The Rain Delay

Hard-Hitting Baseball Analysis

2016 MLB Team Preview: San Diego Padres

This is part of my 2016 MLB team preview series. I will preview each team before Opening Day, unveiling teams in reverse order according to my power rankings.

Previous: 30) Braves 29) Phillies 28) Brewers 27) Reds 26) Rockies

25. San Diego Padres2016 San Diego Padres

  • 2015 Record: 74-88, 4th in NL West
  • Key Additions: SS Alexei Ramirez, CL Fernando Rodney, OF Jon Jay, SP/RP Drew Pomeranz
  • Key Losses: LF Justin Upton, CL Craig Kimbrel, SP Ian Kennedy, RP Joaquin Benoit, RP Shawn Kelley

Last year, Padres General Manager AJ Preller ran the organization like a video game franchise, acquiring big name players with wanton disregard for future implications. Preller found out the hard way that assembling a baseball team is nothing like going to the supermarket – you can’t just hastily grab everything you want and make a nice meal out of it.

First, Preller grabbed some Right-Handed PowerTM off the shelves, in the form of outfielders Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, and Wil Myers and catcher Derek Norris. Not resting on his laurels, Preller scoured the pitching market, landing James Shields and – later on – star closer Craig Kimbrel. It was a massive haul, but also an extremely short-sighted one. Preller’s oniomania cost the team premium young talent in shortstop Trea Turner and pitchers Joe Ross, Jesse Hahn, and Matt Wisler.

Preller mortgaged the future, and all he got in return was a lousy baseball team. The star-studded, but awkwardly constructed, Padres stumbled out of the gate and never recovered, finishing with just 74 wins. This offseason, the Padres let Upton and Ian Kennedy walk in free agency, and jettisoned Kimbrel to Boston in exchange for prospects Manuel Margot, Javy Guerra, Carlos Asuaje, and Logan Allen. It was a great return for a relief pitcher, albeit one of the best in the game, and perhaps a tacit admission from Preller that his prior team-building strategy was an utter disaster. Hopefully for Padres fans, Preller will continue making deals with the long-term health of the franchise in mind.

Projected Line-up (with 2015 Slash Lines)2016 San Diego Padres lineup

The 2016 Padres will go as far as Wil Myers and Matt Kemp take them. If last year forebodes what is yet to come, that’s a very bad sign for San Diego. After winning the AL Rookie of the Year award in 2013, Myers has been afflicted with recurring wrist injuries that have prevented him from fulfilling his potential. After his lost 2014 season, Myers was decent in the 60 games he played last year, slashing a respectable .253/.336/.427. But the Padres weren’t envisioning Myers being simply decent. They envisioned Myers emerging into a potent middle-of-the-order hitter. Just 25 years old, Myers can still become this player, but the first step will be staying healthy for a full season. With Myers transitioning to first base this year, the Padres hope he can pick up the position quickly and focus on getting back to his 2013 form at the plate.

Myers’ middle of the order comrade, Matt Kemp, is another player who has struggled with injury issues in recent years. Last year wasn’t one of those years with Kemp notching 150+ games played for the second straight year. Unfortunately, Kemp simply wasn’t very good in the games he played, posting a decent .755 OPS but accompanying it with dreadful defense in right field. At this stage of his career, Kemp has to mash the ball to make up for his poor defense. But digging deeper, I found that Kemp actually did crush the ball last year; he was just a victim of bad luck. Kemp’s career-high 41.4% hard-hit rate simply does not correlate with an uncharacteristically bad .311 BABIP. Barring injury or skill erosion, Kemp is a good bet to improve upon his 2015 numbers. And he better do so if the Padres have even an infinitesimal chance of competing with the Dodgers, Giants, or revamped Diamondbacks.

San Diego Padres right fielder Matt Kemp

The Padres need Matt Kemp to be a force in the middle of their lineup. (Photo: Arturo Pardavila)

If things go according to plan, Jon Jay and Cory Spangenberg will set the table for Myers and Kemp. From 2011-2014, Jay was a valuable role player for the Cardinals, getting on base at a solid clip while offering decent defense in the outfield. Things came undone for Jay last year, who was 43% worse than the league-average hitter on a park-adjusted basis. A nagging wrist injury certainly played a huge part in this, but if Jay’s Spring Training performance is any indication, he appears to be 100% again. The Padres did well to acquire an underrated, normally consistent, player who can serve as a competent leadoff man.

In his first full season as the Padres second baseman, Cory Spangenberg proved to be a bright spot in an otherwise dismal season. Spangenberg hit .271/.333/.399 en route to accumulating 2.1 fWAR. While his strikeout and walk rates are unbecoming of a slap hitter, Spangenberg should be able to sustain his success. Spangenberg’s sky-high .344 BABIP doesn’t portend well for his ability to hit .270 again. But his batted ball profile tells a different story. Spangenberg hit 75% of his balls on the ground or on a line, an excellent profile for a hitter devoid of power. If he can maintain this auspicious batted ball profile, I expect Spangenberg to continue defying his peripherals (walk and strikeout rate) and solidify himself as a competent big league second baseman.

