Pat Murphy Named Interim Manager

Read all about it here.

Padres Fire Bud Black: What’s Next?

Yesterday, on Monday, June 15, the Padres fired long-time manager Bud Black, who has held the position since the 2007 season.

They currently have a 32-33 record, which does not match the sky-high expectations that fans and many experts had at the start of the season, after a tremendous offseason overhaul.

Was it necessary?

Not necessarily.

They were 32-33, but that record includes a month where they were deprived of two of their best hitters, Yonder Alonso and Wil Myers. Losing those two players probably cost them 2-3 wins, in which case they would have been above .500, in a little bit shape, and thus with less justification to fire Black.

Additionally, Black remains one of the most respected personalities in baseball. He is renowned for his ability to communicate with players, and get the most out of them.

For evidence, one need look no further than the last three seasons, where the Padres won 76, 76, and 77 games despite a roster where mediocre players like Cameron Maybin, Alexi Amarista, Will Venable, Chase Headley (sans his ’12 season) received significant playing time. Meanwhile, he and pitching coach Darren Balsley got a lot out of pitchers like Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner.

Looking at this record, Newcomer A.J. Preller obviously thought that a severe revamping of the offense could be just the thing to make the Padres into a contender.

As of June 15, that has not happened.

And so, Bud Black is no longer manager of the Padres.

So then, why was the move made?

It’s very simple: he wasn’t A.J. Preller’s man.

In fact, Black wasn’t Preller’s predecessor’s man (Josh Byrnes), either. Nor was he brought in by the current ownership. In an industry where general managers like to choose their own managers, and the tenure of managers is roughly 2.6 seasons, it is clear that Black’s stay in San Diego was tenuous.

What’s Next?

Hard Ball Talk is reporting that the Padres will announce an interim manager who will finish out the 2015 season. One possibility is AAA El Paso manager Pat Murphy, who is currently on his way to San Diego.

Bench coach Dave Roberts will manage the team until someone is chosen. According to Preller, Roberts does not appear to be a candidate for this position, as he apparently wants to keep the rest of the coaching staff intact.

Interim?

But why search for an interim manager? Why not a regular manager? This seems to send the signal that the Padres are waving the white flag on the 2015 season.

Which means that San Diego will likely be selling between now and July 31. At which point, we can expect to see Justin Upton, Andrew Cashner, relievers Brandon Maurer and Joaquin Benoit, and perhaps even closer Craig Kimbrel get moved to contenders.

2015 Offseason a Failure?

So then, does this mean that the hyped 2015 offseason was a failure?

Yes, and no.

Yes, in the sense that this team is not performing as was hoped. Yes, because Preller gave away a lot of young talent (Yasmani Grandal, Joe Wieland, Jace Peterson, Max Fried, Joe Ross, Trea Turner) to acquire the key parts to the underachieving Padres.

No, in the sense that they acquired some solid pieces with which to contend:

Wil Myers, 24, who remains a very talented young hitter;

Matt Kemp. Even though he has been a disappointment thus far, his very recent 2014 second half shows that he can still swing a bat with authority;

Derek Norris, who is a solid catcher who can hit;

James Shields, who retains a perfect 7-0 record with 104 strikeouts and a 3.59 ERA.

This remains a solid nucleus upon which to build around. Swapping some of the above names will help Preller to acquire the missing pieces, including upgrades at centerfield, third base, and shortstop who can play defense and add balance to a righty-dominant lineup.

At that point, Ken Rosenthal opines that Preller is going to look for a new manager “with sizzle.”

Time will tell who that will be. Until then, one thing remains certain: the Preller Era in San Diego has been anything but dull.

Padres 2015 Season Preview, Part Three

In the first part of my 2015 Padres season preview, I examined the positive signs: improved offense, signing James Shields, etc.

In part two, I looked at the warning signs: a potentially porous outfield defense, a right-handed heavy lineup, shortstop as a potential weak link, among others.

Today, we will look at the one word that will determine whether or not the Padres will make it to the playoffs and beyond: intangibles.

