For Padres, patience is a virtue

Mackenzie Gore (right) was the team’s top draft pick this year and carries ace-level potential on the mound. Photo courtesy of San Diego Union-Tribune/Twitter

Noah Hilton | Sports Editor | The USD Vista

Hometown Friars remain focused on bright future following lackluster 2017 campaign

 

From the opening pitch, the San Diego Padres were destined for a lackluster 2017 campaign.

 

The team made headlines during spring training in March, adding three players acquired through baseball’s Rule 5 draft to the big league roster. All three — shortstop Allen Cordoba, catcher Luis Torrens, and pitcher Miguel Diaz — had yet to play above the Single-A level with their former teams. As Rule 5 acquisitions are required to remain on the major league roster for the entirety of the season, each was expected to make a significant jump up the baseball ladder as a member of the Padres.

 

The move drew ire and criticism from front offices and media members around the league. It suggested that the team may already be giving up on the upcoming season, intentionally putting a sub-par roster on the field to limit their chances of winning games and to  increase the likelihood of landing a top pick in next year’s draft.

 

The initiative was a clear statement from the team that they were focused on the future rather than the present. Stockpiling draft picks and selling successful veterans to playoff contenders in exchange for high-ceiling prospects became the de facto formula for the Friars.
With that build-up in mind, the results in 2017 were as expected. The offense put up the lowest run total in the major leagues, dragged down by a collective .234 batting average, .299 on-base percentage, and 25.2 percent strikeout rate, all at or near the bottom of the league.

 

Meanwhile, the pitching staff struggled to keep the ball in the ballpark, surrendering one of the highest home run rates in the league en route to a 4.70 team earned run average.

 

Ultimately, the team’s often-anemic showings on the field led to a 71-91 record and a fourth-place finish in the National League West, extending their playoff drought to 11 years.
At the individual level, the Padres experienced several letdowns from players largely expected to be key contributors to the team in 2017.

 

Prized power-hitting prospect Hunter Renfroe set a rookie franchise record with 26 home runs, but swing-and-miss tendencies resulted in a .231 batting average and a demotion to Triple-A El Paso by season’s end. Ryan Schimpf, one of the breakout stars of the team’s 2016 campaign, would meet the same fate, packing his bags for El Paso in early June with 70 strikeouts in just 53 games.

 

On the pitching side, veteran offseason acquisition Jered Weaver threw just 42 innings with a lamentable 7.44 earned run average before hitting the disabled list with a hip injury that forced him into retirement in August.

 

Despite its obvious faults, however, the Friars’ 2017 roster included a few pleasant surprises as well.

 

First baseman Wil Myers, fresh off signing the largest extension in team history last November, hit for the cycle in an April game against the Rockies and finished the season with 30 home runs and 20 stolen bases, an all-around offensive showing matched by only two other Padres in franchise history.

 

Rookie center fielder Manuel Margot, the centerpiece of a 2015 trade with the Boston Red Sox, excited hometown crowds all year with blazing speed on the bases and an exceptional glove in the outfield. The likely foundation of future Friar line-ups, Margot slugged 13 home runs and stole 17 bases on the year.

A trade candidate in July, Brad Hand found success as the team’s closer in the second half of the season. Photo courtesy of Twins Almanac/Twitter

Right-handed hurler Dinelson Lamet provided further thrills, receiving a call-up in May and sticking at the big-league level for the rest of the 2017 season. Lamet’s mid-90s fastball and late-breaking slider helped him finish with 139 strikeouts in just 114.1 innings in his first year as a big leaguer.

 

Left-handed reliever Brad Hand, meanwhile, grabbed headlines in July as a first-time All-Star and one of the hottest names available ahead of the league’s trade deadline.

 

Rival organizations proved unwilling to meet the asking price of Padres management on the star southpaw, and Hand found further success as the team’s closer in the second half of the season, racking up 21 saves and 104 strikeouts on the year.

 

With the Padres clearly focused on tomorrow, it is a good sign that Myers, Margot, Lamet, and Hand are all under contract well into the future.

 

Better still, the team’s emphasis on stockpiling young talent in the minor league ranks continued to pay dividends in 2017, with several key names rising through the organization and appearing primed to make an impact at the major league level soon.

 

Eighteen-year old infielder Fernando Tatis Jr., the son of the former big leaguer of the same name, was perhaps the biggest surprise, batting .281 with 21 homers in Low-A Fort Wayne before a late-season promotion to Double-A San Antonio. Lauded by talent evaluators for his bat speed and cannon arm, Tatis Jr. has the makings of a player capable of filling the Padres’ long-standing hole at shortstop.

 

Michel Baez, a 6-foot-8 Cuban righthander, was another standout at Fort Wayne, using his size and high-nineties heat to rack up strikeouts — including 14 in a game on Aug. 1 — and accolades. With a pitching arsenal worthy of his “Cuban Missile” nickname, Baez projects to be a member of the big-league rotation by 2020.

 

Finally, the addition of top draft pick Mackenzie Gore to the organization in baseball’s June amateur draft provides the team with a player with true ace-level potential. A lefty with a unconventional leg kick and a feel for three pitches, Gore has drawn comparisons to Los Angeles Dodgers star Clayton Kershaw. Playing in the Rookie League this past summer, Gore lived up to the hype, striking out 34 and allowing just 14 hits in 21.1 innings.

 

Ultimately, the San Diego Padres are in a similar position as they were at this time last fall, as the franchise continues to remain disciplined to a long-term plan focused on the future. Minor moves — the addition of a cheap starting pitcher here, the signing of a stopgap at shortstop there — may follow over the course of this offseason, but the Friars are still unlikely to make many headlines as their rebuild continues.

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