With the bevy of talented pitching prospects in the San Diego Padres’ organization, it’s awfully easy for a young arm to get lost in the shuffle. After all, the addition of MacKenzie Gore from this year’s draft gives the team four pitching prospects in Baseball America’s Top 100 rankings, a number which trails only the Atlanta Braves and their loaded farm system.
And if the presence of those premier players was not enough to obscure the lower level prospects, then the dominance of Eric Lauer and the emergence of the flame-throwing Michel Baez surely has stolen what remains of the limelight.
Nevertheless, the Padres might have a hidden gem on their hands in the nineteen year old Mason Thompson, who is getting his first taste of full-season ball at Single-A Fort Wayne.
Thompson, a native of Round Rock, Texas, was on the fast-track to a first round evaluation for the 2016 MLB Draft after starring for the USA’s national team at the 2013 15U Pan American Championships. Yet, not long after, misfortune struck Thompson during his junior year of high school as he was forced to undergo Tommy John Surgery to repair a torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament, robbing him of the opportunity to pitch all but a few innings during his senior season.
As a result, Thompson slid all the way from the first round to the third, where he was the tenth prep right-hander selected in the 2016 draft. The Padres were thrilled to take a chance on Thompson, so to deter him from honoring a commitment to the University of Texas, they offered him roughly a million dollars over the slot value.
While Thompson expressed gratefulness for the opportunity to be drafted at all, he humbly shared that the ramifications of that injury provides him with extra motivation to prove himself.
“I mean of course I have a lot of ‘what if’s,” Thompson told me, “what if this didn’t happen’ or ‘what if it would have happened earlier or later’… there’s a lot of that running through my head from time to time, but I like to live in the present, and I like to work with the situation that I am in now. I can’t change what I went through and what had happened in the past, but it gives a little bit of extra drive and fire knowing that I had it taken away from me for a year and a half or so.”
Despite his tenacity, the organization wisely opted to take it slow with Thompson since he hadn’t pitched regularly in games for a lengthy time. They eased him into Arizona League action last August, where he amassed a 2.25 ERA and 12 strikeouts over just 12 innings. Yet, the most important facet of his performance was not the numbers but that he worked his fastball up from the 88-91 MPH range to the 92-94 mph range, even touching 95 MPH on occasion.
Additionally, while the changeup is typically a weak spot for prep arms, Thompson immediately flashed an advanced circle-changeup that plays well off of his four-seamer’s arm slot, which he attributed to the work he put in post-injury, saying, “I take pride in my changeup, and I think that it has developed into a really good pitch over the last couple of years really. I worked on it a lot coming off of the Tommy John Surgery that I had my junior year of high school, and I knew that I was going to need it whether it be in college or in pro ball. So, I really got after it and worked hard on getting a feel for it, trying to throw it as close to my fastball as possible, as far as how it looks and the intent in everything.”
The only knock on his brief debut was that he walked five batters and struggled with control at times; although, that wasn’t particularly disconcerting for a player of his age (or any age) coming off of Tommy John.
After opening 2017 at Extended Spring Training, the Padres had the confidence to push him to Single-A, so that he could continue to fine-tune his arsenal and attack. There he continued to display a consistent and athletic delivery, but given the command issues, he focused on solidifying his attack rather than diversifying.
“Right now, I’d really like to solidify these three pitches,” Thompson said, “and then, at some point, I may look to add a fourth. But right now my ultimate goal is to have three pitches that I feel 100 percent confident in throwing in any situation, count, spot or location; that’s my goal right now. Once I reach that point, then I’ll look to mix in a fourth pitch.”
As he endeavored to do so, Thompson was a bit up and down in his first couple of starts, allowing seven runs in a mere 8 innings; however, the nuanced approach of a veteran catcher, A.J. Kennedy, started to pay dividends for the right-hander. Thompson elaborated, “Yeah, he’s a great guy to have around not only for his experience in the game, but he’s a fierce competitor, and he definitely gets after it. He’s a field general who definitely knows how to call a game. He gets a really good feel from the umpire, as well as gets a really good feel for myself and the other young pitchers… A.J. is really coming here and giving us a boost as a pitching staff. I owe him a lot of credit for that.”
That boost really manifested in Thompson’s third start. After giving up an early lead and requiring 40 pitches to retire the first four hitters, Kennedy took a trip to the mound to simply calm and reassure Thompson to trust his stuff, and that is exactly what Thompson did, retiring 12 of the next thirteen batters he faced with almost ten fewer pitches than he needed to retire those first four hitters.
But before Thompson could build off his success, injury struck again, but this time it was only in the form of bicep tendinitis. He proceeded to miss a month of action and now continues to start with a limited pitch count. Nonetheless, Thompson remains poised, echoing, “I’m feeling great now; you know, it was just a minor setback, but it feels good to be back and be out there doing what I do. And it’s another example, I guess, of how quickly the game can be taken away, so it was a little bit of a humbling experience being the first time that I had to miss time in pro ball. But I’m glad to be back and continue to work hard, putting in some extra time in the training room and stuff to make sure that stuff doesn’t happen again.”
Since his return, Thompson has given up six runs in nine innings, and even if that number leaves much to be desired, it’s again understandable that a player who is this closely removed from Tommy John Surgery would show some inconsistency and also have that inconsistency exacerbated by a brief interruption like this injury.
As such, it should do nothing to mar Thompson’s tantalizing stock given that he has repeatedly displayed the tools that would have garnered him first round attention. For not only does the velocity on his fastball continue to hold in the low to mid-90’s, playing up in effective velocity because of his 6’7” frame and long extension, but also he appears more advanced than the prototypical prep pitcher in terms of his delivery, repertoire, and mentality.
He’ll obviously need to stay on the field to realize his full potential or prove that he can hold up to the rigors of a full season, but at just 19 years of age, Thompson is progressing on schedule and the ceiling remains incredibly high, especially if he adds a couple more ticks on his fastball as he matures. Either way, expect him to vault up prospect rankings over the next year or two because he’s unlikely to fly under the radar much longer.