Padres finish off another disappointing season
Noah Hilton | Contributor
April 6, 2015. On the eve of Opening Day, the Padres wrapped up a whirlwind offseason by trading for Craig Kimbrel, arguably baseball’s best closer. This news came on the heels of similar front-page deals throughout the winter, including the signing of free agent ace James Shields and trades for proven stars Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, and Justin Upton. Suddenly, the hometown club had gone from afterthought to ESPN headliner, and several media outlets were picking them to seriously contend for a division title.
October 4, 2015. The Padres put the finishing touches on a long, trying season with a 6-3 loss to the Dodgers. They will not win the division, nor will they play for a wild card berth, instead missing the playoffs for a ninth straight season with a record of 74-88. The city’s attention has been diverted away by the opening games of the Chargers’ season, and the promise of what first appeared to be a playoff campaign for the Padres has almost entirely dissipated.
Fans will have all winter to wonder what went wrong with the unusually star-studded roster of 2015, with a bevy of complaints likely to ensue. For one, thanks to some bad luck and a leaky defense, the pitching that Padres teams have built their success on for years failed to live up to its expectations. A failure to limit big innings left Ian Kennedy (9-15) and Andrew Cashner (6-16) with poor overall records, while Shields and Tyson Ross struggled with consistency all summer. The vaunted, Kimbrel-led bullpen proved mortal on far too many occasions, putting pressure on the starters to get deep into games and on the offense to pile up runs.
The Padres lineup did its best to oblige, with Justin Upton approaching a 20 homer-20 steal season, and Matt Kemp overcoming a slow start to lead the team with 100 RBI. In an August game against the Rockies, Kemp endeared himself to Padres fans everywhere by becoming the first player in franchise history to hit for the cycle. Unfortunately, a Wil Myers wrist injury that eventually required surgery exposed the team’s shortcomings on both offense and defense and proved to be a major factor in the club’s struggles all season.
So where does the team go from here? After a mysteriously quiet trade deadline in July, general manager A.J. Preller will have his work cut out for him this offseason. The goal must now become building a postseason-caliber roster instead of simply generating buzz, and, unfortunately for the Friar faithful, that goal may be a difficult one to achieve in the short-term. The team is simply too stocked with big salaries and veterans on the wrong side of 30. Preller’s winter checklist, therefore, will need to be working towards contending farther down the road. The first step will be finding a new manager after the dismissal of Bud Black in June, with the hope that a fiery Lou Piniella or Lloyd McClendon type can excite an often-apathetic fan base. Next, the organization will need to rebuild its farm system. After trading away almost all of its top prospects last winter and seeing uninspiring performances from the ones that were kept, it is essential for the Padres’ future that young stars be brought in that can be organizational pillars for years to come.
Finally, in terms of the more immediate future, the Padres need to find the balance its lineup lacked in 2015. A couple of start-worthy lefty bats, a true leadoff hitter with good speed and contact skills, and a solid group of guys that are good with the glove should all be on Preller’s winter shopping list. The team’s core prospects, Rymer Liriano and Hunter Renfroe, both could see time in the outfield in 2016 and be used to cover the likely loss of Justin Upton to free agency. Meanwhile, the team’s weakest position, shortstop, has been filled admirably by Jedd Gyorko for the last couple months of the season. However, the team might be better served returning Gyorko to second base and making a splash in free agency by targeting an external option such as ex-Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond, a former All-Star who could come cheap after a down year in 2015.
Ultimately, it will once again fall on the front office to continue the Padres’ remodeling into a relevant and competitive ball club. As 2015 playoff teams such as the Astros, Cubs, and Mets have all shown, a single winter does not a playoff team make. Each of those teams struggled through hapless seasons for years while gradually assembling a core of young, controllable stars. San Diegans can only hope that the success those teams experienced in 2015 is on the horizon for the Padres as well.