Tagged: Spring Training

Padres Season Preview, Part 2

Last time, I discussed the reasons for optimism for the Padres as they head into the 2016 season. To recap, they are:

  • no overhyped expectations
  • four of their 2014-15 offseason acquisitions who contributed (Kemp, Norris, Shields, and Myers) are back
  • an upgrade at shortstop in Alexei Ramirez
  • the outfield defense will be much improved
  • Tyson Ross, a potential star, will be anchoring the starting rotation

Today, we come to the other side: reasons for concern. And for the 2016 Padres, there are plenty.

But before we get there, we must address the white elephant in the room: why are there so many concerns?

Answer: the Padres are rebuilding, even if they’re not actually calling it that. During the offseason, they traded away their most potent chip in Craig Kimbrel to the Red Sox for four prospects, including center fielder Manuel Margot and shortstop Javier Guerra—both of whom should be in the majors by 2018 (though Margot could be up by the end of this year). And through the exodus of players like Ian Kennedy and Justin Upton, they accumulated six of the first 84 picks in the upcoming amateur draft in June.

General manager A.J. Preller also avoided surrendering any draft picks by signing Alexei Ramirez over Ian Desmond to play shortstop; the latter would have cost them a pick, while the former will not.

Preller has also been noted for his savvy at spotting international talent, and so the Padres figure to go deep later this year in the international draft. So the good news is, they will be a very exciting team to watch starting around 2018-19 when all of this young talent arrives in the big leagues.

But first, they have to play through 2016. And as they do, they must deal with the following concerns.

1. How do you replace the production of Justin Upton?

Even though 2015 was something of a down season for Upton (.251 BA, 159 strikeouts), he was still a solid run producer for the Padres (26 home runs, 81 RBI, .454 Slugging, .790 OPS). In this current pitcher’s era, those aren’t numbers you can just replace without spending mega-millions.

And so, with the light-hitting Jon Jay likely being the primary left fielder, and with no major free agent signing, it looks like Upton’s absence is going to leave a gaping hole in the lineup.

Unless…

2. Can Wil Myers play a full season?

The Kemp trade might have been the most attention-grabbing trade of the last offseason, but the Myers trade was easily the most important. In Myers, Preller acquired a still-very young and talented bat who came at great cost; most notably their first-round draft pick of 2014 Trea Turner, and top pitching prospect Joe Ross (younger brother of Tyson).

But after a decent start, Myers re-injured his wrist (which also affected his 2014 sophomore season in Tampa), and played in just 60 games.

This year will be his fourth big league season, so it is remarkable that he is still just 25. The Padres are praying that he will turn it around so that he can help to make up for the loss of Upton. A full season of Myers should produce a .270-.280 average, 20-25 home runs, an .800 OPS, and maybe even more that that.

But a third season of missing large chunks of games will be painful. At worst, this trade could be the sequel of Nolan Ryan-for-Jim Fregosi (i.e., one of the worst trades in baseball history).

3. How solid is the infield?

Three-fourths of the starting infield will be different from opening day 2016. Yangervis Solarte played a reliable if unspectacular third base (.748 OPS, 33 doubles, 14 home runs); basically, he is the second-coming of Maicer Izturis. As the Padres rebuild, he will suffice for 2016, and perhaps even 2017.

But for the rest of the infield, they have a talented but oft-injured first baseman in Myers, an unproven second baseman in Cory Spangenburg, and an aging shortstop in Alexei Ramirez.

Should Myers miss lots of playing time, new manager Andy Green can rely upon Brett Wallace (.302/.374/.521 with five home runs in 95 at-bats) to fill in. But prior to 2015, Wallace proved problematic at the major league level, which is why the Houston Astros gave up on him.

At second, former first round draft pick Spangenburg gets his opportunity to show that he can play everyday. From June-September, he hit .295 with a .354 OBP as the primary starting second baseman, he hits left-handed, and he has speed. Most scouts project him as a utility player, but in 2016, the 25-year-old gets the chance to show that he can do more. If not, Jose Pirela, formerly of the Yankees, will get a chance to play.

Ramirez figures to be an upgrade over Alexi Amarista at shortstop; the only question is, how much of an upgrade? In 2015, Amarista slashed a horrid .205/.257/.287, while Ramirez slashed .249/.285/.357—and that was after a horrible April-May stretch. Fangraphs ranked him 20th among major league shortstops, and gave him a -0.5 WAR.

Ramirez has lost a step as well, as his DWar was 0.4, which ranked him 14th among starting shortstops.

It’s clear that Ramirez is a stopgap until prospect Guerra, acquired in the Kimbrel trade, is ready by late 2017 at the earliest.

4. Who plays in left and center?

Only Matt Kemp is returning from the 2015 starting outfield, which is generally good (regarding his offense), but also very bad (his defense).

But who will play in left and center?

Myers moves to first base with the departure of Yonder Alonso, though Green has indicated that Myers will make an occasional appearance in left field to give Brett Wallace some playing time. Moving Myers out of center was needed, since he was badly miscast in that role.

In his place, Green figures to use some combination of Melvin Upton, Jr. and Travis Jankowski. Upton was included in the April 2015 trade of Kimbrel from Atlanta, as the Braves could not get rid of his bad contract (5 years, $70 million) fast enough.

