Friars begin future-focused spring
Spring training is an interesting time for Major League Baseball teams and players.
Veterans will show up to spring camp in what they claim is the best shape of their lives. Offseason adjustments will have younger players excited to get back onto the ball field and see if their hard work all winter will pay off. Fans will openly wonder if this can be the year their team makes a run at the pennant.
In short, baseball’s preseason is one filled with promise and expectations of big things to come. For fans of the San Diego Padres, this spring will be no different, with just one small change required: the hometown Friars are a long shot to be a part of the National League championship chase in 2017.
Any optimism surrounding the team is centered on what the Padres are building for tomorrow. With a developing core of promising youngsters, backed by one of the strongest prospect pipelines in the league, the Friars have committed to a long-term approach that will be at the foundation of several pennant runs to come, even if it costs the team some wins this year.
The youth movement begins with a collection of players who played a major role in carrying the Padres AAA team, the El Paso Chihuahuas, to a Pacific Coast League title in 2016.
This talented group of twentysomethings appear primed to contribute at the big league level as soon as this year. There’s hulking right fielder Hunter Renfroe, whose power will consistently endanger the Western Metal Supply Co. building down Petco Park’s left field line, and whose rifle of an arm will be a valuable asset in the outfield.
Renfroe is expected to compete with fellow rookie outfielder Manuel Margot for the National League Rookie of the Year award. Margot, acquired from the Red Sox in a blockbuster trade two winters ago, will thrive in the team’s expansive home park with a brand of baseball built on contact at the plate, blazing speed on the bases, and impressive range in center field.
Catcher Austin Hedges, respected as one of the best up-and-coming defensive backstops since he was a teenager, and versatile utility infielder Carlos Asuaje will combine with those two to form what will amount to a “Core Four.” With many of the team’s best prospects still getting seasoning in the minors, this quartet will give the Friar faithful a taste of all that is to come.
This ignores the three Rule 5 players with a chance to stick on the big league roster in 2017. Acquired through the Rule 5 draft during December’s Winter Meetings, which allows players who have logged at least five years of professional service time without being added to a big league roster to be snatched by other teams, the trio—catcher Luis Torrens, shortstop Allen Cordoba, and righty Miguel Diaz—will have a chance to learn on the job this season and secure their spots in the Padres’ future plans.
With past Rule 5 picks like two-time Cy Young winner Johan Santana, 2010 American League MVP Josh Hamilton, and Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente managing to find success in the big leagues, the Padres hope that one of their picks has unearthed a similar diamond in the rough.
This isn’t to say that the Padres don’t have some star power already. After years of battling injuries and rumors that he may be a draft bust, first baseman Wil Myers finally put things together last season, batting .259 with 28 home runs, 94 runs batted in, and 28 stolen bases while showing off a stellar glove on defense. That performance garnered All-Star honors and earned him an $84 million extension this offseason, cementing his spot as the face of the franchise with the largest contract in team history.
Third baseman Yangervis Solarte also inked an extension during the winter months, and while it pales in comparison to the size of Myers’, the 29-year-old Venezuelan will play an equally large role on the Padres’ roster. The team and the community have both rallied around Solarte after his wife lost a long battle with cancer last fall. As a result, the free-swinging switch-hitter sets up to be the epicenter of the Padres’ morale over the course of the season, while his easy smile and obvious enjoyment of the game should lock him in as a fan favorite for years to come.
Outside of those two, the Padres will largely be a collection of lottery tickets signed on the cheap and looking to make a consistent name for themselves at the big league level. Ryan Schimpf, a lefty with surprising pop at the plate, and Cory Spangenberg, who missed most of last season with a leg injury, will battle for playing time at second base. Veteran Erick Aybar appears to be the frontrunner for the job at shortstop, although he could end up getting beat out by the younger and Luis Sardiñas who is also on a cheaper contract. Left field will likely end up being split by two young lefty bats in speedster Travis Jankowski and slugger Alex Dickerson.
The 2017 Padres appear likely to scuffle on a side of the game that the team is traditionally strong in: pitching. The bullpen, fronted by strikeout-happy southpaws Ryan Buchter and Brad Hand and hard-throwing righty Carter Capps—whose hop-skip wind-up still sits under the questioning eye of baseball legislators—will team with incumbent closer Brandon Maurer and some of the starting rotation’s rejects to form a fairly formidable group.
Whoever makes the cut for a spot in the starting rotation, however, could create some headaches for hometown fans. At this point, recent free agent addition Jered Weaver and his low-80s heater appear to be the squad’s de facto ace, backed up by fellow winter acquisition Jhoulys Chacin. Behind those two, local product Trevor Cahill, what-you-see-is-what-you-get lefties Clayton Richard and Christian Friedrich, developing youngster Luis Perdomo, and down-on-their-luck youngsters Paul Clemens and Tyrell Jenkins will leave more than a little to be desired on the mound.
The ragtag bunch has led the Friars to consider some adjustments to rotation management that may be interesting to follow over the course of the year. Second-year manager Andy Green has mentioned allowing starters to face a line-up no more than once, preventing opposing batters from settling in against a familiar arm over the course of a game.
A side effect of this possibility looks to be the incorporation of former catcher Christian Bethancourt into a hybrid role usually not seen past Little League. Bethancourt spent the winter pitching in Panama and could serve as a back-up catcher, utility bat, and bullpen option for Green, providing a Swiss Army knife of lineup options for the Padres that will increase roster depth on both sides of the ball.
No matter what the Padres try, the sentiment remains the same: they will be bad this year. A handful of individual players could put together productive 2017 campaigns, but the team as a whole will likely struggle to stay out of the National League basement.
The weird thing, however, is that it’s okay. General manager A.J. Preller likely knows that his team will struggle this season. The focus of Preller, Green, and the rest of the organization is firmly set on the future.
With a developing core of promising youngsters having just reached the big league level, and several more primed to arrive over the next few seasons, that future appears brighter than it has in years.
Written by Noah Hilton, Asst. Sports Editor