Sam Miller described the San Diego Padres entering the 2015 off-season as “the boringest franchise” (Effectively Wild, episode 591).  But after spending much of the 2000s mired in the range of 70 wins, General Manager A.J. Preller went for broke and pulled in what was widely regarded as one of the best off-season haul in several years.  He added an ace; the best closer in baseball; an entire new outfield; and an outstanding young catcher.  As a result of these moves, the Padres were a hot pick for the 2015 season.  We picked the Padres to win 85 games and contend for a Wild Card slot, Miles Wray picked and 87 win season on the Effectively Wild season preview (EW, episode 634), and PECOTA had them winning 85 games.  While the hype was real, the results ended up being the same old Padres.

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After being stuck at a little below .500 through July, most experts expected the Padres to be sellers and attempt to rebuild.  But despite having upcoming free agents Justin Upton and Ian Kennedy, and despite being 6 1/2 games out of the second wild card, the Padres chose to stand pat at the deadline.  They chose……poorly.  San Diego made up no ground after a .500 August and then fell apart, finishing the season with a 10-21 thud to finish the season with 74 wins–or 3 fewer than the 2014 campaign.  Following a disastrous season, the Padres lost Upton (Detroit) and Kennedy (Kansas City) to free agency, but at least obtained a compensation draft pick for each. Preller also traded closer Craig Kimbrel to the Red Sox for two top-100 prospects (OF Manuel Margot and SS Javier Guerra), and sent veteran set-up man Joaquin Benoit to the Mariners for “legit prospect” SP Enyel De Los Santos, who was voted the 15th best player in Short-A Northwest League by Baseball America.  So after one brief moment in the (off-season) sun, the Padres are back to a spot where they aren’t quite doing a full tear-down and rebuild, but aren’t competing either.  In other words, the Padres are back to the yaaaaawn they’ve been for most of the franchise’s history.

SDP Record wRC+ SP FIP- RP FIP- DRS UZR BsR Pay – $M
2013 .469 (18) 94 (18) 111 (26) 101 (24) 7 (15) -13 (21) 8 (8) 72 (27)
2014 .475 (18) 82 (30) 100 (t8) 84 (2) 37 (5) 9 (9) -8 (25) 81 (27)
2015 .457 (23) 91 (22) 104 (15) 100 (t19) -28 (26) -34 (29) 5 (9) 127 (13)

 

Run Scoring and Defense

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Getty Images/Andy Hoyt

Can you hop in a DeLorean and bring back the 2012 versions of Matt Kemp and Melvin Upton?  Because otherwise, this is an offense was borderline dreadful in 2015 and questionable at best going into 2016.  The 2015 Padres were a one true outcome team–they struck out a ton (22% strikeout rate as a team in 2015, “good” for the 4th highest in MLB); had a below-average walk rate (7.1%, 23rd overall); and didn’t hit for power (.142 ISO, tied for 22nd).  They also didn’t hit for average (.243, dead last in MLB in 2015) or get on base (.300 OBP, also dead last).  [ed. note — For what it’s worth, the Padres as a team hit a still-very-bad .243/.300/.385 in 2015, but that’s actually an ACROSS THE BOARD IMPROVEMENT from 2014’s slash line of .226/.292/.342]

Although, at least on those rare occasions when the Padres got on base, they didn’t run into outs.  Their BsR in 2015 was 9th best in MLB and PECOTA pegs them as at least an above average base running team.  So they have that going for them, which is nice. This season could be more of the same, as the team lacks even one hitter who doesn’t have some sort of a question mark attached to him.  Matt Kemp and Wil Myers could get hurt opening a door; Jon Jay is looking to recover from an injury-plagued 2015; Cory Spangenberg and Yangervis Solarte had good 2015 seasons, but no track record; Derek Norris had a huge drop in BB%; and Melvin Upton, Jr. posted his first non-negative bWAR since 2012, but he’s still Melvin Upton, Jr.

