As a native of San Diego and hopelessly addicted to the game of baseball, I’ve been a Padres fan my entire life. As a kid in the early 1960s, I remember attending Friar minor league games at Westgate Park, which is now an upscale shopping mall. My best friend’s dad was a sports writer for the Union-Tribune newspaper and covered the team, so we got to occasionally hang out in the dugout and clubhouse.
In the early 1980s, I was a scout for the Padres and was at Jack Murphy Stadium when Steve Garvey pounded the memorable blast that deflated the Chicago Cubs in 1984. The roar of the crowd was deafening, and the team would attend the big dance that year for the first time. Since San Diego’s last World Series appearance in 1998, when they were swept by the New York Yankees, lean times have been the norm. There have been ownership changes and cost-cutting measures, despite a lucrative new television contract. It’s often angered me that the Padres have always been the “scrawny little brother” of the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers. But things are about to change.
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Never in my six decades of following the San Diego Padres have I seen a fan base so energized and optimistic about an upcoming season. For the first time in 17 years, the club is not merely a small-market squad of “nice prospects.” Over the winter, the organization gathered players and personnel to win now rather than later. And folks in this city can’t wait for the party to begin.
It was Christmas in August when 37-year-old A.J. Preller was hired to replace Josh Byrnes as the Padres new general manager. Somehow, the ambitious former Texas Ranger executive convinced a conservative Friar ownership to trust him with finances and take a ride on the wild side. The first order of business was to tweak a terrible Padre offense that was near the bottom in every category last season. And with San Diego hosting the Winter Meetings, Preller had the perfect stage to make a splashy debut.
It seemed at first like rival counterparts from other MLB teams wanted to test the patience of Preller, the new kid on the block. But on December 18, the Dodgers agreed to send Matt Kemp and bags full of cash in exchange for catcher Yasmani Grandal and pitcher Joe Wieland. That’s when the dominoes started to fall. In a matter of 48 hours, deals were engineered to obtain Wil Myers and Justin Upton, completely rearranging the Padres outfield. Additionally, swaps were made for power-hitting catcher Derek Norris and Will Middlebrooks, a third baseman with proven pop who badly needed a change of scenery. Oh, and I almost forgot. On February 27, Preller reeled in James Shields, the biggest fish hooked by the Padres in the 21st century.
“I followed all the (moves) on a weekly basis,” said Shields, 33, “and I was convinced that this team wanted to win.”
The outfield restructuring will have Upton, Myers and Kemp stationed from left to right. There is some concern about center field where Myers, the former Tampa Bay Ray, has never roamed. But he will be backed up by holdovers Will Venable and Cameron Maybin, and both men are excellent defenders. What to do with Carlos Quentin, however, is another story. The oft-injured slugger, 32, is owed $8 million this season and a mutual option for 2016 with a $3 million buyout. Manager Buddy Black talked Quentin into playing some first base this spring in order to get his bat in the lineup, and the veteran has done a decent job. The obvious plan, though, is to move Quentin to an American League team and get someone of value in return.
The Padres infield can be best described as unsettled, which is why there was a serious push to sign Cuban free-agent Hector Olivera. First baseman Yonder Alonso has been plagued with unlucky injuries the past two seasons, although the former University of Miami star has been healthy thus far at camp. In a perfect world, the lefty swinger could platoon with Quentin, but the position has been a revolving door since the first Cactus League contest. San Diego would love to see a rebound season from second sacker Jedd Gyorko, who had a dreadful slash line of .210/.280/.333 in over 400 at-bats during 2014. It looks like shortstop will be shared by Alexi Amarista, who bats from the left side, and 36-year-old Clint Barmes. Splitting time at third base will be Middlebrooks, the former Boston Red Sox phenom, and switch-hitting Yangervis Solarte. The Venezuelan is a valuable asset because he can play all four infield positions and creates excitement on the base paths, sort of like a poor man’s Yasiel Puig.
As for the catching duties, Norris will have to be the work horse. Former Dodger Tim Federowitz, who came south with Kemp, went under the knife with a torn lateral meniscus and is out indefinitely. That means the Friars will likely add non-roster invitee Wil Nieves, 38, to the opening day crew.
Although the Padres lost a young dandy in Jesse Hahn, who was dealt to the Oakland A’s in the Norris trade, the team’s solid group of starters was left undisturbed. And the staff gained a top-notch star in Shields, who will be the opening day starter. Returning are the trio of Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross and Ian Kennedy, with the fifth spot going to either Odrisamer Despagne or former Toronto Blue Jay Brandon Morrow. Youngster Robbie Erlin has the distinction of being the only lefty with starting experience, but he will start the season as an El Paso Chihuahua.
The Padres bullpen continues to be one of the best in baseball, at least in terms of depth. Two other offseason trades to land hard-throwing Shawn Kelley and Brandon Maurer only added to that potency, although neither player has been particularly impressive during game reps. But strength in numbers give the Padres some leverage as a possible trade partner. Battle-tested youngsters Nick Vincent and Kevin Quackenbush are the likely bridge to closer Joaquin Benoit. the Dominican veteran who is in the final year of his contract. Benoit’s countryman Frank Garces is the pen’s only lefty and is sure to break camp with the varsity. So assuming a trade is discussed, Preller could dangle durable right-hander Dale Thayer, 34, who could become overpriced with two years remaining in the arbitration process.
Opening day lineup
Wil Myers CF
Yangervis Solarte 3B
Matt Kemp RF
Carlos Quentin 1B
Justin Upton LF
Jedd Gyorko 2B
Derek Norris C
Clint Barmes SS
James Shields P
According to Baseball America’s 2015 Organization Talent Rankings, the Padres have dropped down to the 24th spot among MLB teams after being rated 6th last season. So Preller, the “Rock Star GM” (a popular tee shirt item in San Diego), should thank his predecessor Josh Byrnes for having plenty of prospects to trade. There are still several players on the farm, however, who are ready to blossom. The gamble to obtain Upton, considered by many to be a one-year rental, was fueled by the possibility that former Mississippi State slugger Hunter Renfroe will be ready in 2016. Catcher Austin Hedges, drafted out of high school in 2011, has always impressed with his arm and defensive skills. The 22-year-old youngster continues to struggle at the plate and will spend another year in the minors to try and figure things out. Lanky right-handed hurler Matt Wisler will likewise toil a bit longer on the farm and try to develop a third bullet to his arsenal. Another pitcher to keep an eye on is Cory Mazzoni, a recent addition from the New York Mets during in a swap for Alex Torres, the wild lefty with the puffy hat. And Cory Spangenberg is a good-looking, versatile infielder and highly-valued by the franchise.
As excited as everyone is about this baseball “renaissance” in San Diego, I feel the need to reiterate some issues that worry me about this team. First of all, the Padres do not have a bonafide lead-off hitter. Myers, who already has a lot on his plate, might have to be that guy. Last season, Padres pitchers loved throwing to Rene Rivera, and they made that fact known to Black and pitching coach Darren Balsley. But Rivera now plays for the Tampa Bay Rays and Norris, not known for his defensive prowess, will have his hands full. And that shaky infield will be adventuresome.
That said, the new offense will flex its muscles and allow the Padres to hold their own against the opposition, especially at spacious PETCO Park. Then there’s that good pitching that will be even better with Shields. Therefore, I’m going out on a limb and predict that the Padres will add 10 more games to the win column this season and finish with a record of 87-75. That should be good enough to nail down second place in the National League West. And while San Diego will again be in the shadow of those hated Dodgers, it’s a hell of a start to a new era.