Beefed up Padres have big plans to top NL West and beyond

It’s been a long winter for the San Diego Padres, and the disappointment lingers for all who are connected with this organization, from the players to the front office and the millions of loyal fans. The hope that the Friars would gain a berth to the World Series, for the first time since 1998, were dashed after a mighty lefty swing from Bryce Harper broke everyone’s heart. Then Harper’s scrappy team, the Philadelphia Phillies, gave the Houston Astros a run for their money before falling short on pitching.

For the Padres maverick General Manager A.J. Preller, the defeat stung and prompted him to work even harder during the off season to wheel and deal. While he failed in efforts to land free agents Aaron Judge (Yankees), Willson Contreras (Cardinals), Jose Abreu (Astros) and others, Preller did manage to reel in Zander Bogaerts with an 11 year, $280 million lifetime deal. He also signed veteran curveball specialist Seth Lugo and two DH candidates Matt Carpenter and 43 year old Nelson Cruz.

The enigma here, of course, is the return of Fernando Tatis Jr. who is set to be reinstated to play on April 24th after last season’s 80 game suspension for a PED violation. The youngster used the time off to have surgery on his left shoulder and wrist, recovering nicely. The problem for “El Niño” is that the Padres now have a new shortstop in Bogaerts, and a capable backup in Ha-Seong Kim, who filled in well for Tatis and is a fan favorite.

So how will this all pan out? Manny Machado, the team’s unofficial captain who should have won a Gold Glove in 2022, will anchor third base. Bogaerts is set to play every day at short, moving Kim to second base and Jake Cronenworth, previously at that spot, over to first base. In that scenario, Tatis would be pushed out to left field on the side of the diamond where he’s most familiar.

Slick fielding Trent Grisham would patrol center and Juan Soto, who just avoided arbitration by settling for a $23 million pact this year, will be a fixture in right field. San Diego’s weak link is behind he plate with Austin Nola and Luis Campusano holding down the fort. Both are big league hitters but lacking defensively, with the first string Nola at the bottom of National League receivers in throwing out runners. They are also lacking depth at first base after losing Josh Bell (Cleveland) and Wil Myers (Reds) to free agency.

Starting pitching is a projected strength for the Padres, with veteran Yu Darvish, hometown hero Joe Musgrove and lefty Blake Snell a strong trio. What’s fuzzy is the bottom end of the rotation. Lugo and resigned Nick Martinez have been effective swing guys out of the bullpen, but without much success in their careers to open up games. Cuban lefty Adrian Morejon has a boat load of talent, but still trying to find his identity two years out from Tommy John surgery. The pen is in good shape with Luis Garcia, Robert Suarez, and a hopefully healthy Drew Pomeranz, setting up for closer Josh Hader.

Offensive Powerhouse

Throwing all that aside, the Padres main strength is their offense, probably better now than the Dodgers and every other team in the National League. The lineup possibilities for skipper Bob Melvin are endless when you mix and match Bogaerts, Soto, Machado, Tatis Jr, Cronenworth and perhaps Cruz or Carpenter. Even Nola’s bat heated up during the playoffs in 2022. But if anybody gets hurt, which is always a possibility, the Padres are dreadfully short on experienced depth.

So, Preller’s puzzle is probably not quite complete. There has been talk of trading Kim, although that makes little sense. The 27 year old South Korean saw his bat come alive at times last year and his versatility would subtract from the issue the club seeks to resolve. What’s more, the Friars farm is a mess, badly depleted from just a few years ago when it was loaded with blossoming kids just a year away from The Show.

Based on those facts, San Diego roster additions would be best served by selecting players from the remaining 2023 free agent list. Yuli Gurriel, the former batting champion and Gold Glove Astros first baseman would seem to be an appropriate fit to platoon with Cronenworth, although interest has been lukewarm at best. Other options could include veteran outfielder David Peralta, plus the possibility of bringing back Jurickson Profar, Luke Voit or Jorge Alfaro. From that group, only Peralta and Profar reap high market value. And majority owner Peter Seidler has always given Preller an open checkbook to assemble a winning organization.

Another factor to consider is that this is a World Baseball Classic year. As of this writing, only Martinez has committed to Team USA, but Darvich will play for Japan while Machado and Soto will perform for the Dominican Republic. The tournament will be a distraction for the Padres spring training routine as it will for the other 29 teams, so Preller could wait and see how things fall into place. Then again, that might be too late to cherry-pick players of value in the long run.

That said, let’s cut the crap. Spring is eternal when a new season begins and every club is optimistic about its chances for success. With the San Diego Padres, it’s different. The payroll is enormous. The wait has been too long and the goal does not waiver. It’s the Fall Classic, clear and simple. Even in a marathon season, nothing less will be acceptable.

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