Cory Spangenberg had a good full-season for the Padres in 2015, displaying some nice (and much needed) on-base skills (.333 OBP with a 8.1% BB rate).  The question is whether he can repeat that performance in 2016.  Spangenberg hit .271 last year, but it was fueled by a .344 BABIP and he strikes out a ton (21.7% K rate) without any power.  Even with the probable BABIP-fueled regression, if he can maintain a 7ish% walk rate he should still be a useful player with good speed in 2016.

Wil Myers is an outstanding hitter, for the eight minutes-or-so that he can stay healthy during a season.  While chronic injuries to his wrists might have sapped some of the power potential he flashed in his 2013 Rookie of the Year campaign, Myers was still effective last season. He hit for some power in 2015 (.173 ISO) and had an outstanding walk rate (10.7%).  Assuming he can stay healthy, both PECOTA and Steamer agree that Myers is a well above average hitter, with 20+ HR potential and good base-running skills (1.2 BsR in 2015).  Defensively, Myers spent the beginning of 2015 in Center Field after Preller acquired Justin Upton and Kemp.  It went poorly, as Myers was one of the worst CFers in baseball by UZR (-8.7 UZR, 5th worst among players with 200+ innings).  The Padres will move Myers to first base in 2016, where he was adequate and, more importantly, less likely to shatter like a particularly fragile porcelain doll.

Yangervis Solarte was the “other guy” who came to the Padres in the 2014 trade that sent Chase Headley to the Yankees.  And probably much to their surprise, it turns out that Solarte is a pretty decent major league player.  That might seem like faint praise, but there is a lot to like about the 27-year-old switch hitter.  Solarte has been a good contract hitter throughout his minor league career, a trend that continued in 2015 when he turned in a low 9.8% K rate.  While his walks were down from 2014 (6% BB% in 2015 versus a 9.9% BB rate in 2014); his power went way, way up.  Solarte’s 14 HRs in 2015 was the most he’s hit at any level and his .158 ISO was a career best.  If the power is real, or if Solarte can improve his .277 BABIP, he should be an effective player in 2016.  Solarte’s defense is not very good, with a -0.7 UZR in 2015 at the hot corner.  PECOTA particularly hates his defense, projecting a -9 FRAA in 2016.

When Matt Kemp was healthy, he was one of the best offensive outfielders in baseball — though he missed large parts of the 2012 and 2013 season with a variety of injuries to his hamstrings and shoulder, Kemp bounced back in 2014 with strong second-half of the season to end the year on a .287/.346/.506 clip with an outstanding 140 wRC+. When Kemp was traded from the Dodgers to San Diego before the 2015 season, it was revealed that he also has arthritis in both of his hips. Kemp got off to an OK start to the 2015 before having an especially poor May (.186/.225/.212) and not hitting his second home run of the season until June 6th.  After limping into the All-Star game looking like one of the biggest busts in recent memory, Kemp heated up in the second half on a .304/.359/.562 clip with 13 HRs in his last 51 games to end the year with a pedestrian but hopeful 109 wRC+.  If he is healthy, the 2nd half Kemp is probably closer to what Padres fans can expect in 2016.  Both PECOTA and Steamer are optimistic about Kemp’s chances in 2016 with both expecting an OPS around the .800s with 25+ HRs.  By reputation and advanced metrics, Kemp’s defense is a Lovecraftian nightmare–his -17.4 UZR was the worst among all RFs in 2015.

As noted in the BP annual, Derek Norris had an odd 2015 where he forgot how to take a walk and learned how frame pitches and throw out runners.  The walk rate was particularly troubling, as Norris went from a rate of about 12% in 2013 and 2014 to about half that for the Padres in 2015 (6.3%).  However, he did display some nice pop, hitting 14 HRs with a .153 ISO.  More impressively, Norris was actually better at Petco Park, turning in a 103 OPS+ at his notoriously offensively-crippling home park, versus an 88 OPS+ on the road.  So, if Norris’s walk rate rebounds to somewhere closer to his career average of 9.6%, he should be in for a nice season if he can maintain his power improvements from 2015 as both PECOTA and Steamer seem to predict.

