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Padres 2016 Season Preview, Part Three

We come to the third and final part of my 2016 season preview for the San Diego Padres.

In part one, we looked at the reasons for optimism, including lack of overhyped expectations, Tyson Ross at the top of the rotation, an upgrade at shortstop, and improved outfield defense.

In part two, we saw how the Padres have a number of things holding them back, including:

  • the loss of Justin Upton and Ian Kennedy to free agency;
  • a weakened bullpen;
  • uncertainty in the outfield and the back end of the starting rotation;
  • lack of production at shortstop (even while Alexei Ramirez is an upgrade, which tells you just how bad it was in 2015).

Today, we will examine that one word that will make or break the Padres season, after which I will predict how many games they will win in 2016.

So, what’s the magic word for this season?

Intangibles.

What is an intangible? It’s something that is not entirely clear; we don’t know how it is going to shake out.

For instance, the Anaheim Angels have Mike Trout in center field, so they know what they’re going to get: a .300 batting average, 30-plus home runs, and solid defense. That’s a pretty nice intangible!

Meanwhile, the Padres will likely have Melvin Upton, Jr. and Travis Jankowski, which means…what, exactly?

That is an intangible: you just don’t know what you’re going to get.

And so, here are the intangibles that the 2016 Padres must confront if they are going to be competitive.

  1. Can Wil Myers stay healthy? It cannot be stated any more loudly or more often: if the Padres are going to have any chance in 2016, Wil Myers needs to stay free of the injury bug. 

As recently as 2012, Myers was a highly touted prospect for the Kansas City Royals who smashed 37 home runs in the minor leagues. Considered by some in that organization to be the next George Brett, his team shocked the baseball world when they traded him to Tampa for James Shields (ironically enough, since they both now play for the Padres).

But after a promising rookie season in 2013 when he won the AL Rookie of the Year Award, Myers has been hobbled by a nagging wrist injury the last two years. The fact that it recurred last year is troubling.

So far, Myers looks healthy this spring. But only time will tell. If he can remain off of the disabled list, he could really help the Padres to be competitive, and hit 25 or more home runs, effectively replacing the offense that was lost with Justin Upton’s departure. But if not, expect 95 or more losses this year.

2. What kind of manager is Andy Green? When general manager A.J. Preller was looking for a new field manager, most people (including me) thought he would go with the safe choice of Ron Gardenhire. After all, Gardenhire had managed for 11 years in Minnesota where he won six division titles, and he learned two things that would have made him very suitable to the Padres: how to win in a small market, and how to work with young ballplayers.

But since when has anyone ever known Preller to play it safe?

Instead, he went with Andy Green, most recently the third base coach of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Prior to that, he managed for a few years in their minor league system.

Bottom line: Any time you hire a rookie manager, you’re taking a risk. Sure, you could get the next Earl Weaver, but more than likely, you’re getting the next Eddie Haas.

(Who is that? He was the rookie manager of the Atlanta Braves in 1985. You probably never heard of him before, but that’s my point.)

But so far, Green has gotten high marks—this offseason, he actually travelled to meet with many of his key players, one-on-one, and get to know them. Green also gave a rousing speech at the start of spring training that got his players pumped up.

Of course, none of that will matter if the Padres don’t win under him. We likely won’t know the verdict of Preller’s decision to hire Green for at least one year, but more likely two.

3. Will either Renfroe or Blash hit consistently enough? Losing Justin Upton to free agency was huge. His departure is a major reason why the Padres will probably win less than 74 games, their total from last year

But there is some hope on the horizon. While the light-hitting Jon Jay is the presumptive favorite to be the primary left fielder, there are two young right-handed power hitters who just might be able to fill the void: Jabari Blash and Hunter Renfroe.

Blash is very intriguing. Last year, he smashed 32 home runs at AA and AAA, while striking out 132 times. He is potentially lightning in a bottle.