Nothing new here. Regardless of the season, this is always the case for the Padres. Though I’m in the minority, I still maintain that if all of the various intangibles had gone their way last season, they could have been in a position to make some noise.

Of course, that didn’t happen: nobody could have predicted that Yonder Alonso, Jedd Gyorko, Chase Headley, Will Venable, and everyone else for that matter would be batting below .200 so close to the All-Star break. Even worse, who would have thought that they would bat .140 as a team in the month of June, setting an ignominious major league record for the worst month-long team batting average ever.

That being said, the team is in a much better position this year than last year, thanks to new general manager A.J. Preller’s many blockbuster deals: in moving over a dozen of their best minor league prospects (and very little in terms of established major leaguers), the Padres acquired…

  • a brand-new starting outfield Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, and Wil Myers;
  • catcher Derek Norris;
  • third baseman Will Middlebrooks;
  • veteran starting pitcher James Shields to buttress an already talented rotation featuring Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross, Ian Kennedy, as well as the newly acquired fifth starter, Brandon Morrow;
  • three new hard-throwing relievers, including top closer Craig Kimbrel.

Clearly, this is a much better team than the 2014 edition, especially offensively. However, as always, there is one word that will determine the extent of the Padres 2015 success: intangibles.

Of course, this year there is far greater margin for error than in past seasons. In 2014 and 2013, every intangible facing the Padres had to break their way for them to be truly competitive. This year, they only need most of them to go their way.

Following are the eight intangibles that will make-or-break the Padres 2015 season:

1. Can they finally get a full season out of Cashner? I have already written countless times about Cashner’s talent. But for all the potential that he has, he has yet to play a full major league season. One can hardly blame him for his 2012 season, in which he pitched a mere 46.1 innings (mostly in relief); he was just one year removed from rotator cuff surgery. In 2013, he pitched 175 innings (31 games, 26 starts), largely because of an offseason hunting accident.

But in what turned out to be one of my worst predictions ever, 2014 was supposed to be his big breakthrough season, where he was supposed to have joined the ranks of Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright as the league’s elite pitchers.

He didn’t.

Instead, he missed significant time with a sore shoulder. When he did pitch, he was very good, posting a triple-slash of 2.55/1.13/.235. Just imagine those numbers over a full season. Until Cashner can do this, he will remain under the category of prospecting-slowly-becoming-suspect.

2. Will Tyson Ross move into the upper echelon of baseball’s best starting pitchers? Ross is good, and he is on the threshold of being very good. Last year, he just missed fanning 200 batters and logging 200 innings. If he can do that this year, the Padres’ chances improve dramatically.

3. How will Kemp’s arthritic hips hold up? No one questions whether or not Kemp is a good hitter. The only question is, can he remain injury-free for an extended period of time?

Of course, the Padres plan to rest Kemp intermittently throughout the season, and DH him when they play in American League parks.

But will that be enough? While he didn’t break down last year, he did in the two previous seasons. And now, the Padres have him for the next five years, in part because…

4. Yasmani Grandal is now a Dodger. While general manager A.J. Preller acquired an established bat in Kemp, he may have traded a player on the verge of a major breakthrough.

Fox Sports recently documented Grandal’s offensive talent, which was generally masked by playing in cavernous Petco Park. It is potentially scary, now having Grandal as a potential intra-division rival for at least the next four years, especially given that he is a switch-hitter, and the Padres are right-handed heavy.

For all of Preller’s terrific offseason moves, could Grandal be the one they let get away?

5. Can their first, second, and third basemen revitalize their careers? This is a big one. If at least two of the three (Yonder Alonso, Jedd Gyorko, and Middlebrooks) can reach something even close to their potential after injury and slump-riddled 2014 seasons, the Padres will be far more likely to reach the postseason. If all three can, watch out! But if just one, or even none do so, it could be another long season.

6. Is the defense that bad? Apparently so; and this doesn’t just include the outfield, but also behind the plate. Like I mentioned in part two of my 2015 preview series, it may only be a matter of time before Myers is moved to first base, and Will Venable and the newly acquired Melvin Upton share time in center field. As for catcher, the Padres will miss Rene Rivera and Grandal, who was an excellent pitch-framer (in spite of other defensive liabilities). While the Padres offense is definitely improved, how much has it cost them defensively?