From 2010 to 2014, OF Jon Jay was a quietly above-average player for the St. Louis Cardinals; hitting for good average with some walks and playing adequate defense.  But Jay spent a good chunk of 2015 either playing through pain or on the DL with a wrist injury and the effect on his play was obvious: he lost nearly 100 points off his career BABIP (.246) and his slash line took the kind of dive you would expect, as he ended the year with a woeful .210/.306/.257 with a 57 wRC+.  However, despite his struggles Jay maintained an acceptable 7.8% walk rate (and, as the BP annual notes, he has a Biggioesque tendency to be hit by pitches, averaging 15 per year over the past 4 seasons).  Assuming a health Jay can get his BABIP back up to career norms, he could provide the Padres with much-needed improvement to the team’s inability to get runners on the bases.

For most of his career, SS Alexei Ramirez has been a close to average hitter whose outstanding defense and smart baserunning made him a solid 3 WAR player.  But age catches up to us all and Ramierz was no exception as his offense–already not a strength–fell off a cliff in 2015.  His BABIP was a career low .264, about 30 points below his career average, and combined with the fact that Ramirez has never really walked (his 5.0% walk rate in 2015 was in tune with his career average), his slash line was a flabby .249/.285/.357 with a wRC+ of 72.  He also saw a marked decline in his baserunning, turning in a career worst -5.0 BsR.  Even his vaunted glove has gone from great to a below-average UZR of -6.4 in 2015, good for 19th out of 23 qualified shortstops.  But, the Padres have top prospect Javier Guerra, acquired from Boston in the Kimbral trade, lurking in AA with a real chance to make the majors in 2017.  If Ramierz can get his BABIP back up to his career norms, or simply be an average baserunner, he’s probably still good enough at shortstop to be a cheap stopgap until Guerra is ready.

When Preller acquired Craig Kimbrel last year, he only had to give up two mid-level prospects because he agreed to take on the three years and $46 million owed to Melvin Upton, Jr.  After signing his big contract with Atlanta in 2013, Upton laid an egg, turning in a below-replacement-level performance over two seasons (-1.6 bWAR in 2013, -0.5 bWAR in 2014).  And things didn’t look good in 2015 either, as Upton spent his first two months with the Padres on the DL and then June hitting .147/.237/.294.  But whether it was health, small sample-size theater (228 PA), or the BABIP-fairy (it was .348, significantly higher than his career BABIP of .315), Upton turned a corner come July and finished the 2015 campaign in grand style. His split of .259/.327/.429; his ISO of .171, and his wRC+ of 110 were much closer to the 4-win player he was with the Tampa Bay Rays than the nightmarish two seasons in Atlanta.  Upton’s baserunning and defense were always good, even in Atlanta, but were significantly better in limited play with the Padres in 2015 (1.9 BsR and a UZR of 2.4 in Center Field).  If nothing else, it will be interesting to see whether Upton can build on his 2015 improvements.  Even if he is only a league-average offensive player, the combination of his defense, baserunning, and the fantastic prospect haul the Padres got back for Kimbrel probably justify his salary in 2016 and 2017.

The Padres bench has some interesting pieces.  Catcher Christian Bethancourt is only 24 and had two straight strong seasons in AAA; including hitting .327/.359/.480 in 218 PA for the Gwinett Braves.  He was called up to Atlanta in both 2014 and 2015 and hit, well, like a backup catcher.  Still, Bethancourt is good defensively and has a magnificent arm.  LH 1B/3B Brett Wallace hit for a tun as a primary pinch hitter for the Padres in 2015.  He hit 5 HRs, including 4 off the bench, while hitting .302/.374/.521 with 149 wRC+ and .219 ISO.  Travis Jankowski is a plus defender at all three outfield positions with plus-plus speed.  He didn’t hit much in limited time and since he has an option remaining might end up in AAA to hone his hit tool. Alexi Amarista is a generic utility infielder right out of central casting.  (Also, was the source of one of my favorite quotes from the BP annual) Jabari Blash was Rule 5 pick from Seattle with gigantic melancholies (27.6% K rate in AAA in 2015) and gigantic mirth (he hit 22 HRs with a .376 ISO). How can you not cheer for a dude named Blash to hit dingerz?

