Despite trading away everything from last year’s top prospect group, AJ Preller’s cupboards are not bare. He won’t have the talent to make moves for Juan Soto or Josh Hader this summer, but Preller himself is an elite scout who has little trouble adding new waves of gifted young players every year. It’s a skill that builds itself out across time. Preller probably had good vision for the game as a young person, but as a long-time executive who makes more trips to the field than anybody, his eye has been honed the hard way: 10,000 hours at a time. Malcolm Gladwell, eat your heart out.
One way you know Preller is good is James Wood. Another is Jarlin Susana. How anyone else looked at these guys and said “meh, no thanks” is beyond me, but it’s a complicated game. You can’t just target giants and hope to thrive, but if you do see a giant who happens to move like a meta-human, trust your eyes and run, don’t walk, to add them to your squad.
This trust-your-eyes talent likely provides him an edge in building a scouting department, too. Talent or skill in a craft doesn’t always equate to skill at teaching that ability, but it’s certainly better than being clueless about scouting and then interfacing with a scouting director. All this is to say I spend a lot of time watching young Padres squads and give the team all the minutes I can find before publication day.
1. SS Jackson Merrill | 19 | A | 2025
Merrill had already posted an impressive season (.325/.387/.482 in 45 Low-A games) despite missing two months with a wrist injury when he made a bunch of noise in front of tastemakers this fall in Arizona, solidifying his spot as the likely consensus number one prospect in this system. Makes sense, too. The 6’3” 195 lb Merrill aces the eye test, featuring a sleek left-handed swing that lets him track pitches deep into the zone and explode through the hips to generate even opposite field thump. He’s fast enough to swipe a base or two now but will probably settle in as a four-category contributor at peak.
2. OF Samuel Zavala | 18 | A | 2026
I expect the 6’1” 175 lb Zavala to open the season in High-A, where he might be the level’s youngest player. Doesn’t turn 19 until July 15, by which time he could be justifying a promotion to Double-A, given the plate discipline and easy thump from an impressive left-handed swing. In 33 games at Low-A against players 4.1 years his senior on average, Zavala had 15 extra base hits and 19 walks, good for an .863 OPS and 118 wRC+. Definitely has a case to be ranked ahead of Merrill.
3. RHP Dylan Lesko | 19 | NA | 2026
Fell from a likely top five pick to 15th overall due to an elbow injury that led to Tommy John surgery in April. Lesko is the only high school junior to win the Gatorade player of the year award thanks to three plus pitches (fastball, change up, curveball) and excellent control from a 6’2” 195 lb frame. When he was there for Preller at 15, it felt like a done deal. No sense passing on a unicorn type talent in that spot.
4. 2B Eguy Rosario | 23 | MLB | 2022
Rosario is all that’s left from his cohort. While everyone else was getting shipped out for veteran talent, Rosario was making his way to the majors. In 124 games at Triple-A, Rosario slashed .288/.368/.508 with 22 home runs and 21 stolen bases, so the appeal is obvious. He only got six plate appearances with San Diego, but it’s a start. This lineup will be tough for anyone to crack, but if the seas part, Rosario could go on a roto-friendly run.
5. OF Korry Howell | 24 | AA | 2024
For a while it was mostly me and Allen Ginsberg tracking the trials of Korry Howell. You just can’t fake the things he brings as a 6’3” 180 lb, double-plus athlete with easy speed. He played better after the Padres brought him back in the Josh Hader trade but had struggled to hit Double-A spin with Milwaukee, striking out 39.6 percent of the time in 28 games for them. That last number is the most important one. Howell started out as cold as it goes in 2022 but settled back into an effective approach throughout the season.
6. LHP Jay Groome | 24 | AAA | 2023
Been a winding path for the 6’6” 262 lb southpaw. With him and Lesko, the club has two top-of-their-class arms who’ve lost a little value since their peak. Again feels like a Preller thing, not that Groome would’ve cost a lot to acquire after posting a 1.50 WHIP with Boston’s Triple-A affiliate this year. The worry is he’s lost enough athleticism along the way that he won’t be able to repeat his delivery, which was never his long suit. Still a smart pickup in my opinion. Maybe even for fantasy, though I’d probably wait and see for a bit, but I’m open to the possibility that it all clicks into place for Groome at some point. He’s still behind on innings, developmentally speaking, so a mid-twenties leap seems more probable than hopeful.
7. OF Daniel Montesino | 19 | DSL | 2026
From the halls of Montesino to the shores of Tripoli, people were pumped for this guy’s full-season debut. Well, maybe not a ton of people. But I was excited, and I wasn’t alone. Montesino had employed his cut-throat corporate farming practices to great effect in the Dominican Summer League, posting a .316/.444/.489 slash line thanks to a discerning eye and smooth swing from his 6’0” 180 lb frame. He wound up missing the whole season due to injury and should be well under most radars. No real rush to add him now, but he should be tracked for an early pop-up.
8. SS Yendry Rojas | 18 | DSL | 2027
Signed for 1.3 million in January 2022, Rojas would represent a rare miss for Preller if he doesn’t develop into a solid or better prospect. That’s a weird way to introduce a player I’m excited about, but he’s only played in the DSL, so there’s only so much you can say about him except that he’s 6’0” 185 lbs with plus speed and plate skills. In 46 games, he drew 26 walks and struck out just 23 times. Also hit zero home runs and stole 14 bases with four doubles and four triples. That’s not an eye-popping line, but it looks good to me in the context.
9. 2B Nerwilian Cedeno | 21 | A | 2025
Favorite name of this lap through the minors goes to Nerwilian Cedeno: a switch-hitter at 5’11” 175 lbs with a great idea of what works for him at the plate despite a relative lack of opportunities thanks to covid and a knee injury that ended his 2021 after 18 games. He slashed .256/.362/.400 with six home runs and 18 stolen bases in 71 games at Low-A, so he’s not forcing the issue for San Diego or our dynasty teams, but there’s some bounce potential here.
10. LHP Robby Snelling | 19 | NA | 2027
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Snelling is a premium athlete. Originally committed to Arizona so he could keep playing football, he switched course when the Padres snagged him at 39th and gave him $3 million to take the mound, where he runs it up into the high nineties from a thick frame with a delivery he can manage at 6’3” 210 lbs.
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