On the downside, he is 26, and he still hasn’t made his major league debut. When any team has someone like Blash in their system and doesn’t call him up to the big club, there is a reason. Always.

Next is Hunter Renfroe. Still only 24, he is one of the Padres top prospects. Since he spend most of 2015 at AA with just over 90 at-bats in AAA El Paso, he will probably start there. But he figures to be ready for San Diego at least by August.

However, he is notorious for struggling early. Such was the case at AA San Antonio, before he finally caught fire. So when he arrives, don’t expect much early on.

4. Can Cory Spangenberg exceed his expectations? When Cory Spangenberg finally got the chance to play every day, he did fairly well: from June on last year, he hit .295 with a .354 OBP, showing that he is a potential leadoff hitter.

Fangraphs is skeptical, however. But if he can put up anywhere close to what he did from June-September 2015 when he batted .295 with a .354 OBP, he could be an asset for the Padres.

5. Was Melvin Upton’s 2015 season a mirage? The April 2015 trade of Craig Kimbrel from Atlanta to San Diego reminded me of trades kids made during recess when I was in elementary school: Team A would only give Team B their best player if they also took the best player’s little sister.

Only for the Padres, they didn’t have to take Kimbrel’s little sister (does he even have one?); instead, the price of acquiring Kimbrel was taking on Melvin Upton, Jr’s ridiculous contract (five years, $70 million).

But after a slow start, Upton actually had a respectable season: .259 with a .757 OPS and five home runs in 205 at-bats, including .321 is September-October. His defense in center field was also a noticeable upgrade over Myers’.

If Upton can produce at that level again, he could be more than just a placeholder until Margot is ready in 2017. If not, it could be a long season.

6. Will Andrew Cashner bounce back? One of the biggest disappointments of 2016 was clearly Cashner.

In 2013-14, Cashner looked like an ace-in-waiting. His ERA during those two years was 2.87, and his WHIP a strong 1.13. All he needed to do was get over his injuries, and all would be fine.

But that’s not what happened. In 2015, Cashner stayed healthy but regressed badly, going 6-16 with a 4.34 ERA and a horrendous 1.44 WHIP.

Since this is Cashner’s walk year, expect him to bounce back. But if he does well, the Padres could swap him in July for younger talent.

7. Will their bullpen hold up? I said earlier that the Padres were right to trade away Kimbrel and Benoit, as they were luxuries they could not afford at this time.

While I stand by that remark (and while I applaud Preller on a nice return), 2016 is going to be a tough year for the bullpen with those two anchors gone.

Take a look at their projected bullpen for 2016:

Fernando Rodney: while he has 236 career saves, he is 39 and his a lifetime WHIP of 1.36. That’s mediocre if you’re a starting pitcher, and downright nasty if your job is to pitch one inning per game.

Jon Edwards: He hasn’t played that much in the big leagues; just 31 games and 25 innings. He’s also 28, so this will be his first full big league season.

Brandon Maurer: Thank goodness Green has realized that Maurer belongs in the bullpen. He pitched well there last year, and is a potential closer.

Carlos Villanueva: One of the least noticed, but also among the best moves Preller made this offseason. At 32, he’s been around the block, and has pitched in 425 big league games. Last year, he had a nice triple slash of 2.95/1.16/.223 with St. Louis. If he can repeat those numbers in San Diego, Villanueva will have been a very worthwhile purchase.

Leonel Campos: This spring, the 28-year-old has struck out six and walked one in six innings. Granted, that’s a small sample size, but if he can repeat that, he could help the Padres.

Kevin Quackenbush: The closer-in-waiting prior to Kimbrel’s arrival last April, “Quack” took a step backwards last year, posting a 4.01 ERA in 57 games. Yet, he still had 58 strikeouts and a 1.23 WHIP in 57 games.

Nick Vincent: Though he has had a tough spring, Vincent figures to play a prominent role in the bullpen this year.