 

Run Prevention

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Jake Roth / USA TODAY Sports

The Padres’ top 3 starters are potentially among the best group in baseball:

Tyson Ross has quietly become one of the best pitchers in the majors; and a big part of his success is that he rarely gives up home runs (0.41 HR/9) and generates a ton of strikeouts (9.73 K/9).  His groundball rate of 61.5% was third among starters; just behind Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel and over 5% better than the fourth-best pitcher.  In fact, Ross’s peripherals look very similar to Keutchel’s (except that Keuchel doesn’t ever walk anybody).

“Big Game James” Shields had a really weird 2015.  After signing to pitch home games in the best pitchers park in baseball, he gave up an MLB-worst 33 home runs and his HR/9 rate of 1.47 was the second-worst of his career, behind only his similarly disappointing 2010 season.  He also couldn’t find the plate, doubling his walk rate from 2014 to a 3.6 BB/9 rate, the 4th worst rate in MLB (Ross was 2nd worst).  He did have some success, as his K/9 rate went up to a lofty 9.61 K/9, nearly 2 strikeouts per 9 better than his career average.  He also threw over 200 IP for the 9th consecutive season and if you’re an xFIP believer, then 2015 was in line with his other seasons, but for an unlucky FB/HR rate (DRA had him about a full run worse than 2014).  If the odd HR rate goes back to normal, Shields will be back among the better starters in the league.

Andrew Cashner has electric stuff–a 96 mph fastball with a good changeup and a slider and curveball.  (See Brooks Baseball)  He seemed to put everything together in 2014 and was poised for big things in 2015.  Instead, he remained the same, decent, mid-rotation starter he has always been.  Cashner’s K-rate in 2015 was 8.04, his best as a primary starter (although less than you would expect from somebody with his arsenal).  Like Ross and Shields, Cashner walked a ton of batters.  His 3.22 BB/9 was the 18th worst in baseball.  He also struggled with sequencing, as his LOB% of 65.6% was the worst among MLB starters.  Still, with his raw stuff it seems just a matter of time until he has a huge season.

The remaining two spots in the rotation, however, will be the subject of what should be an interesting Spring Training competition.    Brandon Maurer was a bad starter in Seattle who was turned to a pretty good reliever in San Diego in 2015 (51 IP, 1.06 WHIP, 3.00 ERA, 2.71 DRA).  But he has a big arm and a good enough repertoire of secondary pitches to give him another chance at starting.  In the years he’s been healthy, non-roster invitee Brandon Morrow has great stuff and has been a successful starter.  Unfortunately, he hasn’t thrown over 100 IP in a season since President Obama’s first term.  Colin Rea started 2015 in AA and turned in a very strong 12-start performance with a 1.08 ERA and a 0.813 WHIP.  After a 6 start stop at AAA, Rea got promoted to San Diego.  He did some nice things in his MLB debut, with a 7.39 K/9 with a 1.26 WHIP, 4.26 ERA and 4.30 DRA.  Robbie Erlin used to be a prospect.  Now he’s bounced back and forth between San Diego and AAA over the past three seasons.  In that time, he’s flashed good control (2.17 BB/9 in 133 IP and just 1.06 BB/9 in three starts in 2015) but doesn’t generate many strikeouts (6.50 K/9 over the past three seasons).  Twenty-two-year-old Rule 5 selection Luis Perdomo pitched well in A ball last year and has a live arm, but struggled a little when promoted to high-A, and has never sniffed the Majors.  Lefty Drew Pomeranz started 49 games over 5 seasons with the Rockies and A’s with indifferent success, but he found some after being banished to the pen, saving 3 games in 2015 and generating a 2.61 ERA in 44 IP from the bullpen.  Carlos Villanueva is a swingman in the same mold as Yusmeiro Petit: he’s started 76 games over a 10 year career, but found himself exclusively in the bullpen for the first time with the Cardinals in 2015.  