7. Are Alexi Amarista and Clint Barmes enough at shortstop? You certainly can’t expect much from them in the way of offense. But while Amarista more than held his own in 71 starts at short last year (with just six errors), and while Barmes’ reputation as a defender is solid if not spectacular, both really are better suited as utility infielders. If they don’t make it, expect Preller to make another trade.

But this leads to the final intangible…

8. Do they have the chemistry? The 1997 Florida Marlins did. The 2012 Toronto Blue Jays didn’t.

What do those two teams have in common? Like the 2015 Padres, both clubs were vastly revamped from previous seasons. The former team won it all; the latter team belly-flopped.

Much will depend upon how well the newly acquired pieces play together. Having a solid manager in Bud Black will help, though, much as the legendary Jim Leyland guided the ’97 Marlins.

Bottom line: As David Golebiewski (see link, above) put it, “The new guys better plate lots of runs, because they sure won’t be preventing them.” Both are likely to be the case. But will they plate more than they yield?

Of all the intangibles, this is likely the most important for the 2015 Padres. But in my estimation, if at least five of the above eight break in the Padres’ favor, they will be in the post-season.

Final prediction: the 2015 Padres go 86-76, good enough for a wild-card. How they will do after that is anyone’s guess.

Play ball!

Another Preller Mega-Deal (No, Really!)

This truly is A.J. Preller’s team now.

In a stunning trade just hours before the first pitch of the new season, Padres general manager Preller pulled off another stunner: he sent outfielders Cameron Maybin and Carlos Quentin, and minor leaguers Matt Wisler and Jordan Pareubeck to the Atlanta Braves for closer Craig Kimbrel and outfielder Melvin Upton, Jr.

Read more here.  This trade reunites Upton with his younger brother, Justin, for the second time.

Since my head is still spinning from this deal, let me offer a few quick, initial observations:

1. This trade shows the seriousness of Preller in desiring to win it all this year, making an air-tight bullpen that much stronger.

2. This is basically two trades in one: in the first part, the Braves and Padres basically swapped some bad outfielders contracts (Quentin and Maybin for Upton). In the second part, they traded two minor leaguers with legitimate talent for Kimbrel, one of the best stoppers in baseball. This swap likely bumps Joaquin Benoit down to the eighth inning set-up role.

3. In acquiring Upton, this could be a sneaky-clever move on Preller’s part to keep Justin Upton in San Diego beyond this season. The Upton brothers apparently enjoyed playing together, and this reunites them on the opposite coast. Also, you never know if a change of scenery (and name–Melvin used to goby “B.J” until this season) could help the newly acquired outfielder rejuvenate his career. The same goes for Quentin and Maybin for a rebuilding Atlanta club.

One thing you can say for Preller: he isn’t boring!

Padres 2015 Season Preview, Part Two

Last time, we looked at the reason for optimism for the 2015 Padres: the offensive is much better, the starting pitching is better (if that were possible, and with the signing of James Shields, it is), the bullpen is still strong, and second baseman Jedd Gyorko figures to have a good rebound season after a disastrous 2014 campaign.

But if the above points were the only things I wrote about the 2015 Padres, that would be misleading on my part. For that reason, let us come now to part two of my Padres 2015 preview.

This time, we will consider the reasons for potential pessimism.

1. The Outfield defense is much worse. For the 2015 Padres, the good news is that fans will see much less of Cameron Maybin and Will Venable.

But that brings us to the potential bad news: fans will see much less of Maybin and Venable.

Here’s what I mean: while Maybin and Venable have disappointed fans (and put them to sleep) over their dreadful offense, they could always be counted upon to cover lots of ground defensively.

In their place (and Seth Smith’s, who was the primary starting left fielder last year), the Padres will start Justin Upton in left, Wil Myers in center, and Matt Kemp in right. Upton is considered average (i.e, not spectacular) in left. He won’t make too many flashy plays, but he won’t bring back memories of Dave Kingman, either.

