Padres prep for 2016 season
NOAH HILTON | CONTRIBUTOR
A lot can change in a year. Last spring, the San Diego Padres reported to spring training with more hype than any hometown squad in recent memory. Acquisitions of marquee names like outfielders Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, and Wil Myers, along with starting pitcher James Shields, raised expectations through the roof and made rookie general manager A.J. Preller an overnight sensation.
It is safe to say that the quick fix was not quite the miracle fans were hoping for. After a disappointing 74-88 season in 2015, the Padres spent much of this past winter retooling their roster, dumping expensive contracts in favor of low-cost upside plays.
Gone are the aforementioned Upton, flamethrowing closer Craig Kimbrel, disappointing former infield prospects Yonder Alonso and Jedd Gyorko, and the best name in baseball, pitcher Odrisamer Despaigne. What remains is a ragtag collection of guys with question marks in their game that may not be what the Padres are ultimately looking for.
The first big addition to the organization came in the form of a leadership change, as interim manager Pat Murphy was replaced by former Arizona third base coach Andy Green. Green has been lauded for his intelligence, enthusiasm, and ability to connect with players, and just might have what it takes to make the Padres’ usual yawn-inducing roster worthy of cheers again.
Throughout the spring, Green has focused on emphasizing fundamentals such as bunting and defensive shifts while attempting to introduce a winning culture that the franchise has sorely lacked for much of its lifetime.
There have been more than a few changes on the field as well. Perhaps most importantly, the Padres seem to have finally found some stability at shortstop in the form of free agent signee Alexei Ramirez.
While not a player with any skills that jump off the page, Ramirez is noted for his dependability and should bring some much-needed continuity to a team that was forced to start four different players at the position over the course of last season.
If nothing else, Ramirez will serve as a worthwhile stopgap until some of the organization’s middle-infield prospects are ready for the show in 2017.
The addition of outfielder Jon Jay, acquired in a trade with the St. Louis Cardinals, is also beneficial. He will be able to fill a platoon role with a seemingly revitalized Melvin Upton, Jr. in center field and budding homer hunter Jabari Blash in left. Jay is also known around baseball circles for his solid defense and on-base skills.
His addition also allows the injury-prone Wil Myers, who struggled mightily in an ill-fated stint in center field last season, to move to first base, which should help keep him off the disabled list. If healthy, Myers could begin to fulfill the high expectations bestowed on him after he won the Rookie of the Year award in 2013.
A position battle is certainly brewing behind the plate between three options. The incumbent, catcher Derek Norris, brings power and a fantastic beard to the lineup, but may be the most defensively-challenged of the three.
Meanwhile, youngsters Christian Bethancourt and Austin Hedges both excel with the glove, but have yet to show consistent production at the plate. While Hedges could certainly be sent down to the minors for further seasoning come April, a trade of Norris has also been discussed, and the situation bears monitoring for fans as Opening Day approaches.
The pitching side of things is even less concrete at this point. Tyson Ross was named the Padres’ Opening Day starter and should capably fill the ace role once again thanks to a knock-out slider and improving control.
Ross will be backed by James Shields and Andrew Cashner, both of whom had their struggles in 2015 but possess the talent to rebound in a big way this season.
After that is where things get dicey. Offseason acquisitions Drew Pomeranz, Carlos Villanueva, and Luis Perdomo will battle all spring with in-house options Brandon Maurer, Brandon Morrow, Robbie Erlin, and Colin Rea for the final two spots in the starting pitching rotation.
Meanwhile, while Fernando Rodney appears to be the team’s likely ninth-inning option at this point, the rest of the bullpen is full of question marks. Pitchers Kevin Quackenbush and Nick Vincent will certainly be in the mix, but the other three spots in the pen will be an open competition all spring between a wide collection of fresh faces and veterans alike.
More than anything, baseball fans in America’s Finest City should use spring training as a first glimpse at the wave of talent that will soon grace the Gaslamp Quarter. Outfielder Manny Margot and shortstop Javier Guerra, both acquired from Boston in the Craig Kimbrel trade, look like potential All-Stars in the making.
Blash, a Rule-5 pick, has legitimate 30-homer potential while displaying a surprisingly keen eye at the plate so far this spring. The Padres also have a few homegrown guys in outfielder Travis Jankowski, infielder Cory Spangenberg, and Rea, all of whom should contribute at the big-league level soon.
Ultimately, while the organization has stubbornly refused to label 2016 as a rebuilding year, it certainly has the appearance of one given the question marks on the current roster and the improvements of division rivals in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Arizona.
However, the team also has a collection of hype-worthy youngsters with the potential to be at the center of a successful run in the not-so-distant future. These youngsters should be grabbing the attention of local fans as the Padres continue Cactus League play this spring.