When the San Diego Padres signed one of the two most coveted free agents of last offseason, they made it clear to their fans and the rest of the league that their rebuild was almost over and they were nearing their window of contention.
Then, they finished 70-92, last in the NL West, and were one of the year’s most disappointing teams. They fired manager Andy Green and issued a stark ultimatum for next season. What happens if the Friars fail to contend for a playoff spot in 2020? “Heads will roll, beginning with mine,” said Padres chairman Ron Fowler when asked that very question in late September.
The Padres have not made the postseason since 2006, the second-longest drought in the majors (my condolences, Mariners fans). They haven’t cracked .500 since 2010, and general manager A.J. Preller, who took over in August 2014, is the owner of the next head bound to roll if San Diego does not improve soon.
With the guillotine sharpened and ready to fall should the 2020 Padres fail to meet expectations under new manager Jayce Tingler, let’s take a look at what Preller is working with and how he may leverage his roster and cap space to return San Diego to the postseason and save his job.
The Padres are projected to have the ninth-highest payroll in 2020, clocking in above the league average at a shade over $138 million. Much of that figure will go to three players, with Manny Machado taking home $32 million, Wil Myers making $22.5 million and Eric Hosmer earning $21 million, with everyone else outside of Garrett Richards and Kirby Yates set to collect under $6 million in 2020.
The largest albatross hanging over the Padres is Myers’ six-year, $83 million deal running through 2022. Though he appeared in 150 games and stepped to the plate 490 times for the Friars in 2019, Myers was a below-average hitter (95 OPS+). It will be a tough contract to move with Myers failing to replicate the All-Star form he found in 2016.
The Padres have already started upgrading their outfield, which outside their starting rotation, had the most room to grow entering the offseason. Thursday night, they sent rightfielder Hunter Renfroe to the Rays in a deal for outfielder Tommy Pham. Renfroe, a strong defender, led San Diego with 33 homers last year, but he strikes out a lot and doesn’t get on base much. Pham is an OBP machine, and quietly has been one of the more consistent outfielders in baseball since his breakout 2017 campaign when he was with the Cardinals. He doesn’t have as much power as Renfroe—he’s hit 21 homers in each of the last two seasons—nor is he as good a defender, but his intense personality and presence at the top of the order could help ignite an underwhelming Padres lineup.
San Diego also acquired Trent Grisham in a trade with the Brewers. He flashed plenty of promise after sticking in the starting lineup following an August call-up. He played all three outfield positions and got consistent playing time after Christian Yelich’s season-ending injury.
Assuming Myers stays in left, that leaves the oft-injured Franchy Cordero (virtually useless against lefties) and Manuel Margot (putrid first half but improved down the stretch) competing for the spot in center.
The infield appears a point of strength for the Padres, with Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr., who finished third in NL Rookie of the Year voting despite playing just 84 games, locked in on the left side and Hosmer stationed at first. With Luis Urias off to Milwaukee, new acquisition Jurickson Profar will get the first look at second with Greg Garcia and Ian Kinsler as the platoon infielders off the bench. Behind the plate, the Francisco Mejia-Austin Hedges tandem will likely continue to handle duties. Mejia is much better offensively than Hedges, who is one of the best defensive catchers in baseball.
Despite the starting rotation’s struggles, the bullpen was solid in 2019. Kirby Yates broke out in the closer role, posting an elite 1.19 ERA to pair with 41 saves and 101 strikeouts in 60 2/3 innings. Matt Strahm found life in the ‘pen after struggling as a starter while the flame-throwing Andres Munoz impressed in 23 late-season innings. Luis Perdomo is coming off the most consistent year of his career and José Castillo figures to be in the mix after an injury-filled 2019. They will be aided by a familiar face; Drew Pomeranz returns to San Diego after finding unexpected success in the Giants and Brewers’ bullpens, striking out 50 of the 106 batters he faced as a reliver in 2019. A Pomeranz-Yates backend could be a dominant duo if Pomeranz can continue what he did last season.