Asking Myers to play center field every day could prove risky. While he is only 24, he is better suited for a corner outfield position, given his skill-set. As of right now, his total Major League experience in center includes eight games (six starts) in 2013, and two innings in 2014.

So then, why not just move him to right field? Because that’s where newcomer Matt Kemp will be playing. While he can still swing a hefty bat at age 30, there are health concerns. Prior to 2014, he missed significant playing time due to injuries (over 50 games in 2012, and more than half the season in ’13). And prior to being traded to the Padres, a physical revealed that Kemp has arthritic hips, which is going to slow him down considerably in the field. All of which is going to make for a very porous outfield defense.

So then, the proper question might not be, “Will this outfield of Upton-Myers-Kemp work,” but, “What’s Plan B?” Plan B may consist of waiting to see whether Yonder Alonso is truly recovered from his injuries (see below); if he’s not, manager Bud Black might switch either Myers or Kemp to first, and platoon Venable and Maybin in centerfield, which would go a long way toward solving the defense problem.

Should Alonso work out, Maybin and Venable will serve as late inning defensive replacements, and spot starters to give Kemp a rest. But if that’s the case, then Padre fans should expect a lot of high-scoring games.

2. No Legitimate Leadoff Hitter. For all of the great offseason acquisitions, who is going to bat first?

Alexi Amarista? He’s fast, but in three years, he has never had an OBP above .290.

Derek Norris? He gets on base, but as a catcher, he’s really slow.

Wil Myers? Perhaps, but since he is also coping with being a full-time center fielder, asking him to be the leadoff hitter as well might be too much pressure on him.

Yongervis Solarte? He is probably the best bet, as he is willing to take a walk. But his starting position is third base, and it seems the Padres really want Will Middlebrooks to win the everyday job.

Another trade? That is certainly possible. It appears on this one that we will have to stay tuned, because none of the current options really inspires much in the way of confidence when it comes to thinking of traditional leadoff hitters.

3. Shortstop Offers Little in Offense. To his credit, Amarista did well in filling in for extended periods for the since-departed Everth Cabrera. For that reason, Black and Preller felt comfortable going with “Little Ninja” and free agent signee Clint Barmes.

But here’s the problem: neither one of them hits. On the other hand, they have a far better offense than they did last year. So if they’re weak offensively at just this position, they should be okay.

4. Who’s On First? Alonso is the incumbent, but not by much. Which is tragic.

The Padres acquired him in the Mat Latos deal prior to the 2012 season. He was billed as the ideal hitter for Petco Park: a high average with extra-base power. In his rookie season, he slapped 39 doubles and had an acceptable .273/.348/.393 slash.

His 2013 season began well, with a .284 average, six home runs and 29 RBI in 54 games. But then, Alonso broke a bone in his hand, and he hasn’t been the same since. Although, he showed some glimpses of his former self late last season, batting .421 (in 38 at-bats) after the All-Star break, until he re-fractured his hand.

So given his recent injury history, why are the Padres hoping to keep him around? Probably this…

5. The Offense is Right-Handed Top-Heavy. For all of the good news about acquiring Kemp, Myers, Upton, Middlebrooks, and Norris, there is just one problem: they all bat right-handed.

Statistically, that’s going to make it harder to win against right-handed pitchers, and that’s what the majority of starting pitchers are.

So then, who are the potential left-handed batters?

The most obvious is Amarista, who will be the primary starting shortstop. But he hardly instills fear in opposing pitchers.

Another option is Solarte, should he win the third base job. Venable will likely get some spot starts in the outfield.

If Corey Spangenburg makes the team, he will likely be a super-utility player, who can alternately spell the regulars at second, third, and all three outfield positions. Presumably, we would get about 250 at-bats or so in this role, mostly as a leadoff hitter against right-handed pitchers. Even still, the Padres do not at this point consider him viable as an everyday ballplayer.

Which brings us back to…

Yonder Alonso.

