With the Major League spring slate already started, the next three weeks are the best time for Padres fans to get a look at all of the franchise's players. Viewing areas for the Minor League practice fields have fewer restrictions than the Major League fields. And most Minor League players are excited when a young fan asks for an autograph.
The entrance to the practice field is a gate to the east of the players' parking lot at the Padres complex.
"We're excited about how our Minor League teams are going to shake out this season," said Padres vice president of player development Randy Smith. "We have a lot of depth in the system. Our pitching staffs at Triple-A and Double-A are going to be very strong."
Depending on how the Major League staff shakes out, there could be seven top prospects -- right-handers Matt Wisler, Donn Roach, Burch Smith, Joe Wieland and Keyvius Sampson, and left-handers Robbie Erlin and Juan Pablo Oramas -- competing for the five spots in the Triple-A El Paso rotation. Wisler is the baby of the group at 21, although none of the seven are older than 24.
The pitching depth at Triple-A will strenghten in May when right-hander Casey Kelly is expected to return after rehabbing from last spring's Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery.
"One, two or three Triple-A candidates could be at Double-A San Antonio, which will make the Missions also deep in starting pitching," said Smith.
The list of Double-A starting candidates includes Justin Hancock and Santana (Calif.) High grad James Needy.
Although it is too soon to set the Padres' Minor League rosters, it is interesting to look at the possibilities.
With Tommy Medica expected to be playing first base for El Paso, former Poway (Calif.) High slugger Alex Dickerson will likely be in the Triple-A affiliate's outfield, along with Rico Noel and Reymond Fuentes.
The Padres haven't decided yet about starting former first-round Draft pick Cory Spangenberg (the 10th overall pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft) at El Paso or having him open the year at San Antonio.
Look for other top position prospects to open the season at San Antonio with the possibility of midseason promotions.
Outfielder Rymer Liriano -- who missed the entire 2013 season after undergoing elbow reconstruction surgery last spring -- catcher Austin Hedges, shortstop Jace Peterson and outfielder Yeison Asencio are also scheduled to start the season with the Missions.
Spangenberg, Hedges and Asencio all finished the 2013 season with San Antonio after earning midseason promotions from high Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore.
Two former first-round picks to keep an eye on this season are left fielder Hunter Renfroe and left-handed starting pitcher Max Fried.
Renfroe, the 13th overall pick in the 2013 Draft out of Mississippi State, could open the season at Lake Elsinore after advancing from short-season Eugene to low Class A Fort Wayne last summer. Fried, the eighth overall pick in the '12 Draft as a high school senior, had a pain-free exam of the strained flexor in his left elbow Saturday and is expected to begin a throwing program in two weeks.
One of the more interesting teams in the Padres' system this season will be Fort Wayne. The TinCaps will have one of the younger teams in the Midwest League, with at least five teenagers expected to be in the Opening Day lineup: shortstop Franchy Cordero (19), third baseman Dustin Peterson (19), second baseman Josh VanMeter (19) and outfielders Franmil Reyes (18) and Jose Urena (19).
"All five had outstanding seasons in the Arizona Rookie League last summer," said Smith. "They are young and a long ways off, but they have raised some eyebrows and we're anxious to see them playing a full season."
Using players already in Peoria from the minicamp, Padres Minor Leaguers open play with a pair of games against the French national team Thursday and Saturday. The regular Minor League exhibition season opens March 14 with two games a day on the back fields at the Peoria complex.