No team was more aggressive this off-season than the Padres, whose new-look lineup and strong rotation has them poised to contend in the NL West.
This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 14: the San Diego Padres.
2014 Record and Finish: 77–85 (.475), third place in NL West (18th overall)
2015 Projected Record: 83–79 (.512), third place in NL West (tied for 13th overall)
The Case For
A.J. Preller’s mandate, upon becoming the Padres’ general manager last August, was to attempt to improve an atrocious offense that scored the league’s fewest runs in 2014 (535) and also ranked dead last in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging. He did so aggressively and memorably during the offseason, adding power-hitting outfielders Matt Kemp, Wil Myers and Justin Upton, catcher Derek Norris and third baseman Will Middlebrooks. San Diego's Opening Day lineup will likely contain just two holdovers (first baseman Yonder Alonso and second baseman Jedd Gyorko) from last year’s.
Here’s the thing, though: The Padres’ offense, as flashy as it now appears, doesn’t need to be wildly productive for the team to contend. That’s because the club retained the majority of a pitching staff that quietly ranked second in the NL in ERA (3.27) behind the Nationals, while bolstering it with new ace James Shields and two high upside, if injury prone, starters in Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson. Tyson Ross and Ian Kennedy, who combined to throw 396 2/3 innings last year and strike out 402 batters, are back, as is Andrew Cashner, who missed time with a strained elbow and an inflamed shoulder, but can throw 98 mph and might be more talented than either of them.
The formula is simple: Pitch to last year’s standard and hope that the offensive additions can boost the lineup’s run production to at least the National League’s average, which last year was 640 runs. If San Diego can do that, its Pythagorean wins expectation for 2015 would be 89. In 2014, the league’s wild card teams, the Giants and Pirates, each won 88 games.
The Case Against
Five members of the Padres' potential Opening Day lineup—Gyorko, Kemp, Middlebrooks, Myers and Upton—struck out in at least 22.6% of their plate appearances last season, a ratio surpassed by just two regulars who appeared in the World Series last year (the Giants’ Michael Morse and Brandon Crawford). The Royals did what San Diego hopes to do—turn around a long string of mediocrity to win a pennant—not just by avoiding whiffs, but also by having by far the best outfield defense in the league.
The Padres, meanwhile, will play Kemp (the worst outfielder in the league last year, according to Ultimate Zone Rating) in rightfield and Myers in center, where he has until now spent a grand total of 53 innings. San Diego should hit home runs, and cavernous Petco Park has not had much of a negative impact on Upton (who has a .900 career OPS there) or Kemp (.867) when they were frequent visitors there. But in an era in which the way to combat pitching that grows more dominant by the year has been to field lineups comprised of contact hitters and good defenders, the Padres are certainly trying to buck the trend.
Somewhat obscured amidst the excitement about San Diego's new outfield is the fact that its infield was not particularly improved. Gyorko has a .231 career batting average and a .685 career OPS; shortstop Alexi Amarista is at .234 and .615; Alonso is at .271 and .729, subpar for a first baseman; and their third base options, Middlebrooks and Yangervis Solarte, are at .237/.695 and .260/.705, respectively. None of them is anything better than a league-average defender, either.
The infield might, however, might have some upside, particularly with Gyorko, who twice hit 25 homers or more in the minors and had 23 as a rookie in 2013, though he hit just 10 last year. One scout expects Gyorko to rebound from his sophomore slump. “I think he’s going to flourish,” the scout said. “His power is legit. He can hit it out to right-center in that ballpark, which is an unbelievable feat. I think he’s a legitimate 20-home-run guy, and if you have a power hitter at second, that’s really a plus.” It will be on Gyorko to elevate an infield that, on paper, looks like the league’s worst.
Number to Know: 1,785 2/3
That’s how many innings Shields, who signed a four-year, $75 million deal with San Diego, has thrown since 2007, the most in baseball. During that time, he’s never worked fewer than 203 1/3 frames in a season, nor made fewer than 31 starts. You can look at it in two ways: that at the age of 33 he’s due for a breakdown, or that the Padres got a real bargain. San Diego committed less than half of what the Cubs gave to Jon Lester, and just more than a third of what the Nationals gave to Max Scherzer, to the game’s leading workhorse, and one who will remove a lot of pressure from a rotation and a bullpen that was already excellent.
Most overrated: Wil Myers
“I think the jury’s still out on him. He’s a great talent, he hits the ball a long way, he’s a great athlete. But sometimes when I see him play he looks disinterested. To me, he’s got to show that this really means something to him. It might just be that his body language doesn’t show what he’s really feeling, as far as competing. But sometimes you wonder if he’s really involved.”
Most underrated: Ian Kennedy
“You don’t hear that much about Ian Kennedy, and he struck out 200 hitters again. He’s in his final year before free agency, he’s been a consistent pitcher. He had trouble with his oblique last year, which hindered him, but he’s a warrior. I think he’s one of the keys for them being successful. People think of him as a No. 4 or 5, but to me he’s a solid No. 3 who can make you swing and miss, which is a valuable commodity.”