Three reasons to watch the 2017 San Diego Padres
For what will be the eleventh straight season, the San Diego Padres are likely to miss out on baseball’s postseason yet again. Not only is the team’s roster void of big league talent at several key positions, the other teams competing with them in the National League West division appear to be much better equipped for a sustained run toward playoff glory.
However, as Padres fans have been hearing for years, brighter days are presumably on the horizon. Losing 100 games this season could be a necessary step in the path toward rebuilding the franchise. In fact, the 2017 Padres, in many ways, are designed to fail.
Several of the team’s biggest names from 2016—including starting pitchers Drew Pomeranz, James Shields, Andrew Cashner, and Tyson Ross, as well as position players Matt Kemp, Derek Norris, Melvin Upton, and Jon Jay—are no longer donning Padres hats.
Some of these players were granted their release from the team in efforts to save money. Others were traded away for younger players, a common move used by many MLB front offices that signifies a future-oriented approach to winning.
Keeping in mind that the Padres are one of the surest bets in the league to finish near the bottom of the standings—Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and Bleacher Report all ranked the team 30th out of 30 MLB teams prior to the season—there are still reasons to pay attention to this team as the gleam of spring turns to the din of summer. Here are three reasons why the 2017 Padres are worth keeping an eye on.
1. The young, athletic outfield
Petco Park is notorious for having one of baseball’s most spacious outfields. This creates problems on both offense and defense. When hitting in Petco Park, power hitters often find trouble getting their fly balls to go from warning track casualties to over the fence souvenirs. On defense, teams playing at Petco should ideally field three outfielders who all have above average range, allowing them to traverse the acreage of grass and turn balls headed for the gap into outs.
The Padres’ projected outfield for 2017 seems to have been constructed with these ideas in mind. Rightfielder Hunter Renfroe is perhaps the greatest reason Padres fans are dreaming of a run of success in the 2020s.
Renfroe, the 25-year-old slugger and former 13th overall pick in the 2013 MLB Entry Draft, has the power to make any ballpark look small. In an admittedly small sample size of 35 at-bats with the big club in 2016, Renfroe put together a slash line of .371/.389/.800 with four home runs and 14 RBI. Two of those long balls came against San Francisco Giants’ ace Madison Bumgarner and Los Angeles Dodgers’ crafty righthander Kenta Maeda, who held opponents to a combined .356 slugging percentage in 2016, well below the league average of .431.
Essentially, Renfroe got a look at two of the division’s best pitchers, and rudely greeted their pitches with the barrel of his bat.
22-year-old Dominican centerfielder Manuel Margot was touted by scouts last year as one of the best defensive players in the minor leagues. He should get his chance to stick around in the big leagues this year, and his style of play makes him a likely candidate to be a fan favorite in 2017 and beyond.
On the traditional baseball evaluation scale of 20 to 80, Margot was graded by scouts as a 70 fielder, a 70 runner, and a 60 grade hitter to go along with a 60 grade arm.
In other words, he’s a great fielder who can cover a lot of ground while throwing out base runners and doing enough at the plate to warrant a spot high in the batting order. Pair that with Travis Jankowski, who could potentially take the lion’s share of playing time in left field, and the Padres have a triumvirate of players primed to make Petco’s prodigious outfield their personal playgrounds.
2. Wil Myers, the hero that San Diego needs
In 2016, the Padres lost 94 games, their highest amount of defeats in eight years. They finished the season 23 games out of first place in the NL West and tied with the Cincinnati Reds for the worst record in the National League.
With that kind of continuous losing bringing a dark cloud to sunny San Diego, one would understand if it had a negative impact on some of the players. One such player who did not seem to be affected by the moribund state of the franchise was first baseman Wil Myers. In his second season in San Diego, Myers started the All-Star game at first base in front of the hometown fans at Petco Park.
It was a well-deserved honor for the 26-year-old North Carolina native. Myers’ 115 wRC+ tells us that he was 15 percent better than league average in 2016, as 100 is the baseline for an average player. He was also one of only three Friars with at least 350 plate appearances to deliver an above average season, according to that metric.
He mashed 28 home runs and drove in 94 RBI while clubbing 29 doubles and swiping 28 stolen bases. Those kind of numbers have baseball fans from Mission Beach to Manitoba wondering if he can put together the Padres’ first 30 homer-30 steal season in history, and the first 30-30 season since some guy named Mike Trout did it in 2012.
3. Christian Bethancourt, baseball’s unicorn
Baseball’s positions are inherently specialized. Pitchers work for years to devise mechanics that not only feel comfortable to them, but can be repeated thousands of times over the course of a grueling summer.
Hitters are similar, as they must find a swing that allows them to be successful without over exerting themselves or leaving gaping holes in the strike zone for hitters to exploit. The amount of time and effort that goes into both is why you don’t see pitchers hitting .300 or hitters stepping up to the mound and striking people out.
This is what makes the Padres’ Christian Bethancourt so captivating. Manager Andy Green has said he plans on using Bethancourt, a catcher by trade, both behind the plate and on the mound this season. Green spoke to USA Today about the experiment during spring training.
“We watched him last year on the mound and we were intrigued by the arm strength,” Green said. “Anybody that’s watched him throw, that’s a top arm behind the plate, there’s tons of strength. He’s got a lot of work to do, but we’ve seen a lot of catcher converts turn into very good pitchers.”
The Padres plan on utilizing Bethancourt as a pitcher and catcher, which will produce something mystical that the game has never seen and likely didn’t think could ever exist. Christian Bethancourt is a unicorn in that respect.
With all of this information about what could go right and be fun to watch in 2017, there is much more that can go wrong. The pitching staff will almost surely be one of the worst in the league. The team plans on starting Erick Aybar, of the -1.2 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in 2016, at shortstop. He replaces 2016 starter Alexei Ramirez, who posted a -2.4 WAR in his only season in a Padres uniform. To clarify, yes, Aybar and Ramirez were the two worst shortstops in the MLB by WAR last season.
The Dodgers are probably going to win the NL West this year. They may hover around the 100 win neighborhood, and maybe even make their first World Series since 1981.
The San Francisco Giants, winners of three of the last eight World Series, will be the Dodgers’ most worthy challenger. The Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, the other two teams in the Padres’ division, project to be better than San Diego as well.
The Padres do not have the riches that the Dodgers have, the pedigree of San Francisco, or the overall talent and depth of Arizona and Colorado.
What the team does have, though, is two burgeoning superstars in the outfield, a franchise building block at first base, and a unicorn handling the two battery positions.
Look past the onslaught of losses that are sure to come, and you can see a team that could be entertaining on some 2017 nights. What fans, players, coaches, and management are hoping, though, is that the woes of today can turn into triumphs in the future.
Written by Matthew Roberson, Sports Editor