He is potentially the best left-handed hitter they have, which could be why they did not give up on him after 2014. The Padres know that the potential is still there, if he can get past his nagging wrist injuries. But given his recent history, that’s a big if.

Bottom line: With all of the offseason improvements, the Padres still have reason for concern. But next time, we will look at the remaining intangibles, and I will make my prediction for how they will do.

Padres 2015 Season Preview, Part One

And so it begins.

The Padres’ most glamorous offseason is coming to a close as Spring Training begins. Their challenge now is to do what other recent winners of the so-called “Stove Top League” (i.e., 2011 Marlins, 2012 Blue Jays) could not do: translate the big offseason moves into wins and a pennant run.

Can they do it? Absolutely; on the whole, they are definitely a better club than the last three seasons. On the other hand, there are reasons for concern. And as with any team, there are lots and lots of intangibles which, if tipped the right way, could lead to 90-plus wins and a serious World Series run; or if tipped the wrong way, could make fans long to see Will Venable and Cameron Maybin back in the outfield–yes, you read that correctly.

So today in part one, we’re going to cover what’s right with the Padres. Next time, in part two, we’ll consider where they are lacking. And in part three, I will offer my predictions for 2015.

Reasons for Optimism

1. The Offense is much better. In 2014, their one respectable hitter was Seth Smith. An almost strictly platoon player, he led the team with a .266 batting average, with 12 home runs and 48 RBI. That is certainly respectful for a role player like him, but you know you’re in trouble when he’s the best you’ve got.

While Smith is now gone, the offense saw a massive upgrade in terms of quality this offseason. In his place will be Justin Upton; at 27, he is in his walk year, and figures to hit 25-30 home runs to go with 90-100 RBI and an OPS above .800.

Center field gets a huge boost, as the team moves on from the perennial disappointment, Cameron Maybin, to newcomer Wil Myers. At 24, Myers is still very young, and is just two seasons removed from winning the AL Rookie of the Year Award. While he may still have some growing pains, and there will be adjustments to being a full-time center fielder (more on this next time), whatever he provides will surely be an improvement over Maybin’s meager .235/.290/.331 2014 slash.

Right field provides the biggest new name for the Padres, Matt Kemp. While there are concerns about his health, there is no question about what his bat can do: his career slash is .292/.350/.495, to go with 182 home runs.

While he probably won’t steal bases like he used to (40 in 2011), he can still carry a team when he gets hot–witness his second half last year: 17 homers in 64 games, coupled with a .309/.365/606 slash (.971 OPS).

The Padres will of course have to take it cautiously with him, removing him early for defensive purposes and giving him routine days off. But doing so will provide huge dividends.

Derek Norris will take over from Rene Rivera and Yasmani Grandal as the new starting catcher. His .270 batting average, ten homers, and .361 OBP show him to have a good batting eye with some power.

Will Middlebrooks may or may not be the starting third baseman. If he is, the Padres hope he can recapture the promise that he showed in his 2012 rookie season: .288 BA with 15 home runs in 75 games. All told, general manager A.J. Preller gave the Padres offense exactly what it needed for them to be competitive in 2015: a massive facelift.

If nothing else, they will be much more exciting to watch this year.

2. Their Starting Pitching Is Even Better (as if that were possible). It’s amazing to think that the 2014 Padres, awful as their hitting was, didn’t lose 90-plus games. Instead, they were 77-85. That speaks volumes about their starting pitching, which was solid if not spectacular.

Returning this year is Tyson Ross (13-14, 2.81 ERA, 195 strikeouts in 195.2 innings). He could have reached 200 in both those categories, but management wisely decided to shut him down early due to a minor injury, and save him for ’15. There is no reason to think that Ross won’t improve on his already solid ’14 numbers.

Andrew Cashner will also be back. While he furnished a solid 2.55 ERA and 1.13 WHIP, it was only in 19 starts and 123.1 innings. But there is no doubt that when he is on, he is very good. In a late 2012 game, he pitched a one-hitter on the road against a superior offensive team, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Ian Kennedy also returns in his walk year. In 2014, he proved reliable, making 33 starts and logging 201 innings with 207 k’s, while sporting a respectable 3.63 ERA and 1.29 WHIP.

