .289/.393/.473 in 96 games for the Beloit Snappers. By unlocking more of his lower half, he cranked out a total of 15 home runs (14 with Beloit), the most he’s ever hit over the course of a full season at any level. Johnston led full season Marlins’ organizational players in many metrics including batting average, RBIs and wRC+ (140). He finished his 2021 calendar year by going 21/71 (.296) with a .383 OBP in 18 Arizona Fall League games.

Defensively, Johnston was drafted as an outfielder. This past season, the Marlins brought him in to play first base. There, Johnston has shown good lateral movement, a good feel for the bag and for his new glove. With the ability to position himself properly and to make difficult plays including stretches and diving grabs, Johnston is a natural athlete who can make a difference on both sides of the ball.

As good as he has been, a big challenge approaches for Johnston as he presumably makes the trip up to the AA level. Should his hit tool persist there, he’s not far away from big league readiness.

2B Chris Torres

Torres is a 24-year-old acquired infielder acquired by the Marlins in their trade of Dee Gordon to the Seattle Mariners. Torres was rated as the 18th best prospect in the 2014 international signing class.

Unfortunately, since coming to the Marlins, playing time has come at a premium for the 5’11”, 170 pound switch hitter. After playing 37 games between short season ball and low A, Torres got in his only full season to date in 2019 with the A Clinton LumberKings. There, Torres showed an advanced approach but the bat to ball skills lagged behind limiting his average. In 112 games, he hit .234/.347/.317 with a 141/75 K/BB. What seemed like a good building block season would not be built upon at all due to the pandemic followed by injury. Following the idle 2020 season, Torres missed all of 2021 due to injury. 

Torres comes into 2022 as a bit of a wild card with a lot of questions surrounding him, questions he was thought to have the capability to sufficiently answer when he was selected. What kind of physical shape will he be in? Can he make a 50 grade hit tool come to fruition? And can he come by a bit more power? While that remains to be seen, what Torres has shown so far is a plus approach from both sides of the plate, good patience, great speed, and defensive versatility.

At 24 and with a wealth of younger infield talent behind him, Torres will — like Banfield — get a big challenge to the AA level. But if he can come back healthy and physically recharged, there is the potential for the Marlins to get even more out of the Gordon trade that has already spurned big league contributors Pablo Lopez and Nick Neidert.

3B Cobie Vance
SS Ynmanol Marinez

LF Griffin Conine
2021 Stats (A+-AA): .218/.330/.531, 36 HR, 84 RBI, 185/58 K/BB

In 2018, the name Conine being back on a Marlins’ affiliated jersey eluded Miami by one single draft pick. At the trade deadline in 2020, the Fish ensured the next wave of Conine would come through South Florida when they traded infielder Jonathan Villar to the Blue Jays for Griffin’s services.

Conine, a graduate of Pine Crest Academy in Boca Raton, had a year of extremes in his initial tenure with his hometown organization. After hitting .247/.382/.587 with 23 homers in 66 A+ games, Conine got the call to AA Pensacola. In his first 42 games with the Wahoos, Griffin came way back down to earth, hitting .176/.243/.447. While the power was still prevalent (13 of his 18 hits went over the fence), his strikeout rate soared to an unprecedented 47%.

The variance in those stats from A+ to AA shows just how big that jump in level is. More often than not, Conine looked very overmatched. That said, the entirety of Conine’s 2021 season came after he missed half of 2019 due to suspension (for Ritalin) and of course the entirety of 2020.

With unprecedented 70-grade raw power and good outfield tools fit for either corner and with the disjointedness of his recent career, there is still room for this recently turned 24-year-old lefty to build an approach and catch his hit tool up enough to turn in to the next Conine (albeit a very different one) who makes an impact for the Marlins. But, with the outfield depth in the Marlins’ system, that clock starts ticking this season.

RF Thomas Jones
DH Bubba Hollins

Projected Rotation

RHP Zach McCambley
2021 Stats (A+-AA): 97 IP, 4.36 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 120/26 K/BB

Max Meyer and Jake Eder, challenged to the AA level to begin their careers in 2021, flew out of the gate, showed the Marlins’ organization they were up for the challenge and proved they were both very close to being big league ready. In 2022, another name and another member of the 2020 draft class has a very legitamite chance at reaching a similar level of development: Zach McCambley.