Bottom Line: While there is some good potential, most of these pitchers (and other candidates not mentioned) are either mediocre or unproven. Expect many changes and demotions until Green can find the right bullpen formula.

2016 Projection: And so, here it is: the 2016 Padres will finish at 70-92. It gives me no joy in saying that, and it could actually be worse than that—especially if Cashner gets traded, Rodney pitches like he usually does, and Myers again misses a boatload of playing time again.

The best they can hope for is .500, but that is assuming that all of the above intangibles work in their favor.

The big news for San Diego this year will be what they won’t see on the field:

  • international signings;
  • the amateur draft in June, where they have six of the top 84 picks;
  • the development of Margot and Guerra (and possibly seeing Margot this September);
  • the July 31 trade deadline—if Cashner bounces back and is traded, Preller should be able to get a nice haul for him. Kemp could also go if (a) he produces, and (b)

It bears repeating: like the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs of 2010-2014, things are going to get worse before they get better.

But there is hope: look at those two teams now.

If Preller plays his cards right, and if Green turns out to be a capable field manager, then the Padres will be very competitive around 2019.

Could Derek Norris Be Headed To Texas?

Could Derek Norris Be Headed To Texas?

The Dallas Morning News is reporting that the Rangers are currently investigating Norris, as well as Milwaukee catcher Jonathan Lucroy.

But they are more interested in Norris, who is set to make $2.9 million. Lucroy is owed over $5 million in 2016, and his normally steady offensive numbers took a dive last year.

Who would the Padres obtain from Texas in such a scenario?

One possibility is Jurickson Profar, who plays shortstop. Alexei Ramirez is currently slated to start there. But while he is an upgrade over the horrendous Alexi Amarista experiment, Ramirez is 34, and his defense has seen some decline in recent years.

More on this as it becomes available.

Padres Season Preview, Part One

Down with football!

That’s true especially if you’re a San Diego fan. Much like Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the San Diego Chargers “will they or won’t they move to LA” saga of the last year has produced way too much drama for many native San Diegans.

And so, it’s time for baseball, and not a moment too soon.

As I do annually, I am going to unfold my three part preview of the San Diego Padres. Today, I am going to put forward what I see as reasons for optimism. In part two, I will set out the Padres’ potential weaknesses. And in part three, I will lay out my prediction for how they will do in 2016.

Reasons for Optimism

  1. Lower Expectations

Last year, the Padres were all hype, what with all of the major acquisitions that were made. This undoubtedly put pressure on the team to perform. Many of the players they acquired didn’t really fit into the Padres’ needs.

Like so many other teams that have tried to win overnight through huge makeovers, the 2015 Padres failed. This year, it’s back to basics, and not filling in the holes with square pegs. For instance, A.J. Preller realized that Alexi Amarista wasn’t going to hack it as an everyday shortstop, so he went out and acquired Alexei Ramirez, who has tons of experience there (more on him later).

Having lower expectations will very likely take the pressure off the Padres, and give them time to gel.

2. Four of the Acquired Pieces from the 2014-15 Offseason are back.

Let’s admit it: the 2015 Padres were a flop. No one would suggest otherwise. But what we often forget is that in last offseason’s bonanza, Preller did fetch some pretty good ballplayers who contributed, and stand ready to do so again in 2016.

First is James Shields. Yes, he regressed somewhat last season, giving up 36 home runs, but he also led the team with 216 strikeouts, and had his ninth consecutive season of 200-plus innings. Such consistency is hard to come by, and with an improved defense behind him, look for Shields to bounce back this year.

Second is Matt Kemp. Yes, his outfield defense is one of the best arguments ever for the National League to embrace the designated hitter rule. And yes, he was pretty terrible in the early months of 2015: just one home run in April-May. But for the second year in a row, Kemp went on a tear in the second half with a .868 OPS and 22 home runs from June-September. He also posted 100 RBI for the third time in his carerr.

