Padres primed for future success
One of the beauties of Opening Day for many professional sports teams is the hope it provides: the hope that an MVP season could be on the horizon, the hope that a playoff run could be in the cards, even the hope that a championship parade might be visiting nearby downtown streets at season’s end.
The 2015 iteration of the San Diego Padres was one such team. Backed by the acquisitions of marquee names like Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, and James Shields, hometown fans had set their sights on big things from the Friars. Unfortunately, that ultimately was not the case, as the Padres stumbled to a fourth place finish amid struggles to adapt the new roster pieces to the unique ballpark environment that is Petco Park.
With that in mind, the Padres entered 2016 with a far different mindset. The predictions of the previous year were lost in a greater focus not only on undoing the financial damage of that 2015 quick fix, but also on building a sustainably successful ball club that could thrive for years to come. San Diego shifted its attention toward rebuilding the back of a rejuvenated minor league system and smarter signings specifically aimed to find success in San Diego.
In terms of immediate results, the prognosticators were spot on. The 2016 San Diego Padres struggled for most of the season, finishing with a record of 68-94 that tied for second-worst in the league.
The pitching rotation that so many Padres’ rosters of the past have been built around was torn apart by trades and injuries. Not one member of the Opening Day rotation was still racking up innings for the team by the end of the year. Incumbent ace Tyson Ross was sidelined with a sore shoulder after throwing just five innings in the season’s first game. The expected bounce-back campaigns of righties Andrew Cashner and James Shields were derailed by a propensity for the long ball, and both were eventually traded to rival clubs. Even Drew Pomeranz, who surprised many with an All-Star caliber first half, couldn’t survive the rebuild and was traded to Boston mere days after the All-Star Game.
On the offensive side of the ball, things weren’t much better. Starting catcher Derek Norris batted just .186. Outfielder Jon Jay’s strong campaign was interrupted by a broken wrist that forced him to miss two months of action. Meanwhile, shortstop Alexei Ramirez, who signed as a short-term stopgap until the organization’s top middle infield prospects arrive, was released by the team in early September. Ramirez was in the midst of a season that saw him ranked by Wins Above Replacement (an advanced metric that attempts to encompass the entirety of a player’s on-field value) as the worst position player in all of Major League Baseball.
As bad as the Padres’ present may appear, however, their future looks as bright as it’s been in years. 2016 brought the promising breakouts of a handful of players looking to make meaningful impacts for the team down the road, as well as the arrival of potential difference makers yet to make their big league debuts.
First baseman Wil Myers finally delivered on his top-prospect promise, riding a strong first half to a Home Run Derby appearance and a starting spot in the All-Star Game in front of the hometown fans. Myers finished 2016 with an impressive 28 homers, 28 steals, 99 runs, and 98 RBI. At just 25 years of age, Myers will enter the winter as a viable candidate for a long-term contract extension.
Second baseman Ryan Schimpf was also a surprise to many members of the Friar faithful. Called up to join the big league club in June, Schimpf quickly established himself as an extra-base machine at the plate, swatting 20 homers and compiling a .533 slugging percentage in just 89 games for San Diego.
On the mound,
relievers Brad Hand and Ryan Buchter both enjoyed 2016 campaigns in which they struck out more than 11 batters per nine innings. Rookie and Rule 5 pick Luis Perdomo, after struggling coming out of the bullpen early on, eventually settled in as a starter on the back of a wipeout sinker that should help his development into a viable rotation option in the future.
Where the majority of the Padres’ excitement lies, however, is in the the team’s renewed farm system. Devastated by the aforementioned 2015 flurry of trades, general manager A.J. Preller managed to rebuild it almost as quickly in 2016. A heavy dose of international signings, including polished lefty Adrian Morejon and stocky outfielder Jorge Ona, certainly helped. It was also helpful having a draft class that included pitcher and Stanford University product Cal Quantrill, speedy University of Florida outfielder Buddy Reed, and the nation’s ERA leader in 2016, Kent State University left handed pitcher Eric Lauer.
The bread and butter of the Padres’ new young talent, however, arrived through midseason trades. The legality of those trades remains in question as Preller is still under suspension for failing to accurately report players’ medical information to rival clubs. However, the influx of talent they brought in for the Friars is undeniable.
Closer Fernando Rodney was dealt to Miami in June for righty Chris Paddack, who put up Clayton Kershaw-esque numbers in Single A before succumbing to Tommy John surgery in July. Andrew Cashner was also sent to Miami prior to the deadline, fetching powerful lefty bat Josh Naylor and up-and-coming major league reliever Carter Capps in return. The crown jewel of the deadline season came in the Pomeranz trade to Boston, which landed diminutive fireballer Anderson Espinoza for the Friars. Espinoza, an 18-year-old who has drawn optimistic comparisons to Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, garnered No. 1 prospect consideration immediately after being brought in by San Diego.
This doesn’t even include the youngsters who started 2016 with the Friars, including rangy outfielder Travis Jankowski and a quartet of impressive late-season call-ups in catcher Austin Hedges, utility infielder Carlos Asuaje, athletic center fielder Manuel Margot, and burly slugger Hunter Renfroe. The 24-year-old Renfroe’s final-week long ball to leftfield is likely still rattling the roof of Petco Park’s famous Western Metal building.
Unfortunately, it is likely the case that none of these youngsters will have an impact at the big league level in the near future. While the Padres may quietly make some winter moves to shore up their depth on the mound and in the infield, there is little doubt that the team could be looking at another last place finish in 2017.
That being said, an organization that lacked direction as recently as a year ago finally seems to have reimagined a plan for itself. Other teams, the Cubs and the Astros being chief among them, have proven that a few years of inferiority can produce sustained postseason success. If that ends up being the direction the Padres take, frustrated fans can find solace in the soon-to-be attainable fantasy of a National League pennant making its way to America’s Finest City in the not-too-distant future.
Written by Noah Hilton, Contributor