McCambley, the Marlins’ third rounder in 2020 out of Coastal Carolina is a 6’2”, 220 pounder. After tossing mostly as a reliever for his first two seasons with the Chanticleers, McCambley took a trip to the well known Cape Cod summer league following the 2019 season. There, in five starts, McCambley really started to make his name well known to scouts. In 20.2 IP, McCambley held down a 1.74 ERA via a 24/7 K/BB. He returned to Conway, SC in 2020 and was off to a fantastic 25 IP, 1.80 ERA, 32/7 K/BB start to his junior year before the COVID cancelation. Considering he could have gone much higher had a full 2020 NCAA season been played, the Marlins got McCambley on a bargain at pick 75 overall

McCambley began his 2021 season at the A+ level and proved just how much of a steal he can be. Against A+ competition nearly a year and a half older than him on average, the 6’2”, 220 pound specimen’s extremely advanced stuff allowed him to hold down a 3.79 ERA via a 1.018 WHIP. The most glaring stat McCambley posted with Beloit: a ridiculous 73/6 K/BB.

McCambley made the jump up to AA just after the midseason mark. There, in his first taste against the high levels of MiLB (in his first season pro), McCambley discovered he would need to challenge a bit more to remain effective. In his first 40 IP with Pensacola, his ERA inflated to 5.18 and his walk rate from 0.95 to 4.50.

This week, McCambley showed back up to Marlins camp spotting his stuff this way.

His 70-grade sharp biting power curveball is the difference maker. One of the best pitches in the organization and potentially in all of MiLB (it’s that good), McCambley shows the ability to challenge to both sides of the plate and to bury it for whiffs in pitcher friendly counts. In first looks at McCambley, better fastball command early in counts and his knack to change eye levels has given him a better plan of attack. Moreover, McCambley is gaining a better feel for his blueprint changeup, improving it’s status from mix-in to usable.

Should McCambley’s command continue to improve and should his changeup continue to gain polish (something that is almost a guarantee within this pitching development system), McCambley could one day approach the ceiling of James Shields. At the bare minimum he will be a major league reliever and could fill that role right now. Entering his age 23 season, McCambley should return to AA to begin 2022 but may not be there for too long.

LHP Antonio Velez
2021 Stats (A+-AA): 99 IP, 2.55 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 93/11 K/BB

Continuing with the theme of Svihlik-discovered potential gems in the rough, Velez is a soon-to-be 25-year-old lefty out of Florida State University that went undrafted in the shortened 2020 draft.

Velez came in to the Marlins organization and was immediately thrust up to the A+ level. There, Velez began as a reliever but soon entered the Snappers’ rotation. In his first 20 career games (11 starts) Velez managed an even 3.00 ERA via a 0.877 WHIP and outrageous control numbers including a 75/9 K/BB. These accolades earned the lefty a call to AA late in the season. In three starts with the Blue Wahoos, Velez allowed just one earned run while the control and command consisted to the tune of a 18/2 K/BB. Overall, Velez’s 2021 strikeouts to walks ratio was 8.45, tops in the Marlins’ organization.

What Velez lacks in the way of fiery velocity (sitting 92, up to 94), he will make up for with incredible command and control over three pitches: an arm-side running fastball, a very advanced two plane changeup and a sweeping slider that he can spot on both sides of the plate.

Since his high school days, Velez was always been a late bloomer and he’s become a breakout candidate. Velez’s sudden success story born from obscurity makes him very easy to root for.

RHP George Soriano
2021 Stats (A-A+): 89.1 IP, 3.43 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 114/37 K/BB

Soriano is another under the radar piece who has recently started to make his name known. A 2015 international signing by the Marlins (which makes him one of the longest tenured players in the system), the Dominican is a 22-year-old righty made his minor league debut as a 17 year old in 2016. After missing the entirety of 2017 due to injury, Soriano came stateside in 2019 where he made an impression mostly as a reliever. In 2019, Soriano had a solid first full season with Clinton as a rotational piece, holding down a 3.91 ERA via a 1.32 WHIP and 99/50 K/BB. 

Soriano got a bit of a late start to 2021 due to another arm injury. The Marlins built Sorinao up in low A before sending him to Beloit in early July. In 55 innings with the Snappers, Soriano had a 3.74 ERA via a 1.39 WHIP and 67/19 K/BB.

Soriano is another pitcher who won’t overpower guys with velocity. He normally sits around 94 with the ability to pump up to 96. What sets him apart are advanced breaking pitches, anchored by a plus slider.

Soriano can also throw a changeup that currently grades at 40 with decent sink and tilt. While it is still a third pitch for him, he shows enough feel and command to make it a decisive offering.

While Soriano has three pitches and one major league ready one, his overwhelming best tool is his control and his bulldog mentality to challenge hitters. What can get him in trouble at times is his command and catching too much zone which has lead to quite a bit of hard contact.

That said, Soriano, another guy with an extremely disjointed recent MiLB career, is still 22 with time to iron that out and continue to ramp up to better velo. He should enter AA baseball with a ton of tools that give him the ability to stick as a back end starter.

RHP MD Johnson
RHP Bryan Hoeing
LHP Zach King

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