Coupled with the new offense, these returning three would have already made them more competitive. But Preller placed the icing on his offseason cake when he signed free agent James Shields to a four-year contract. While not quite in the same league as, say, Cole Hamels or Jordan Zimmerman, Shields does provide veteran leadership, and a dependable arm: over the last four seasons, he has averaged a 14-10 record, four complete games, 233 innings, a 3.17 ERA, and a 1.15 WHIP.

But perhaps most importantly, the last time he made fewer than 33 starts in a season was 2007.

Simply stated, Shields is the definition of reliable. He will provide needed veteran leadership, and he automatically makes the other starters around him even better.

Battling for the fifth spot in the rotation will be Brandon Morrow, Odrisamer Despaigne, Robbie Erlin, and Matt Wisler. This means that whoever wins the last spot (likely Morrow) will be on a short leash, with everyone else waiting in the wings.

3. The Bullpen is still strong. No surprise here, as this is a Padre tradition.

But this year, that is especially so since Preller declined to trade closer Joaquin Benoit, who was so effective last year. I was one of the many who pushed for Preller to trade the closer, thinking that he was a needed piece of bait to pry a solid hitter from another club.

But I was wrong. In keeping Benoit, Black retains a very deep bullpen. Other returnees include Nick Vincent, Dale Thayer, Kevin Quackenbush (as the heir apparent at closer, he saved six games when Benoit missed some playing time in ’14), and lefties Alex Torres Frank Garces.

New faces include righties Shawn Kelley and Brandon Maurer (both acquired via trade).

4. Jedd Gyorko is set for a rebound. For starters, how could he be any worse than he was in 2014? For the season, he batted .210 with a .612 OPS. But that was because he was held back by plantar fasciitis in the first half, which then kept him out of action for two months. His numbers did improve when he came back.

But in addition to his injuries, there are two other reasons for his struggles: first, he received a five-year extension early in the season. It is common for younger recipients of such extensions to feel the need to prove their worth with every swing. Second, with San Diego’s offense being so terrible last year, Gyorko was regularly slotted to bat third, fourth, of fifth–spots from which you typically expect production. In spite of his denials, Gyorko could have pressed himself.

But this year, this should be better, for two reasons: first off, his numbers did improve when he came back (.745 OPS, to go with a .260 BA and .347 OBP in the second half). While not stellar, such numbers would be serviceable if that’s how he were to hit over a full season, especially given the greater offense San Diego now has.

That takes us directly to the second reason for optimism on Gyorko: there will be less pressure upon him to perform. He will likely bat sixth or seventh in the lineup, and Black will consider any production from him to be a bonus.

5. The Buy Low/Sell High Trade of the Year: Acquiring Will Middlebrooks for Ryan Hanigan. Chances are, this will be a forgettable deal; after all, we’re talking about a once-promising third baseman for a career backup catcher–albeit a defensively solid one (and after losing Tim Federowizs until the All-Star break, Preller might be regretting letting Hanigan go so quickly–he was a Padre for all of two days after being acquired in the Wil Myers trade from Tampa.

Then again, what if Middlebrooks bounces back from two very troubled, injury-plagued season? What if, at the still-young age of 26, all he really needed to blossom was to get out of the high-pressured environment of Boston, hit 20-25 home runs, and provide above average defense?

It could happen. If it did, this could be a repeat of two years ago, when the Padres swiped Tyson Ross from Oakland for Andy Parrino and Andrew Werner–neither of whom is currently on a major league roster.

Well, that’s it for the high points. Indeed, there are many reasons to be excited about the Padres in 2015.

But not all is rosy. Next time, we’ll consider the reasons for concern that could prevent San Diego from reaching the playoffs.

3 Questions the Padres Must Answer During Spring Training.

Good article by Corey Brock. Read about it here.

Reaction to the James Shields Signing

The Padres have now officially inked right-handed starter James Shields to a four-year, $75 million contract. There is much to like in this deal, but also some reason for concern.

