Wait 'Til Next Year: Padres make changes, but contention still far off
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it's only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait 'Til Next Year series.
Current Record: 71-81 (.467, third in NL West)
Mathematically Eliminated: Sept. 18
What went right in 2014: In his first full season as a major league starter, 27-year-old righty Tyson Ross made the All-Star team and emerged as the staff ace in the wake of injuries to Andrew Cashner. Platoon outfielder Seth Smith, acquired for set-up man Luke Gregerson in December, had his best season with the bat. Journeyman backup catcher Rene Rivera had a surprisingly productive season at the plate and excelled behind it. Rookie righty Jesse Hahn, acquired from the Rays in January, pitched well in his opportunities in the rotation.
The bullpen — with free agent Joaquin Benoit replacing Gregerson, lefty Alex Torres having come over in the trade with Hahn, and rookie Kevin Quackenbush establishing himself as a valuable set-up man and even spending some time as closer — excelled. As a group, the Padres' relievers had the best save percentage in baseball (84 percent), blowing a major-league low seven saves and posting a collective 2.69 ERA that ranks second in all of baseball. That's despite the fact that closer Huston Street (and his 1.09 ERA) was traded immediately after the All-Star break (Street's last public appearance in a Padres uniform was at the All-Star Game, though he didn't appear in it).
Amid an otherwise boring and unsuccessful season in San Diego, former outfielder Jason Lane provided some memorable moments by returning to the majors for the first time in seven years and throwing 3 1/3 perfect innings as a relief pitcher in June. Lane added another scoreless frame three days later, then returned in July to make his first major league start on the mound against the Braves (6 IP, 1 R, adding a single of his own for good measure). However, the Padres lost all three games, and Lane made no other appearances in the majors this year.
What went wrong in 2014: Josh Johnson, who signed a one-year, $8 million contract with the team in November, went on the shelf with elbow pain in spring training, had his second Tommy John surgery in late April, and never threw a pitch for San Diego. Cory Luebke, who was once believed to be a future rotation stalwart, had to undergo Tommy John surgery for a second time in February after losing all of 2013 to injury setbacks. That wiped out his 2014 season and possibly his career; he'll be 30 before he throws another major league pitch, if he ever does. Meanwhile, righty Casey Kelly's return from April 2013 Tommy John surgery was cut short by elbow pain that ended his season in May, and top pitching prospect Max Fried had Tommy John surgery in August.
Among players who did appear for the Padres in 2014, oft-injured centerfielder Cameron Maybin tore his left biceps tendon making a diving play in the outfield in spring training, which cost him 25 games. A positive test for amphetamines in late July cost him 25 more. In early September, shortstop Everth Cabrera — on the disabled list for the second time this season due to a left hamstring injury and with a performance-enhancing drug suspension already under his belt as part of last year's Biogenesis cleansing — was arrested for driving while under the influence of marijuana.
In terms of on-field performance, the 2014 Padres were undone by the complete collapse of their offense. San Diego is not only dead-last in the majors in runs scored per game this season, but the team's 3.26 runs per game are also more than a third of a run fewer than the 29th-place Braves' 3.62. Put another way, the Braves have outscored the Padres by 54 runs thus far this season. That is not Petco Park's doing, either. The Padres are also dead last in the majors in park-adjusted OPS+ (84) as well as in Baseball Prospectus' park-adjusted total offense statistic, True Average (.244).
Among the chief culprits has been outfielder Will Venable, who has hit .221/.288/.323 with a steep drop in stolen bases in the first season of a two-year extension. Bat-first second baseman Jedd Gyorko has hit .211/.274/.341 after finishing sixth in the Rookie of the Year voting last year. Cabrera, an All-Star last year before his PED suspension, has hit .232/.272/.300. Carlos Quentin, true to form, spent most of the year on the disabled list and appeared in just 50 games, but unlike past years, he didn't hit when healthy, batting .177/.284/.315. None of those four players has an OPS+ above Gyorko's 79 heading into the season's penultimate weekend.
Actually, it's easier to list the hitters who haven't dragged the Padres' offense down into the muck. Among hitters with 100 or more plate appearances for San Diego this season, only four have posted OPS+ figures at or above league average: The aforementioned Smith (136) and Rivera (113), rookie infielder Yangervis Solarte (112 in 215 PA), who was acquired for the severely slumping Chase Headley (.229/.296/.355) in July, and catcher Yasmani Grandal (102), who climbed out of the muck in July and has spent most of the last month at first base. Of those four, only Smith has played enough to qualify for the NL batting title.
Overall Outlook: I didn't even address the most significant thing that happened to the Padres in 2014: A change at general manager. Unfortunately for the Padres, it will take time to decide if the dismissal of Josh Byrnes and hiring of former Rangers assistant GM A.J. Preller as his replacement counts as a positive or not. As detailed by Tom Verducci upon Byrnes' firing in late June, the Padres' shortcomings have had as much to do with ownership as whoever happens to occupy the GM position (Preller is the fourth to do so since 2009). The 36-year-old Preller arrives as a highly regarded part of the front office that built back-to-back pennant winners in Texas, but he has his work cut out for him in San Diego.
The Padres' new ownership group led by Ron Fowler is, per Verducci, both impatient and stingy, and the roster is uninspiring at best. At the major league level, the Padres lack both youth (the team's weighted average age is almost exactly league average, and trading the 30-year-old Headley and Street didn't move the needle much) and impact talent. Cashner could well be their best player, and he's a 28-year-old pitcher with a below-average strikeout rate who has never made more than 26 starts in a season.
The Padres have some talent on the farm, but none of it is all that close to the majors, and I don't see a future superstar in that bunch, either. Their top prospect, Austin Hedges, is a defense-first catcher who hit .225/.268/.321 in Double-A this year. Of the two prospects who did see major league action this year, outfielder Rymer Liriano has posted a 63 OPS+ in his first 106 big-league at-bats, and shortstop prospect Jace Peterson went 6-for-53 (.113) with just two walks and no extra-base hits in the majors. Factor in the fact that the team plays in the most extreme pitchers park in baseball, which is almost as challenging for the Padres as Coors Field is for the Rockies, and Preller's greatest asset at the moment may be low expectations.