Padres continue drastic and sudden overhaul with Upton, Norris deals
In what has been a drastic and rapid-fire overhauling of what had been the weakest lineup in the majors in 2014, the Padres acquired Justin Upton from the Braves on Friday morning and catcher Derek Norris from the Athletics on Thursday night. They add that pair to outfielders Matt Kemp, whose acquisition from the Dodgers was finalized Thursday night, and Wil Myers, acquired from the Rays on Wednesday.
The Padres scored 38 fewer runs than any other team in baseball in 2014 and were dead last in team OPS+ with a mark that was 15 percent worse than league average, even after correcting for their pitching-friendly home ballpark. That will change in 2015. Upton is a 27-year-old with monster power who averaged 28 home runs a season in his two years with the Braves, 13 more than the Padres' team leader this past season, Yasmani Grandal, who went to the Dodgers in the Kemp trade. Kemp out-hit Upton this past season, batting .287/.346/.506 (140 OPS+) at the age of 29. Myers, who is 24 and coming off a season ruined by a broken wrist, hit .293/.354/.478 (131 OPS+) in the process of winning the American League Rookie of the Year award in 2013, and Norris, who will be 26 in February, has hit .260/.354/.405 (115 OPS+) over the last two seasons and is still improving at the plate.
That, along with the fact that the Padres control Myers and Kemp for the next five years and Norris for the next four, is the good news. But it's not all roses for San Diego. Kemp, who has been wildly injury prone in the last three years, nearly had his trade derailed because of a physical that turned up arthritis in both of his hips. Myers hasn't really hit, even when healthy, since August 2013, and Upton will be a free agent after the coming season. All four are also poor defenders on a team that lacks the designated hitter. In all, Preller's moves represent a fascinating gamble for a team that was going nowhere and had nothing to lose.
Here's the sum total of what the Padres have gained and given away in those four deals.
It's not clear that Norris is an upgrade on Grandal. Both will be 26 next season (Grandal is four months older), are arbitration-eligible next winter and are under team control through 2018. Both are also bat-first catchers with problematic defense who were top-100 prospects in the minors. In their age-25 seasons, Norris hit .270/.361/.403, and Grandal hit .225/.327/.401, but on their careers, Grandal is a .245/.350/.412 (120 OPS+) hitter to Norris' .246/.336/.392 (105). Norris threw out just 17 percent of opposing base stealers in 2014, and Grandal threw out just 13 percent and led the majors in passed balls. However, Grandal consistently grades out as an excellent pitch framer, with Norris merely average in that facet of the game.
For now, that looks like a parallel move, which means you can consider Norris' return — Hahn and Alvarez — as part of the Kemp accounting. Both Hahn and Alvarez had been recent trade acquisitions themselves. Hahn, a 25-year-old righty with a good curveball who had a solid major league debut with 12 starts and a pair of relief appearances this past season, was acquired in the seven-player trade that sent Brad Boxberger to the Rays in January. He's likely to be a part of Oakland's rotation in 2015 but doesn't project as an impact starter. Alvarez is a hard-throwing 23-year-old reliever who was acquired from the Angels in the Huston Street trade. He made his major league debut in September and could emerge as a valuable arm in what is still a deep A's bullpen if given the chance.
Of the seven pitchers the Padres traded in these four deals, Hahn and Alvarez were the most likely to contribute to the 2015 team. They were not, however, the best prospects in the bunch. That distinction would likely go to Fried, who will turn 21 in January and was the seventh pick in the 2012 draft. Fried was one of the Padres' top three prospects coming into the 2014 season but had Tommy John surgery in August and is unlikely to pitch at all in 2015. That makes Fried, who is centerpiece of the Braves' take for Upton, a gamble in his own right.
Joining Fried on their way to Atlanta are infielders Jace and Dustin Peterson, who are not related, and speedy centerfielder Mallex Smith. Jace Peterson, who turns 25 in May, will compete for the second base job in Atlanta after a season in which he hit .306/.406/.464 in his Triple A debut but struggled in his first major league opportunities. Smith, who will be 22 in May, is a small but lightning-quick centerfielder who stole 88 bases at a 77-percent success rate in 120 games this past season and hit .327/.414/.475 in 261 plate appearances after a mid-June promotion to High A. He'll likely start 2015 in Double A and bears watching. Third baseman Dustin Peterson, who just turned 20 in September, was a second-round pick out of high school in 2013 but is coming off a poor showing in his full-season debut.