But with the Padres, Upton, 31, quietly had a decent year. While he will never be the star he was projected to be while with Tampa, he still hit .259/.327/.429 in 205 at-bats, including five home runs and nine stolen bases. While those aren’t flashy numbers, they beat his .198/.279/.314 that he slashed in two years in Atlanta.

Look for Upton to get at least 250 at-bats—more if he can find some of the old Tampa magic. However, most scouts see him regressing to his Atlanta numbers.

Sharing center field will be Travis Jankowski. He was stellar in AA and AAA last year, batting .335 with a .413 OBP and 32 stolen bases. After getting called up in August, he slashed .211/.245/.344, albeit in limited playing time.

While he bulked up in the off-season, he profiles as a singles hitter who can steal bases. Most scouts see him as a fourth outfielder/pinch runner. But as with Spangenburg, Jankowski will be given an opportunity to prove his critics wrong.

What the Padres are really pining for in center is the quick development of Manuel Margot, the centerpiece of the Kimbrel deal. In 2015, he split time between A and AA. In 64 games at AA, he slashed .271/.326/.419. Look for him to begin 2016 at the Padres’ AA affiliate, and advance to AAA some time in mid-season. A late-season call-up is unlikely, but not out of the question. The more realistic scenario is that he will be ready for full time big league duty in July or August of 2017.

As for left field, Jon Jay figures to be the primary starter. He bats left-handed, and has a career slash of .287/.354/.384 with good on-base skills, but little power or speed. He batted just .210 in an injury-plagued 2015 campaign.

Barring a trade, three others will likely get the chance to prove themselves in left field.

First is Jabari Blash, 26, acquired in the Rule V draft. In 116 games between AA and AAA, Blash slashed .271/.370/.576 with 123 strikeouts and 32 home runs. So he has great power potential.

Fangraphs had this to say about him: “Blash may not be the next Paul Goldschmidt, but that’s not to say he can’t be a productive big leaguer. After all, he’s already proven he’s an excellent minor leaguer; and many of the best minor leaguers also find success at the game’s highest level.”

But at 26, he should have arrived by now. And it is possible that he is a 4-A player, or the next Dave Kingman.

Next is Alex Dickerson, who turns 26 in May. He slashed .307/.374/.503 at AAA with 36 doubles, nine triples, and 14 home runs. The Pacific Coast League, however, is notoriously hitter-friendly, and it’s hard to see how those numbers translate to solid big league production. Even still, Dickerson may be given a chance to see what he can do.

Last and most intriguing is Hunter Renfroe. Now 24, Renfroe spent most of 2015 at AA San Antonio, then got called up to AAA El Paso where he hit six home runs in 90 at-bats. Collectively, he hit 20 home runs in 133 games (511 at-bats), but he also struck out 132 times.

The Padres will probably keep him at AAA until at least August to let him develop.

All of which means that left field, as with center field, are not going to see much run production in 2016. But this is what it means to rebuild: you get worse before you get better.

5. How do you replace Ian Kennedy?

From initial appearances, Ian Kennedy did not have a good 2015, and the Kansas City Royals overpaid for his services this off-season (five years, $70 million).

But a closer look reveals more: a fly-ball pitcher, Kennedy clearly suffered from the Padres porous outfield defense, and so figures to benefit from Kansas City’s air-tight outfield trio. It’s also worth noting that after a slow start, Kennedy posted 2.63 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP from June-August.

And, he rarely gets injured. Such commodities are hard to come by in major league baseball. But while the Royals likely overpaid, and while they will get a high draft pick as compensation, losing Kennedy will hurt the 2016 Padres.

At the top of the rotation, they will have Tyson Ross, James Shields, and Andrew Cashner. All of them figure to be anywhere from serviceable to great.

But after those three, what? Unless a trade is made, you can choose between the oft-injured Brandon Morrow, unproven lefty starters Drew Pomeranz and Robbie Erlin, and rookie Colin Rea.

Bottom line: It would be one thing if Green had to choose from among that group to fill just one starting slot. But with Kennedy’s departure, he has to fill two.

6. Who is in the much-weakened bullpen?

For the last decade, one of the Padres strengths has always been a good bullpen. 2015 was no exception, as it was headed by the rock-solid Kimbrel and Joaquin Benoit. But when 2015 didn’t pan out, and since those two were among Preller’s best trading chips, both were dealt away for prospects.

So, where does that leave the bullpen in 2016? That was one of the questions Preller needed to answer this offseason. He signed some free agents in Fernando Rodney and Carlos Villanueva, and more recently the left-hander Matt Thornton.

Rodney is a gamble. He turns 39 later this month, and he can either be very good (48 saves, 0.60 ERA, 0.78 WHIP in 2012 with Tampa), but more likely very bad (from 2007-2011, his ERA was always over 4.00, and his WHIP always above 1.30).

Villanueva, 32, figures to be the seventh or eighth inning go-to guy. In 61 innings with St. Louis, he sported a 2.95/1.16/.223 slash.

Also in the mix are Kevin Quackenbush, Jon Edwards, Drew Pomeranz, and Leonel Campos. Look for Quackenbush or Edwards to get shots at closing if Rodney falters.

Since they needed to restructure after the disastrous 2015 season, Preller had to deal Kimbrel and Benoit—unnecessary luxuries for a team on the mend. While he did the right thing by trading them away, that doesn’t mean that the Padres won’t feel their absence.

They certainly will.