Winter Report Card: Overhauled Padres remain work in progress
With less than five weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the San Diego Padres.
74–88 (.457), fourth place in National League West (Hot Stove Preview)
1B Yonder Alonso, SS Clint Barmes*, RHP Joaquin Benoit, 2B Jedd Gyorko, RHP Josh Johnson*, RHP Shawn Kelley, RHP Casey Kelly, RHP Ian Kennedy*, RHP Craig Kimbrel, RHP Cory Luebke*, 3B Will Middlebrooks, RHP Bud Norris, LHP Marc Rzepczynski, LF Justin Upton*
(*free agent, still unsigned)
Off-season In Review
It took him roughly a full year, but Padres general manager A.J. Preller has belatedly checked off a few key items from his audacious makeover from last winter, namely acquiring a starting shortstop and a platoon complement for centerfielder Melvin Upton Jr. and finding an obvious starting spot for Wil Myers.
Starting with shortstop: On Thursday, the team landed Cuban veteran Alexei Ramirez via a one-year, $4 million deal—a steep pay cut following the decline of his $10 million option by the White Sox. The 34-year-old shortstop had a dismal season on both sides of the ball (.249/.285/.357, a 79 OPS+ and -6 Defensive Runs Saved en route to 1.0 WAR), but even that is basically a wash with the .228/.279/.365 line and -7 DRS showing that the Padres got from Clint Barmes, Will Middlebrooks (a Brewer after being nontendered), Jedd Gyorko (dealt to St. Louis) and incumbent shortstop Alexi Amarista. Whether Ramirez can rebound to something closer to his career line (.273/.310/.399, 91 OPS+, +3 DRS per 1,200 innings) remains to be seen, but anything between that and his 2015 showing is an upgrade.
As for centerfield, where Myers and company were 12 runs below average defensively, Jon Jay (picked up from the Cardinals for Gyorko) will take over. His lefthanded bat fits with the remaining Upton, and his $6.225 million salary isn't breaking the bank. Like Ramirez, the soon-to-be–31-year-old Jay is coming off a down season, one in which he hit just .210/.306/.257 with one home run in 245 plate appearances and dealt with left wrist problems that sent him to the disabled list twice. The Padres are banking on a return to form along the lines of the .295/.359/.396 line with a 109 OPS+ that Jay hit for the Cardinals from 2010 to '14 while providing average-or-better defense in the middle pasture.
Meanwhile, with the trade of the productive but hardly powerful Yonder Alonso (.282/.361/.381, 111 OPS+ with five homers in 2015) along with Marc Rzepczynski to the Athletics in exchange for lefty Drew Pomeranz, the Padres can park Myers at first base. That said, they haven't found a true leftfield replacement for Justin Upton, who led the team in homers (26) and OPS+ (121) and hit .251/.336/.454 but hasn't found a free-agent deal to his liking yet. More on that below.
Where Pomeranz, who’s coming off arthroscopic surgery to clean up his AC joint in his shoulder, fits on the pitching staff remains to be seen. The 27-year-old southpaw has 49 big-league starts under his belt, including nine last year with Oakland, albeit with a 4.63 ERA and just a hair under five innings a start, but San Diego could consider him there given that it received just four starts from lefties last year. That said, Pomeranz was far more successful out of the bullpen, with a 2.61 ERA and 10.0 strikeouts per nine in 41 1/3 innings.
Assuming Pomeranz doesn't crack the rotation, he could fit into a late-inning role in a bullpen that will have a drastically different look after the trades of closer Craig Kimbrel to Boston and setup man Joaquin Benoit to Seattle. Both were dealt for prospect packages whose big-league impact won't be felt for a while. Kimbrel netted a quartet (lefty Logan Allen, infielder Carlos Asuaje, shortstop Javier Guerra and outfielder Manuel Margot) of whom only Asuaje and Margot reached Double A last year, and Benoit brought back a pair (righty Enyel De Los Santos and infielder Nelson Ward) who spent the season in Class A. Also gone from the bullpen are lefty Rzepczynski (who made 27 appearances totaling 14 1/3 innings) and righty Shawn Kelley (2.45 ERA and 11.0 strikeouts per nine in 51 1/3 innings); the latter signed a three-year, $15 million deal with the Nationals.