If Fried returns to form after his surgery and just one of the three hitters proves to be a viable everyday major leaguer, the Braves will have done well for a single year of Upton. Meanwhile, the Padres acquired a very valuable bat in the heart of his prime whom they could try to sign to an extension, flip for replacement prospects in July, or extend a qualifying offer in November, netting a first-round pick in 2016 without having to surrender an elite prospect.
Ultimately, the prospect the Padres may most regret trading is Turner, who was the 14th pick this June and raked in full-season ball over the remainder of the season. Turner could be the shortstop of the future in Washington and could have been the same in San Diego. Of course, in Myers, they acquired a player who was a top-10 prospect prior to the 2013 season, won the Rookie of the Year award that year, and is still just 24 with five team-controlled years remaining. Whatever concerns there may be about his production in late 2013 and early 2014, prior to the wrist injury, he is still more likely to be an impact major leaguer than Turner.
Still, there are concerns, namely that all four major players acquired are righthanded hitters and poor defenders. As tough of a hitting environment as Petco Park may be, even after the fences were brought in slightly prior to 2013, it is especially hard on righthanded hitters. And while the ballpark may mute their production at the plate, their play in the field could detract even further from their value by undermining the team's overall run prevention.
There are still a lot of questions to be answered here. To begin with: Upton, Kemp, and Myers are all outfielders, but which one of them is going to play center? The Dodgers figured out last year that Kemp, in the wake of major ankle surgery and on what we now know are two arthritic hips, is no longer a viable centerfielder. Myers played some center in the minors but has thus far proven to be sub-par in right in the majors. Upton played center in his first two minor league seasons, but hasn't played a single inning there since 2007.
Might one of them move to first base? Yonder Alonso is hardly an obstacle to that at this point. First base might be a good place to rest the aching legs of the 6-foot-4 Kemp. Myers actually played four innings at first his past season, and as a 6-3 former catcher who also played a little third base in the minors, he might make the most natural transition to the position. That could allow for something like a Will Venable/Cameron Maybin platoon in center that would drastically improve the team's outfield defense.
What about Seth Smith, the team's leading hitter in 2014, and Carlos Quentin, who posted a 145 OPS+ in his first two years in San Diego? Could there be another trade in the works? The answer there is most certainly yes. Already during the course of my writing this, general manager A.J. Preller has agreed to flip Hanigan to the Red Sox for busted third base prospect Will Middlebrooks, hoping the 26-year-old, another righthanded power hitter, can salvage his career in San Diego. He is also reportedly pursuing Middlebrooks' former Red Sox teammate David Ross to be Norris' veteran backup and defensive caddy/coach.
Preller has also been active on the other-side of the ball, taking flyers on injured starters Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson with incentive-laden deals. Morrow, who agreed to a $2.5 million guarantee with up to $5 million in incentives on Tuesday, has made just 16 starts over the last two years due to a radial nerve entrapment in his right forearm in 2013 and a strained index finger tendon sheath in his right hand this past season. But he returned in September to work out of the Blue Jays' bullpen, suggesting he will be ready to start spring training on schedule. Morrow led the American League in strikeouts per nine innings in 2011 and posted a 2.96 ERA (143 ERA+) in 21 starts in '12 but is now 30 and has only qualified for the ERA title once in his career, doing so with a 4.72 mark in 2011.
Johnson's contract is said to be worth roughly $1 million with up to $7 million in incentives. The previous Padres administration took a flier on Johnson last year, signing him to an $8 million contract with a $4 million option that would kick in if he failed to make seven starts. Johnson didn't throw a single pitch for San Diego in 2014, having his second Tommy John surgery in late April instead, and Preller declined his option in October. Now Johnson has a chance to earn even more if he can make a prompt return, though he's more likely to join the team at midseason, if at all.
Neither pitcher is one the Padres can count on, but both have significant, if remote, upsides. More than anything else, that's what Preller has brought to the Padres roster in the last week: upside. With Kemp, Upton, Myers, and Norris in the heart of the order, and with Morrow and Johnson potentially joining Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross, and Ian Kennedy in the rotation, the Padres' roster has a break-out potential that it utterly lacked prior to the winter meetings. The chances of this team realizing that potential and emerging as a contender in 2015 still seem remote, but a week ago they were virtually non-existent.
With Kemp, Myers, and Norris all in place for the next four-plus years, Preller — who is under contract through 2018 himself — has time to fine-tune the roster. He also still has top prospects Austin Hedges (a defense-first catcher), Matt Wisler (a righthander who could crack the major league rotation this year) and outfielders Hunter Renfroe and Rymer Liriano (one of whom could be Upton's replacement in 2016) with which to do it. In the meantime, the Padres are at the very least interesting for the first time in years. Now if they would just bring back the brown.