The Padres bullpen is one big question mark.  With Kimbrel and former set-up man Benoit gone, the closer role appears to fall to 38-year-old Fernando Rodney, baseball’s most exciting player (after all, nothing increases the heart rate of fans more than seeing Rodney trot out of the pen to try and hold your team’s lead).  Rodney was famously awful for the Mariners in 2015, starting the season as the closer and ending it as a middle reliever.  But in true Rodney style, he came back from the brink of being useless after being traded to the Chicago Cubs, where he threw 12 nearly flawless innings, with a 1.00 WHIP, 11.3 K/9, a 0.75 ERA, and a 3.37 DRA.  If (when?) Rodney blows up, the next pitcher in line for high leverage innings is probably Kevin Quackenbush.  Quackenbush had a fantastic rookie year in 2014, but struggled in 2015 because he could not get left handed hitters out (lefties hit .295/.378/.421 with a 11.6% BB rate).  Still, Quackenbush lowered his hard-hit ball rate in 2015, increased his ground ball rate, gets a strikeout per inning, and has a pedestrian 3.09 BB/9 and is probably a bit better than he showed last year.  Jon Edwards has a good fastball that he can occasionally throw for a strike: he struck out 22 batters and walked 16 in 16 2/3 MLB innings.  Nick Vincent doesn’t have eye-popping stuff, but put up good numbers in AAA last season.  He was less effective in 23 MLB innings, thanks to a very elevated 3.91 BB/9. Vincent is also an extreme flyball pitcher, even if he can manage swings and misses (he had a 8.91 K/9 last year and a 9.62 K/9 over 150 2/3 MLB innings).  Lefty Buddy Baumann has spent his entire career in the Royals farm system, generating a lot of strikeouts (9.1 K/9 in 3 AAA seasons) and a lot of walks (3.3 BB/9 over the same period).  Casey Janssen had a fantastic three-year run as a top-notch closer with the Toronto Blue Jays.  Now, he has an 89 mph “fastball,” doesn’t get many swings and misses, and was very ineffective for Washington in 40 IP (6.1 K/9, 1.15 WHIP, 4.95 ERA, 4.19 DRA).  The starter candidates–Villaneuva, Pomeranz, Maurer, Rea, and Erlin–are also candidates for the bullpen,

 

The bottom line

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Photo from soxprospects.com

Help is on the way, with three top-100 prospects all knocking on the door of being MLB ready.  Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot should be ready for a 2017 appearance and Javier Guerra looking like a possibility for 2018.  In the meantime, the Padres might not generate a bunch of headlines, but won’t be a 100 loss disaster either.  Rather, the Padres should be a competitive, if not colorful, team with good starting pitching, good baserunning, and a bevy of potential “great stories” of players overcoming injury to resurrect their careers.  That adds up to a mid-70 win team that is not good enough to be even on the fringes of the playoff race, but not bad enough to challenge for a top 5 or 10 pick.  Last year, the Padres won 74 games, and PECOTA has them winning 76.  Could things go better than that?  Sure!  If Kemp, Myers, and Jay are all healthy and Upton has a completely unexpected career resurrection, the Padres suddenly don’t have the worst offense imaginable.  And if. at the same time, the Padres get good production out of their #4 and #5 starters, and get Good Rodney out of the pen, they could surprise some people.  But unless Preller is able to play the 2016 season on “commissioner mode” in OOTP 17, all of those “ifs” are probably not going to happen at the same time.

I expect San Diego to go 75-87, which is about the most boring record imaginable.

 

Stats courtesy of FanGraphsbaseball-reference.com and the Baseball Prospectus 2016 Annual.

2013-15 team stats via FanGraphs. Salaries via Spotrac.

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