Third is Derek Norris. A bona fide major league catcher, Norris was healthy, starting a league-high 131 games. He also hit a career high 14 home runs, and his defense noticeably improved. At 27 years of age, Norris is just now entering his prime years, and he only figures to get better.

Fourth is Wil Myers. In April-May, Myers showed what he is capable of by hitting .291 with five home runs. But a recurring wrist injury wrecked havoc on his season, and Myers wound up playing just 60 games. Still just 25, Myers’ mammoth potential remains, and he enters spring training with optimism. If he can stay healthy, Myers will be a major contributor in 2016 and beyond.

3. Shortstop will be in better hands than last year.

Last year, the Padres had the worst offensive and defensive output at shortstop. And, they started the year with Jedd Gyorko at second base, which was a bust (though he improved after coming back from a mid-season demotion).

This offseason, Preller stated that getting a legitimate everyday shortstop was the team’s top on-field priority. And so, he went out and signed Ramirez, an eight-year veteran of the Chicago White Sox who can provide steady defense. While he has a low career on-base percentage of .310 (and just .285 last year), Ramirez has reached double-digits in home runs in six of his eight seasons, and in stolen bases in all but one of those years.

At 34, he has lost a step defensively, but he is nonetheless an upgrade over Amarista.

4. The outfield defense will be much improved.

Of course, it couldn’t get much worse than having Justin Upton-Wil Myers-Matt Kemp from left to right. And, Kemp is still in right field.

But now that Myers has been relegated to first base, center field will likely be manned by some combination of Melvin Upton and Travis Jankowski, both of whom are solid defenders. Left field will probably be manned by Jon Jay (with an occasional appearance by Myers to get Brett Wallace some playing time in the infield). At some point in 2016, Hunter Renfroe, a power hitter who is known to have a strong throwing arm, figures to make his major league debut and spend most of his time in left field. 

5. Tyson Ross

It’s hard to believe that Tyson Ross came to the Padres in a trade for Andy Perrino and Andrew Werner—two four-A ball players. Since this deal, he has been a solid mainstay for the Padres, and this year’s opening day starter.

Don’t be fooled by his 10-12 record from last year. The defense did him no favors, and he still needs to get his walks down. But he also had a career-high 212 strikeouts, and he was very solid after a rocky April, sporting a 3.26 ERA and a .237 BAA. He turns 29 in April, and appears poised to take his game to the next level.

It’s no wonder that of all the Padres, Ross has been the most targeted by other team’s general managers. It’s equally no wonder that Preller reportedly demanded the moon in return (i.e., some combination of top prospects and major league-ready talent).

Is Andrew Cashner On the Move?

That is a possibility, reports the Union-Tribune, as the Baltimore Orioles have expressed interest. Even though Cashner had a mediocre season in 2015, he has some things going for him, as reported by Jeff Sanders:

  • from 2013-14, he posted a 2.87 ERA with a sparkling 1.13 WHIP;
  • he will be a free agent after 2016, so if the Padres trade him, that team can either re-sign him, or gain a first-round draft pick.

For these reasons, the Padres do have a formidable trading chip on their hands.

I believe, though, that it is in general manager A.J. Preller’s best interest to wait; Cashner likely just had a bad year in ’15, and like the rest of the pitching corps, he suffered from an atrocious outfield defense that will be much better this year (read, the Wil Myers in center field experiment is long over).

So assuming that (a) the Padres have another mediocre season, as is very likely, (b) Cashner bounces back to his 2013-14 success, and (c) several teams are looking for pitching help, Preller will then be in the driver’s seat in terms of getting back top talent.

As Kenny Rogers once sang, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.” I say, hold Cashner for now as he rebuilds his value.

 

Three Padres Make Top 100 Prospects List

It’s a rite of the baseball offseason when Major League Baseball releases its list of top 100 prospects.

The 2016 version was released just recently, and three Padres, two of whom were acquired in the offseason Craig Kimbrel to Boston trade, made the list: outfielder Manuel Margot (#45), shortstop Javier Guerra (#58), and outfielder Hunter Renfroe (#92).