As for the starting rotation, Chris Paddack leads an underwhelming, rag-tag group of arms. The lanky righty impressed in his rookie season, posting a 3.33 ERA, 153 strikeouts and a 0.981 WHIP in 26 starts as the de-facto ace. Joining him should be Garrett Richards, who will be looking to bounce back from an injury-riddled four years (31 starts since 2015) and rediscover some of his 2018 form where he posted a 3.66 ERA in 16 starts with the Angels. Dinelson Lamet appears best equipped to take a leap as an analytical darling coming off Tommy John surgery and sporting a mid-90s fastball and hard-spinning breaking pitches. The other two rotation spots appear to be up for grabs; Joey Lucchesi likely snags one as a 30-game starter last year with a 4.18 ERA and 158 strikeouts. Zach Davies, arriving in California after five steady seasons with the Brewers, certainly figures to slide into the middle of the rotation behind Paddack and Richards. A 31-game starter in 2019, Davies posted the best ERA of his career (3.55) and struck out 102 batters in 159 2/3 innings.
Looking down the all-important starting pitching pipeline, top lefthanded prospect MacKenzie Gore (No. 3 overall) stands out as a player ready to take the jump to the majors in 2020. The 6’3” lefty features two plus pitches in a mid-90s fastball with late life and mid-70s breaking balls in addition to a hard slider and a changeup. As for other potential major league debutants, Luis Patino posted a 2.57 ERA between Advanced A and Double A, mostly using a lively fastball and hard slider. Michel Baez, a hulking figure at 6’8”, 220 pounds, features a powerful fastball-slider combo and did well in 29 2/3 innings last season. It remains to be seen if San Diego will start Baez or keep him in the bullpen.
As for the outfield, the Padres have three youngsters that could potentially fill the gaps in left and center. Josh Naylor, a former first-round pick by the Marlins in 2015, had a promising second half last season, recording a .787 OPS in 60 games after the All-Star break. At 5’11” and 250 pounds, the 22-year-old Naylor’s value is mostly limited to his bat. Edward Olivares, signed by Toronto out of Venezuela in 2014, made slow but steady progress through the minors with an above average arm, speed (stole 35 bases in Double A in 2019) and decent fielding splits. The 23-year-old could press for some outfield playing time if he cleans up his approach at the plate. Top outfield prospect honors go to Taylor Trammell, the No. 35 overall pick in 2016 who burst onto the scene in the 2018 Futures Game. Trammell uses his speed to great effect both in centerfield and on the base paths. He took a step back at the plate last season in Double A, but at 22 years old, he has plenty of time to grow. If he develops into the player most prognosticators expect, he should be a mainstay in their outfield for years to come, possibly starting as soon as this summer.
Despite a flurry of smaller deals, Preller still needs to get a top-of-the-line starter this offseason. The obvious move would be signing San Diego native Stephen Strasburg. A three-time All-Star, Strasburg was stellar for the Nationals during their World Series-winning season—a 3.32 ERA, a career-high 251 strikeouts and a 1.038 WHIP—and was even more dominant in the postseason, when he had a 1.98 ERA and won the World Series MVP. His price tag will be hefty; the deal he just opted out of was worth $175 million over seven years. He’ll almost certainly exceed the $100 million he would’ve earned in the final three years remaining on his deal with the Nats.
If Strasburg or Gerrit Cole, who is almost definitely going to earn more than $200 million, are out of San Diego’s price range, the Padres could go after Hyun-Jin Ryu, Madison Bumgarner or Dallas Keuchel. Ryu posted an MLB-best 2.32 ERA in his breakout 2019 campaign, but the lefty has a history of injuries and will be 33 next year. Bumgarner started 34 games and topped 200 strikeouts, but his price tag might be too steep for Preller. Keuchel pitched well in half a season with the Braves in 2019 but hasn’t regained the All-Star form he had in 2017.
The Padres could also look to trade for a starter. The potential combinations of prospect trade pieces are too numerous to explore in depth, but if Preller won’t pony up for Strasburg or Cole, manufacturing a trade to get a front-of-the-rotation starter and signing one of the secondary free-agent starts are his best bets.
Preller hasn’t been shy about making aggressive moves to get prized free agents to San Diego, doling out sizable contracts to Machado, Hosmer and Myers over the past three years. But he also hasn’t made that sort of free agent investment into his starting rotation, and the current staff is under-equipped to fulfill the franchise’s lofty goals. The Padres have the payroll to sign Strasburg or Cole, the two men best equipped to meet San Diego’s biggest need, but it will require a significant commitment in terms of capital and years. Banking on young talent coming through isn’t enough because the Padres are not in rebuilding mode anymore. For better or worse, they are in win-now mode, and that entails a certain level of risk Preller needs to be prepared to take if he wants to save his job.