As for who closes in the wake of that housecleaning, the team is reportedly nearing a deal with going-on-39-year-old Fernando Rodney. The majors' most crooked-capped phantom archer was dreadful with the Mariners last year, saving 16 games but losing his closer's job in midseason and getting torched for a 5.68 ERA with 1.4 homers and 4.4 walks per nine in 50 2/3 innings. Dealt to the Cubs on Aug. 27, he salvaged some dignity with a strong showing in 12 stretch-drive innings. Closer to the middle of the bullpen will be Carlos Villanueva, who was signed to a $1.5 million deal after posting a 2.95 ERA and 3.74 FIP with 8.1 strikeouts per nine in 61 innings for the Cardinals, all in relief—the first time since 2010 he didn't make a start.
Among the rest of the departures, the only one who had any sort of impact in 2015 was Ian Kennedy, whose 4.28 ERA (85 ERA+) and 4.51 FIP in 168 1/3 innings did more harm than good. As a free agent who received a qualifying offer, he'll be more valuable for the draft pick compensation he nets once he signs elsewhere. The team has numerous options to fill out a rotation that barring further moves will include Tyson Ross, James Shields and Andrew Cashner, with Robbie Erlin, Odrisamer Despaigne, Colin Rea, Brandon Morrow, Brandon Maurer and perhaps Pomeranz in the mix. Health is a factor in many of those candidacies.
Among the rest of the arrivals, Christian Bethancourt is a 24-year-old backstop acquired in exchange for the oft-injured Casey Kelly (who totaled just 40 1/3 major league innings in five years in the organization) and 18-year-old catching prospect Ricardo Rodriguez. Bethancourt has hit just .219/.248/.283 in 278 plate appearances in the bigs thus far, and that while struggling with just about every defensive duty besides throwing; he'll likely battle Austin Hedges for the right to back up Derek Norris. Jose Pirela is a 26-year-old utility man whose primary position is second base and whose inexperience in the outfield resulted in a spring training concussion that cost him most of April. He hit .325/.390/.433 in 60 games at Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre for the Yankees and owns a .255/.275/.367 line in 103 plate appearances in the majors.
Unfinished Business: Leftfield, rotation
Where last winter's whirlwind of moves was geared toward a bid for contention that didn't materialize, it's more difficult to see a contending bid materializing out of the current roster, particularly in a division where the Diamondbacks and Giants have made significant upgrades and the reigning champion Dodgers still have plenty of weapons. For starters, the outfield could use another bat to offset the loss of Justin Upton, because a potential unit of Jay, Melvin Upton and Matt Kemp—while perhaps more sound defensively—won't cut it. The team does have a pair of prospects to add to the mix in the centerfield-capable Travis Jankowski, who got his feet wet in a 34-game stint last year, and Rymer Liriano, who debuted in 2014 but spent last season at Triple A El Paso, where he hit .292/.383/.460. Neither, however, has found success in the small sample of big-league work so far. With a big free-agent signing unlikely, it wouldn't be a surprise if Preller trades to fill this need; otherwise, Dexter Fowler (whose defensive metrics in center have been far into the red in three of the last four years) could make sense via a mid-range deal.
Meanwhile, the addition-by-subtraction of Kennedy still leaves the Padres with just one returning starter who prevented runs at a better-than-average clip in 2015 in Ross, not to mention a whole lot of question marks. Again barring a trade, mid-rotation plugs such as Yovani Gallardo or an attempt to capture the potential rebound of somebody such as Doug Fister or ex-Padre Mat Latos could make sense if the price and medical reports line up.
Preliminary Grade: C
As the Padres have been since Preller took the reins in August 2014, San Diego remains a compelling work in progress. The trade of Kimbrel did a good job of helping to restock the farm system, given that Guerra placed first on Baseball America’s Top 10 Prospects list for the team, with Margot second and Allen eighth. If the Padres are to contend this time, however, they'll need to enter the season with a more complete roster than they did in 2015, which means there's still work to be done.