What’s To Like

Since a subpar rookie season in 2006, Shields has been one of the most consistent starters in baseball. While he has only once finished in the top five for the Cy Young Award balloting, he has been a very dependable commodity for both Tampa Bay and Kansas City, pitching at least 200 innings every season since 2007. His numbers over the last four seasons are especially telling. According to Baseball-Reference.com, he has averaged 233 innings, a 14-10 record, 34 starts, 206 strikeouts, a 3.17 ERA, and a 1.16 WHIP.

Last season, he went 14-8 with a 3.21 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP, and 180 strikeouts, helping the Royals to within one game of a World Series Championship. While his poor start in game 7 was costly, there can be little doubt that had they not traded for him in January, 2013 (ironically for Wil Myers, his new Padre teammate) the Royals might not have even made the playoffs.

Bear in mind also that Shields’ numbers are from the American League, where he has to face the Designated Hitter. No more in San Diego, where he will also pitch half of his games at Petco Park, the most pitcher-friendly ballpark in major league baseball. Shields’ addition also makes the starting rotation even better.

Before adding him, the already-strong rotation featured Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy, and several candidates for the last two spots, including Brandon Morrow, Robbie Erlin, Odrisamer Desaigne, and rookie Matt Wisler. Assuming that Ross were numbers one, two, and three in the rotation prior to adding Shields, they are now numbers two, three, and four, assuming Shields becomes the ace. And now, there is only one slot available to the remaining competitors.

In plain English, this means that their rotation now stacks up far better against their competitors than it did in 2014, when the Padres already had one of the best set of starting pitchers in baseball.

Lastly, this is a good deal because general manager A.J. Preller did not have to guarantee a fifth season to Shields. With a four year guarantee (plus an opt-out clause after 2016), Preller has minimized the risk for the Padres.

But this takes us directly to the…

Reason for Concern

While it’s true the Padres are getting a solid arm in Shields, it’s also true that signing a pitcher Shields’ age to more than three guaranteed years is risky. Already in his career, Shields has logged 1,910 innings, or an average of 227 innings per season.

It has been noted elsewhere that during this period, only Max Scherzer (recently signed by the Washington Nationals) has logged more.

While this speaks to his durability, it also increases the likelihood that at some point, Shields’ arm is going to break down.

A Cautionary Tale

Many years ago, the Padres dodged a bullet in a very similar situation. Just prior to Spring Training in 1998, San Diego acquired Kevin Brown from the Marlins. As with Shields, 1998 was going to be his age-33 season. But what a brilliant season it was: in 35 starts, he went 18-7 with a 2.38 ERA, a 1.07 WHIP, and 257 strikeouts to go with 257 innings, leading them to the National League Pennant.

That was Brown’s only season with San Diego.

In the offseason, Brown signed a hefty seven-year, $105 million contract with the Dodgers (and bear in mind, nine-figure contracts were far more rare than they are today, so this contract was a huge deal).

Here are Brown’s numbers for his first two seasons in Dodger Blue:

    W-L  IP    K    ERA  WHIP

1999: 18-9 252 221 3.00 1.06

2000: 13-6 230 216 2.58 0.99

Very good numbers from a very good pitcher.

But then, it happened: in the third season, Brown pitched in only 20 games (19 starts), even while maintaining a solid 2.65 ERA. The next season, 2002, Brown pitched in only 63.2 innings (10 starts, 17 games). After another solid season in 2003 (32 starts), Brown was shipped to the Yankees, where he made 35 starts and 205 innings over two seasons, to go with a 4.95 ERA and a 1.43 WHIP.

Granted, Kevin Brown and James Shields are two different pitchers, and in two different eras. Even still, the potential parallels exist: assuming that Shields does as well as Brown did, the Padres can expect some turbulence along the way. If that happens (This year? 2018? Some time in between?), the contract could look more like a boondoggle than a solid move.

Worth the Risk?