See the whole list here.

Manuel Margot

The scouting report on Margot read in part, “Margot is an all-around talent, possessing a high-end blend of athleticism, physical tools and baseball savvy. His quick bat and outstanding hand-eye coordination help him generate hard contact to all fields from the right side of the plate, and his advanced feel for controlling the strike zone suggests he’ll continue to hit for a high average as he progresses…

“Margot’s plus speed makes him a constant threat on the bases, a notion supported by his 81 steals since the start of 2014. It also enables him to cover a ton of ground in center field, and he shouldn’t have trouble remaining at the position. Margot has shown more polish and advanced quicker than expected, putting him on track to reach San Diego at age 22.”

Margot, 21, will probably begin 2016 at AA San Antonio. If he continues to progress as he has already, he could get promoted to AAA El Paso by midseason. A late season call-up is not out of the question, but far a more likely scenario shows him arriving at the big league level some time in 2017.

Javier Guerra

The report on Guerra read, “[T]here’s a contingent of scouts who view him as a future Gold Glove-caliber shortstop…Guerra made big strides at the plate in 2015 and especially with his power, finishing seventh in the South Atlantic League with 15 home runs.”

Guerra, 19, had his first full professional season last year, playing A-level baseball in the Red Sox system. He will need at least two more years of seasoning, and he should make his major league debut in 2018.

Hunter Renfroe

The report on Renfroe stated, “Renfroe has plus-plus raw power to his pull side, a product of his bat speed and physical strength and an upper-cut swing that’s conducive to clearing fences. He strikes out quite a bit because the approach is aggressive and he has some length to his swing that makes him vulnerable to quality secondary pitches on the outer half as well as advanced sequencing. The contact that Renfroe does make is consistently hard and loud, though, and he’s shown the ability to make adjustments at the plate at each level.

“Defensively, Renfroe’s arm strength is nearly as impressive as his power and makes him a clean fit in right field, where he’s notched 25 assists since the start of the 2014 season.”

Unless he hits five or more home runs in spring training, Renfroe, 24, will probably begin the season at AAA El Paso, with his major league debut coming some time this season.

Historical Perspective

It is important to remember, though, that prospects are just that: prospects. While these top 100 lists are helpful, they are not necessarily determinative.

Take the top 100 list from 2006, for instance. The number one prospect on that list was Delmon Young. While he is a serviceable hitter with over 100 career home runs, he has never taken his game to the next level, and become the All-Star so many thought that he would become.

Number two on that list was Justin Upton, who played for the Padres only last year, and just signed a huge six-year contract with the Detroit Tigers.

Then again, number four on the 2006 Top 100 was Jeremy Hermida of the (then) Florida Marlins. The scouting report on him said that he had “one of the sweetest swings from the left side I’ve ever seen.” However, Hermida only played in parts of eight seasons (including 2012, his last season, in San Diego), and was done by the age of 28.

Other notables: All-Star Cole Hamels was #68, former Padre Edison Volquez was #56, All-Star Pirate Andrew McCutchen was #50, Ryan Braun of Milwaukee was #49, Jonathan Papelbon was #37, Hanley Ramirez was #30, and All-Star Troy Tulowitski was #25.

Meanwhile, also-rans like Andy LaRoche, Conor Jackson, Andy Marte, and Lastings Milledge all ranked higher than 25.

But most notable on that list, at least from the Padres’ perspective, was #96: Matt Kemp, San Diego’s current right fielder.

That year, the only prospect they had was Cesar Carrillo (#88), and he never made it to the big leagues.

In other words, anything can happen. That the Padres have three young men on the list is hopeful, and having Renfroe at #92 does not mean that he has less of a chance to make an impact than the others.

It will be interesting to revisit the 2016 list ten years down the road.

More: The San Diego Union-Tribune offers further assessment on the Padres’ top prospects. Read about it here.