Armed with Shields, Kemp, Upton, Padres eager to win now
San Diego Padres manager Bud Black turned the corner to meet the press on the first day of spring training and was taken aback at the throng of reporters waiting.
''What are we, the Yankees?'' Black asked.
No, but they're no longer the anonymous Padres, the light-hitting, star-less team planted near the bottom of the NL West.
Thanks to first-year general manager A.J. Preller's wild offseason, the Padres have been remade. There's suddenly star power. And expectations, too.
''The organization, from top on down, there's a different vibe,'' Black said.
A new ace in James Shields joins an already strong rotation. Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers make for a brand new power-hitting outfield. Derek Norris is now catching. Newcomers Yangervis Solarte and Will Middlebrooks have had great springs as they compete at third base.
''I'm impressed,'' Kemp said. ''We've got a lot of great players in this clubhouse. We have a really good chance of winning some games.''
It's been a long time since people have been saying that about the Padres. They were last in the postseason in 2006. They haven't had a winning season since 2010 and last year finished 18 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West.
A lost season included a shake-up at the top. Preller, a former assistant GM with Texas, replaced the fired Josh Byrnes in August. Preller was then the clear star of baseball's hot stove season.
Kemp, who acknowledged he was shocked the Dodgers traded him, thinks the Padres now have the best outfield in the game.
Shields, who helped get Kansas City to the World Series last season, was the last piece. He signed in February.
''Shields wanted to be here. Kemp, Upton, Norris, those guys are happy to be here,'' Black said. ''They're happy to be in San Diego. They're happy to be a Padre. That's a good thing.''
Now it will be up to Black, lauded for squeezing as much as he can out of bad rosters, to make them winners. The Padres expect to contend for at least a wild card spot.
''I've been in San Diego for 40 years. That energy is back,'' Padres executive chairman Ron Fowler said. ''People are talking baseball and it's fun to be a Padre right now.''
ROTATION WORKHORSES: Adding Shields gives the Padres baseball's most durable pitcher on a staff already known for eating innings. The right-hander has tossed 1,785 2/3 innings since 2007. No pitcher has thrown more. Tyson Ross (195 2/3) and Ian Kennedy (201) were workhorses in 2014. Right-hander Andrew Cashner was the exception, but last year's opening-day starter has looked dominant as he returns from arm issues. Brandon Morrow and Odrisamer Despaigne are contending for the fifth spot. And Josh Johnson, coming back from elbow surgery, could be ready by June. ''The one thing we do have is pitching depth,'' Shields said. ''And you can never have too much.'' The one issue: no left-handers.
CAN THEY FIELD?: The new outfield packs power, but can they cover spacious Petco Park? Kemp's arthritic hips were made public during trade discussions and he no longer has the speed for center. Myers has only played there in the minors. ''They read the noise that we're not going to play defense,'' Black said. ''Players have a lot of pride.'' Veteran Wil Nieves, a non-roster invite, is the likely backup catcher with Tim Federowicz sidelined following knee surgery.
WHO PLAYS THIRD?: Solarte, acquired last summer from the Yankees, has impressed at the plate and can also play second and first. Middlebrooks, coming off a poor, injury-plagued 2014 in Boston, has hit well and looked smooth in the field. ''I'm not too worried about it. I know I'm a good player,'' Middlebrooks said. ''He's a good player as well. We're both going to be on the field at some point.''
WHAT HAPPENS TO QUENTIN?: Preller's next task is to figure out what to do with all his spare outfielders. That includes Carlos Quentin, the oft-injured two-time All-Star. ''Everyone knows there's a DH in the American League,'' said Quentin, who is open to a trade. Will Venable and Cameron Maybin also face uncertain futures.
PRESSURE ON BLACK: Black found a way to win 77 games last year with a roster that scored 535 runs, 38 fewer than any other team. But Preller declined to extend his contract in the offseason. ''We're both in the last year before we're free agents,'' Kennedy said, grinning.