Padres 2015 Season Preview, Part One

And so it begins.

The Padres’ most glamorous offseason is coming to a close as Spring Training begins. Their challenge now is to do what other recent winners of the so-called “Stove Top League” (i.e., 2011 Marlins, 2012 Blue Jays) could not do: translate the big offseason moves into wins and a pennant run.

Can they do it? Absolutely; on the whole, they are definitely a better club than the last three seasons. On the other hand, there are reasons for concern. And as with any team, there are lots and lots of intangibles which, if tipped the right way, could lead to 90-plus wins and a serious World Series run; or if tipped the wrong way, could make fans long to see Will Venable and Cameron Maybin back in the outfield–yes, you read that correctly.

So today in part one, we’re going to cover what’s right with the Padres. Next time, in part two, we’ll consider where they are lacking. And in part three, I will offer my predictions for 2015.

Reasons for Optimism

1. The Offense is much better. In 2014, their one respectable hitter was Seth Smith. An almost strictly platoon player, he led the team with a .266 batting average, with 12 home runs and 48 RBI. That is certainly respectful for a role player like him, but you know you’re in trouble when he’s the best you’ve got.

While Smith is now gone, the offense saw a massive upgrade in terms of quality this offseason. In his place will be Justin Upton; at 27, he is in his walk year, and figures to hit 25-30 home runs to go with 90-100 RBI and an OPS above .800.

Center field gets a huge boost, as the team moves on from the perennial disappointment, Cameron Maybin, to newcomer Wil Myers. At 24, Myers is still very young, and is just two seasons removed from winning the AL Rookie of the Year Award. While he may still have some growing pains, and there will be adjustments to being a full-time center fielder (more on this next time), whatever he provides will surely be an improvement over Maybin’s meager .235/.290/.331 2014 slash.

Right field provides the biggest new name for the Padres, Matt Kemp. While there are concerns about his health, there is no question about what his bat can do: his career slash is .292/.350/.495, to go with 182 home runs.

While he probably won’t steal bases like he used to (40 in 2011), he can still carry a team when he gets hot–witness his second half last year: 17 homers in 64 games, coupled with a .309/.365/606 slash (.971 OPS).

The Padres will of course have to take it cautiously with him, removing him early for defensive purposes and giving him routine days off. But doing so will provide huge dividends.

Derek Norris will take over from Rene Rivera and Yasmani Grandal as the new starting catcher. His .270 batting average, ten homers, and .361 OBP show him to have a good batting eye with some power.

Will Middlebrooks may or may not be the starting third baseman. If he is, the Padres hope he can recapture the promise that he showed in his 2012 rookie season: .288 BA with 15 home runs in 75 games. All told, general manager A.J. Preller gave the Padres offense exactly what it needed for them to be competitive in 2015: a massive facelift.

If nothing else, they will be much more exciting to watch this year.

2. Their Starting Pitching Is Even Better (as if that were possible). It’s amazing to think that the 2014 Padres, awful as their hitting was, didn’t lose 90-plus games. Instead, they were 77-85. That speaks volumes about their starting pitching, which was solid if not spectacular.

Returning this year is Tyson Ross (13-14, 2.81 ERA, 195 strikeouts in 195.2 innings). He could have reached 200 in both those categories, but management wisely decided to shut him down early due to a minor injury, and save him for ’15. There is no reason to think that Ross won’t improve on his already solid ’14 numbers.

Andrew Cashner will also be back. While he furnished a solid 2.55 ERA and 1.13 WHIP, it was only in 19 starts and 123.1 innings. But there is no doubt that when he is on, he is very good. In a late 2012 game, he pitched a one-hitter on the road against a superior offensive team, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Ian Kennedy also returns in his walk year. In 2014, he proved reliable, making 33 starts and logging 201 innings with 207 k’s, while sporting a respectable 3.63 ERA and 1.29 WHIP.

Coupled with the new offense, these returning three would have already made them more competitive. But Preller placed the icing on his offseason cake when he signed free agent James Shields to a four-year contract. While not quite in the same league as, say, Cole Hamels or Jordan Zimmerman, Shields does provide veteran leadership, and a dependable arm: over the last four seasons, he has averaged a 14-10 record, four complete games, 233 innings, a 3.17 ERA, and a 1.15 WHIP.

But perhaps most importantly, the last time he made fewer than 33 starts in a season was 2007.

Simply stated, Shields is the definition of reliable. He will provide needed veteran leadership, and he automatically makes the other starters around him even better.

Battling for the fifth spot in the rotation will be Brandon Morrow, Odrisamer Despaigne, Robbie Erlin, and Matt Wisler. This means that whoever wins the last spot (likely Morrow) will be on a short leash, with everyone else waiting in the wings.

3. The Bullpen is still strong. No surprise here, as this is a Padre tradition.

But this year, that is especially so since Preller declined to trade closer Joaquin Benoit, who was so effective last year. I was one of the many who pushed for Preller to trade the closer, thinking that he was a needed piece of bait to pry a solid hitter from another club.

But I was wrong. In keeping Benoit, Black retains a very deep bullpen. Other returnees include Nick Vincent, Dale Thayer, Kevin Quackenbush (as the heir apparent at closer, he saved six games when Benoit missed some playing time in ’14), and lefties Alex Torres Frank Garces.

New faces include righties Shawn Kelley and Brandon Maurer (both acquired via trade).

4. Jedd Gyorko is set for a rebound. For starters, how could he be any worse than he was in 2014? For the season, he batted .210 with a .612 OPS. But that was because he was held back by plantar fasciitis in the first half, which then kept him out of action for two months. His numbers did improve when he came back.

But in addition to his injuries, there are two other reasons for his struggles: first, he received a five-year extension early in the season. It is common for younger recipients of such extensions to feel the need to prove their worth with every swing. Second, with San Diego’s offense being so terrible last year, Gyorko was regularly slotted to bat third, fourth, of fifth–spots from which you typically expect production. In spite of his denials, Gyorko could have pressed himself.

But this year, this should be better, for two reasons: first off, his numbers did improve when he came back (.745 OPS, to go with a .260 BA and .347 OBP in the second half). While not stellar, such numbers would be serviceable if that’s how he were to hit over a full season, especially given the greater offense San Diego now has.

That takes us directly to the second reason for optimism on Gyorko: there will be less pressure upon him to perform. He will likely bat sixth or seventh in the lineup, and Black will consider any production from him to be a bonus.

5. The Buy Low/Sell High Trade of the Year: Acquiring Will Middlebrooks for Ryan Hanigan. Chances are, this will be a forgettable deal; after all, we’re talking about a once-promising third baseman for a career backup catcher–albeit a defensively solid one (and after losing Tim Federowizs until the All-Star break, Preller might be regretting letting Hanigan go so quickly–he was a Padre for all of two days after being acquired in the Wil Myers trade from Tampa.

Then again, what if Middlebrooks bounces back from two very troubled, injury-plagued season? What if, at the still-young age of 26, all he really needed to blossom was to get out of the high-pressured environment of Boston, hit 20-25 home runs, and provide above average defense?

It could happen. If it did, this could be a repeat of two years ago, when the Padres swiped Tyson Ross from Oakland for Andy Parrino and Andrew Werner–neither of whom is currently on a major league roster.

Well, that’s it for the high points. Indeed, there are many reasons to be excited about the Padres in 2015.

But not all is rosy. Next time, we’ll consider the reasons for concern that could prevent San Diego from reaching the playoffs.

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