I am not breaking any news when I say that the San Diego Padres won the 2014-15 off season. I don’t feel that it was particularly for the trades for Matt Kemp, Wil Myers and Justin Upton. The Padres have had a difficult time identifying what they were about. A series of the Padres’ younger prospects either never panned out or were not as good as expected. This led to the firing of GM Josh Byrnes, who was replaced in the interim by Omar Minaya and on August 6 by Rangers’ Assistant GM AJ Preller.
Many on the mainstream feel the only way to rebuild a team is from the ground up. While examples such as the Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays and Pittsburgh Pirates show how complete rebuilds do work over time, it also doesn’t account for all the years of competitive baseball lost in the process. There have been examples of the “retool” which worked in the case of the 2009 Yankees and the 2013 Red Sox. The building of a team through trades and free agent signings in one particular off season is the least popular one. Not just because experts and fans do not like it, but percentages do not favor them winning. The 1992 Mets are the worst team money can buy for a reason, the same can be said about the 2002 version. Other examples include the 2012 Miami Marlins and 2013 Blue Jays who did not have the expected success. The only one that seems to have worked is the 1997 Florida Marlins. Because of this, many feel that if any team makes “too many” transactions in one off season, it is destined for failure. I think it depends on the transactions that are made.
The Padres of 2014 actually had a winning record in the final three months of the season at 41-38. The starting pitching had a lot to do with that success, as the offense was a joke all season long. The Padres had a series of the worst offensive stats the game has seen in recent years. Due to injuries and trades, the team only had seven players finish the season with more than 100 games played, led by SS/ CF Alexi Amarista (148 games, .239, 5, 40) and RF Will Venable (146 games, .224, 8, 33). Among key players to miss a lot of time in 2014 were CF Cameron Maybin (95 games, .235, 1, 13), 1B Yonder Alonso (84 games, .240, 7, 27), LF Carlos Quentin (50 games, .177, 4, 18), 2B Jedd Gyorko (111 games, .210, 10, 51) and SS Everth Cabrera (90 games, .232, 3, 20). Because of this, the Padres team leader in runs scored was Seth Smith with 55; hits: Smith, 118; 2Bs: Smith, 31; 3Bs: Smith, 5; HRs: Yasmani Grandal, 15; RBI: Gyorko, 51; batting average: Yangervis Solarte, .267 in 56 games after being acquired in the Headley deal with the Yankees, otherwise it was Smith at .266.
It did not take a rocket scientist to show that this team needed to redefine itself with an offense that can produce above the level of replacement player. Because the Padres, led by Preller, simply did not want to quit professional baseball for the next couple of seasons, like many in the media think they should do, they brought in three proven offensive players in Kemp (.287, 27, 89), Myers (.293, 13, 53 in 88 games winning the AL ROY in 2013) and Upton (.270, 29, 102). Those three additions would be enough to bring optimism to the fan base and enough to coincide with the decent to strong starting pitching the team has led by RHPs Andrew Cashner (5-7, 2.55, 19 starts), Tyson Ross (13-14, 2.81, 31 starts) and Ian Kennedy (13-13, 3.63, 33 starts, 207 Ks in 201 IP).
What I like most about the 2014-15 Padres’ offseason is the fact that they finished it off by adding a proven starting pitcher. Though James Shields was not good in the postseason in 2014 (25 IP, 36 hits, 17 ER, 7 BB, 4 HR), he still has a track record of winning. Shields has been part of a winning team each of the past six seasons, which includes the last two years in Kansas City. His impact on the Padres starting staff is something that cannot be measured in stats. He may not be their ace by the second half of the season. But his presence in the clubhouse and how his string of 200-inning seasons lengthens the rotation is something the Padres will get value out of. Additionally, the Padres upgraded at both 3B and C, with Will Middlebrooks (.288, 15, 54 in 88 games during rookie season of 2013) and Derek Norris (.270, 10, 55) both just 26 years old.
The biggest question about the Padres going into this season is how the new players, most of whom have never played together before, mesh well in the clubhouse. Proven leaders like Shields and Norris could allow for the team to gel together, but like I said before, it is all about the players that are in the clubhouse. The fact that Bud Black has made it clear who will be playing in all three OF positions — Myers in CF, Upton in LF and Kemp in RF — better allows for the new OFs to get used to each others’ company. Chemistry could still destroy this team. That being true, it cannot be a guarantee that will be the case.
Hope for the Padres is that Gyorko and Alonso can stay healthy and develop with others in the lineup producing. The same can be a benefit for Middlebrooks (.191, 2, 19). What I like about this team is the fact that they do have depth and other options in case a Middlebrooks or Amarista or Gyorko do not pan out. Solarte (.260, 10, 48) probably has a good chance of winning the starting job at either 2B or 3B by simply having a good spring. Gyorko and Middlebrooks are capable of being better offensive players, but neither have proven it yet. The Padres have also signed SS Clint Barmes, a longtime MLB starting SS, to give Amarista a push. They also still have a major part of their 2014 OF, with Venable, Maybin and Quentin all projected to return. Wil Nieves, who has driven over 20 runs three times as a backup catcher, is the likely backup for Norris, with Tim Federowicz possibly out for the season.
Though I will be quick to put a Solarte, Barmes or Quentin (who is playing a little 1B) in to replace a struggling infielder, the following is the lineup I will go with: Amarista SS, Myers CF, Kemp RF, Upton LF, Alonso 1B, Norris C, Middlebrooks 3B, Gyorko 2B. The primary bench consists of Venable, Quentin, Solarte, Barmes and Nieves. Maybin provides depth in CF in cases Myers struggles, but he has not been able to stay healthy himself.
The rotation will start out with Shields, Cashner, Ross and Kennedy. I’d go with Odrisamer Despaigne (4-7, 3.37, 16 starts) as the number 5 starter though Brandon Morrow is intriguing is he is fully recovered from his arm woes. Josh Johnson and Cory Luebke will both return this year from Tommy John surgery to add some depth. Thinking outside the box, I like the thought of using Morrow as a late inning reliever, something he did early on in his career with Seattle. His ability to miss bats is something that can be an absolute asset in the Padres pen. Joaquin Benoit (4-2, 11 saves, 1.49, 53 games) is the Padres closer. Kevin Quackenbush (3-3, 2.48, 56 games), Nick Vincent (1-2, 3.60, 63 games) and Dale Thayer (4-5, 2.34, 70 games) are all decent relievers, but none have a strikeout ratio that puts fear in the opposition. LHP Alex Torres (2-1, 3.33, 70 games) is a solid lefty specialist. RHP Shawn Kelley (3-6, 4.53, 67 Ks, just under 52 IP) can be that pitcher but he did have a rough go of it in 2014 for the Yankees. Also coming back from TJ is RHP Casey Kelly, acquired from Boston in the trade that sent Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox.
Kelly tops the most intriguing younger Padres players, along with C Austin Hedges and OF Hunter Renfroe. RHP Matt Wisler is a 2011 7th round draft pick that could help this season in the bullpen. All in all, big things are expected for the Padres in 2015. As in most other cases where teams make a lot of off season moves, there will be doubters over whether a team like this can pull it off. I think the team will be fine as it has a solid balance. Las Vegas has their O/U projected at 85 1/2. I think they can win 88. I think that will stop them short of winning the NL West division. The Padres will return to the postseason once again, with the 1st Wild Card in the National League. It will be only the 5th time in the Padres franchise history that they make the playoffs- the first since 2006.