Third baseman Yangervis Solarte falls on the other side of the spectrum regarding the BABIP discussion. Despite having BABIPs of just .275 and .279 in his first two Major League seasons, Solarte has hit a respectable .265/.328/.400 in his brief Major League career. Solarte has overcome his apparent bad luck at the plate with top-notch contact skills. If Solarte can maintain his contact skills and benefit from good luck for the first time in his career, he could emerge as a deep sleeper to contend for the NL batting title.

Behind Solarte in the lineup are three veterans at different points in their career. Derek Norris became one of the better hitting catchers in the league in 2014, but regressed last year mostly due to his walk rate being slashed in half. At 27, Norris should be in the prime of his career, and figures to see an improvement from last year if he can reconfigure his walk rate with that of his career norms. Alexei Ramirez was one of the game’s more underrated players in 2013 and 2014, posting consecutive 3-win (per fWAR) seasons with steady defense, high batting averages, and serving as a stolen base threat. 2015 was a disaster for Ramirez, who fell off a cliff defensively, at the plate, and even regressed in the stolen base department. On a one-year deal, Ramirez is a worthy gamble for San Diego, but it’s very possible that the 34-year old simply isn’t a good player anymore.

After coming to San Diego last year as the de facto tax in the trade for his brother, Justin, Melvin Upton surprisingly acquitted himself quite well for his new ball club, posting an above-average offensive and defensive season. He will likely shift to left field due to Jon Jay’s presence, but if Upton can come close to matching last season’s success over a full year, the Padres will be thrilled. The Padres don’t figure to finish in the top half of runs scored in 2016, but there is enough talent here where it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

Projected Starting Rotation (with 2015 Stats)2016 San Diego Padres Starting Rotation

The first three arms in this rotation are the undisputed strength of the Padres, starting with the burly Tyson Ross. Since his breakout 2013 performance, Ross has continued to improve, seeing his groundball rate and strikeout rate each rise for three consecutive seasons. Ross’s name was thrown around in trade rumors last winter and figures to come up frequently again this year. Whether he stays in San Diego or not, Ross has established an identity as a prolific groundball pitcher who can also induce a strikeout when he needs one.

Taking his turn in the rotation after Ross is James Shields, one of the game’s most prodigious innings-eaters. Shields had a peculiar 2015 season, in which he posted the worst FIP and walk rate of his career, but also the best strikeout rate of his career. The only result that stayed true to his career norms is his obligatory 200+ innings pitched. Perhaps Shields will revert back to his lower strikeout and walk rate norms. Or maybe this is the new Shields, the evolution of a pitcher in his age-34 season. But if we’ve learned anything from this career, it should be safe to pencil him in for 200 innings yet again in 2016.

Slotting behind Shields is the tantalizing – yet frustrating – Andrew Cashner. Standing at 6’5″ and boasting a power fastball with solid off-speed stuff, Cashner looks the part of a top-end starting pitcher. With Cashner’s talent, it’s easy to be frustrated with his good, but not great, results as a pitcher, but there aren’t many better third starters in the league than him. At this point, it appears it’s time to accept that Cashner is who he is: a good pitcher with great stuff. And there’s nothing wrong with that, no matter how frustrating it may be.

After letting Ian Kennedy walk in the offseason, the Padres will move forward with uncertainty at the back-end of the rotation. The Padres are giving youngsters Brandon Maurer, Colin Rea, and Robbie Erlin the opportunity to earn the remaining rotation spots, but they will face competition from Drew Pomeranz and oft-injured Brandon Morrow, who is set to make his Spring Training debut this Monday. Regardless of who wins the final two jobs, this will be a rotation heavily reliant on the top three starters.

Projected Bullpen (with 2015 Stats)2016 San Diego Padres Bullpen

After losing Kimbrel, Shawn Kelley, and Joaquin Benoit in the offseason, the Padres’ bullpen will be a weakness in 2016. Replacing Kimbrel in the closer’s role is the volatile Fernando Rodney, who always seems to make the 9th inning an adventure even in his best seasons.

Assuming he doesn’t win a spot in the starting rotation, lefty Drew Pomeranz figures to play a prominent role for the Padres’ bullpen. Pomeranz thrived as a reliever last year, posting a 2.61 ERA and holding batters to a .199 average over 41.1 innings. His splits against lefties and righties suggest he’d benefit from a full-time relief role, but the Padres are letting him compete for a starting rotation job anyway.

Aside from Pomeranz, San Diego’s bullpen is patched together with capable but low-ceiling veterans like Carlos Villanueva. The Padres’ bullpen doesn’t project to be horrible, but it will still be a weakness unless Rodney can rebound from a very poor season.

Conclusion

The Padres likely will not contend in 2016, but there is enough talent here – particularly in the starting rotation – that it’s not out of the realm of possibility. The Padres are in a much worse situation than they should be because of Preller’s recklessness, but if the Kimbrel heist is any indication, he appears to have learned from his mistakes.

Prediction: 4th place, NL West

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