Optimism is at an all-time high in San Diego, as the hometown Padres begin their 2015 season. A record crowd of 23,472 attended Fanfest this past weekend to “meet” this year’s squad. There has not been a buzz this resounding in San Diego since the magical season of 1998, when San Diego won the pennant.
San Diego has been the most talked about team this off-season in the blogosphere, in newspapers and on MLB Network. The Padres are a team that has national intrigue and on paper, they should be pretty darn good. Here is how the Padres will stack up in 2015:
Starting Pitching: Last season, the Padres finished 2nd in the National League with a 3.27 ERA and their adjusted ballpark ERA of 103 finished 4th. Some of the pitching success can be attributed to spacious Petco Park, however, the talent that San Diego’s staff cannot be undervalued.
As good as the Padres staff was last year, the pitching staff is better and more complete than it was in 2014.
San Diego dipped their toes into the free agent water, as they signed former Rays and Royals ace James Shields to a four-year, $75 million contract to become the new ace. Last season Shields went 14-8 with a 3.21 ERA in 226 innings. He led the Royals to their first playoff appearance since 1985. Shields brings durability and a veteran presence at the top of San Diego’s rotation.
From there, the Padres will go with Tyson Ross as their #2 starter. Last season, Ross was the Padres’ best pitcher, as he made his first All-Star appearance. Ross finished the year with a 13-14 record, but with a 2.81 ERA. Ross made 31 starts in his first full season as a starter in San Diego, and will surely look to build on his success in 2015.
Last year’s opening day starter, Andrew Cashner, is penciled in at the third spot in the rotation. The key for Cashner will be health; Cashner started just 19 games last season, missing time with elbow and shoulder injuries. When healthy, Cashner can be a dominant starter. Last season, Cashner pitched to a 2.55 ERA in 123.1 innings.
The fourth spot in the rotation will be occupied by Ian Kennedy, a man who led San Diego in strikeouts and innings last season. Kennedy pitched to a solid 3.63 ERA and struck out 207 batters. Kennedy is a free agent after the 2015 season, and a big year will put him in line for a huge contract.
Brandon Morrow, a free agent signing from Toronto will be the fifth starter to begin 2015. Morrow had a 2.91 ERA for Toronto in 2012, but injuries have limited Morrow to a combined 16 starts the last two seasons. He throws hard, and if healthy, will be an excellent fifth starter.
Bullpen: San Diego already had a deep bullpen before pulling the trigger on a blockbuster trade on Easter Sunday. The Padres acquired Craig Kimbrel, arguably the game’s best closer from Atlanta, in exchange for Cameron Maybin, Carlos Quentin, top pitching prospect Matt Wisler, the 41st pick in the 2015 draft and minor league outfielder Jordan Paroubeck. San Diego also received outfielder Melvin Upton Jr. in the deal.
Kimbrel is just 26, and has led the National League in saves the last four seasons. The four-time All-Star is also looking to become the first closer in baseball history to save 40 games in five consecutive seasons. Kimbrel gives San Diego the best bullpen in the National League.
The addition of Kimbrel bumps Joaquin Benoit back to a setup role. There have been concerns about Benoit’s velocity this spring, but even at the age of 37, he is still an elite setup man. Last season Benoit had a 1.49 ERA with 11 saves. He should man the 8th inning.
From there, San Diego will have Dale Thayer, Nick Vincent, Shawn Kelley and lefty Frank Garces in the middle innings. Vincent threw well after a disabled list stint and Thayer and Kelley are veterans who can miss bats. Garces, who made his big league debut last season, becomes the left-handed specialist after the trade of Alex Torres.
Odrisamer Despaigne will be the longman to start the year, but he could transition to the rotation if a Padres starter has an injury. Despaigne threw well last year and should thrive in the swingman role.
In the minors, the Padres will have Brandon Maurer and Kevin Quackenbush, two solid relievers who would make most bullpens. To say that the Padres have depth in the bullpen is an understatement.
Lineup: San Diego’s offensive struggles were well-documented last season. The swinging (and often missing) Friars finished last in the National League in runs (535), batting average (.226), on-base percentage (.292), and slugging percentage (.342). To say the Padres offensive was bad is an understatement: it was pathetic.
Insert A.J. Preller, San Diego’s new “Rockstar GM.” Preller started the off-season by acquiring Matt Kemp from the Los Angeles Dodgers. From there, he added Justin Upton, Wil Myers, Derek Norris and Will Middlebrooks. On paper, the Padres look like a powerful squad.
The plan is to have new centerfielder Wil Myers to lead off. Myers possesses tremendous power from the right side, although Myers had a .294 on-base percentage last year. Myers could be an intriguing fit in the leadoff hole if he can replicate the success of his rookie season.
Kemp and Upton give the Padres one of the best 1-2 power punches in the National League. Both players possess the ability to hit 30 homers. Upton drove in 102 runs last season and Kemp had a torrid second half. Both players will need to produce for San Diego to improve.
The rest of the lineup will be dependent on players coming back from injuries and ineffectiveness. Wil Middlebrooks had an excellent spring, but has looked lost the last two seasons. Jedd Gyorko had one of the worst offensive seasons in recent memory in 2014. He did hit 23 homers in his rookie season, so the promise remains. First baseman Yonder Alonso is in a put-up or shut-up season. Another injury or poor start could lead to Tommy Medica or even Yangervis Solarte stealing playing time for him.
Derek Norris cooled off after a hot start in Oakland last season, but he can still be a solid contributor behind the dish. Alexi Amarista and Clint Barmes will share the shortstop job to start 2015. Neither player brings much to the table in the way of offensive upside.
Bench: The Padres will open the season with a bench of infielder/outfielder Alexi Amarista, infielder Cory Spangenberg, infielder Yangervis Solarte, outfielder Will Venable and backup catcher Wil Nieves. Solarte was solid for the Padres a year ago and Amarista is a fine utility player who played tremendously well at shortstop down the stretch.
Venable is an excellent fourth outfielder, as he is left-handed, runs well and possesses power and the ability to play all three outfield positions. Spangenberg can play all over the field and hit well last season in a brief cameo. He will likely go back to Triple-A when Melvin Upton Jr. is activated from the disabled list.
Nieves will be the backup for now, but it would not be a surprise for the Padres to pursue another catcher outside of the organization. Nieves is 37 and has no offensive upside. His value will come in the way of veteran leadership and his handling of the pitching staff.
Final outlook: The Padres are vastly improved, but remain flawed. The team needs bounce-back years from several players and does not have a true leadoff hitter. The club is also expecting Wil Myers to play regularly in center field; something he has never done in the big leagues. The everyday lineup is also very heavily right-handed, although the bench will feature as many as four left-handed hitters.
That being said, San Diego has the deepest 12-man pitching staff in the National League. Top to bottom, there is no deeper staff. The offense should be improved as well. This year could be very fun in San Diego.
Prediction: 91-71, second in the NL West. Wild Card winner.