But in baseball, you have to take risks like this. Again, there are good reasons why San Diego (and other potential suitors) were not willing to go above four guaranteed seasons. And with Bud Black’s stellar bullpen, Shields will be more likely to be pulled after regularly after 6 or 7 innings, rather than 8 or 9. This will lessen the wear-and-tear on his arm.

And for the reasons given above and “What’s to Like,” this remains a worthwhile deal. Yes, there are other questions as well that need to be addressed (team offense, outfield defense, a right-handed-heavy lineup, etc.). But that will have to wait for another blog post.

Padres Sign Shields

Read about it here. Analysis to come soon…

Did A.J. Preller Gamble Away the Farm?

2014-2015 was the offseason Padre fans had been waiting for, but had often wondered would ever happen again. In unloading a number of prospects, they revamped their once-sorry outfield, put a 2014 All-Star behind home plate, and added a 26-year-old third baseman with tremendous (albeit untapped) upside.

But while a number of solid prospects were traded, general manager A.J. Preller accomplished all of these moves without having to move the following: their top three starting pitchers Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner, and Ian Kennedy, and their top three prospects Matt Wisler, Austin Hedges, and Hunter Renfroe.

However, there is a potentially huge down-side: they traded away many of their top-name prospects. And while it’s great that they have a surging new offense, some might wonder just how necessary some of these deals were.

Let’s take a look at each of these deals, and where that leaves the Padres now:

Matt Kemp

If memory serves, this is the first trade the Padres have made with the Dodgers since 2006, when they traded a declining Greg Maddux to LA mid-season.

Only this time, they were on the receiving end of talent. In receiving former All-Star outfielder Matt Kemp, the Padres surrendered catcher Yasmani Grandal, pitcher Joe Wieland, and a prospect.

Only Grandal figures to start for the Dodgers next year, and while he has tremendous upside, he has yet to prove himself as a consistent performer at the big league level.

Wieland, 24, is two years removed from Tommy John surgery. In August 2014, he pitched in the majors for the first time in over two years.

San Diego also received backup catcher Tim Federowicz in the deal.

Kemp, 30, slashed .287/.346/.506 with 25 home runs, 38 doubles and 89 RBI. He figures to play in right field, and hit either third or fourth in the batting order.

The only concerns here stem from Kemp’s health: in 2012-13, he missed significant playing time, and his defensive prowess isn’t what it once was. He will probably have to be spelled at least once every 8-10 games, and be removed late in games for defensive purposes.

Also, there were concerns about his being difficult in the clubhouse. Even still, this move boosts the Padres offense considerably, which is why the deal was made.

And as an added bonus, Kemp is going to be pumped whenever he trades his former team, which happens to be in the same division. Los Angeles could live to regret this team for a very long time.

Grade: A-

Wil Myers

This was likely the most surprising move, as not too many people even realized that Myers might be available from Tampa Bay.

But to the Padres’ benefit, he was.

It says a lot that as he was climbing his way through the Kansas City Royals farm system, he was touted as possibly the next George Brett–that’s quite a compliment. In 2012, his final full season in the minors, he smashed 37 home runs with 109 RBI, with a .987 OPS at the age of 21.

Before the 2013 season, he was the centerpiece of a trade for starter James Shields, a move that surprised many in the industry, given Myers’ immense talent. That year, he vindicated Tampa Bay’s confidence in him when, after being called up in June, he went on to win the AL Rookie of the Year award.

Myers had a difficult sophomore season, that was shortened by injuries. Even still, there is little question that the talent remains.

Still just 24, the Padres had to surrender some of their more talented prospects in starter Joe Ross and 2014 first round pick Trey Turner, as well as catcher Rene Rivera. This talented young hitter is now Padre property, controllable through the 2019 season.

He will probably play in center field for them, with the possibility of being the leadoff hitter.

Still, there are concerns:

  • His defense will be a downgrade from the light-hitting Cameron Maybin and Will Venable.
  • His skill-set is not typically what you would consider in a leadoff hitter. This might put unneeded pressure on him.
  • Consider that for all of his talent, you have to wonder why, at the age of 24, he has already been traded twice. This is mere speculation at this point, but could it be that he has attitude problems which make him a difficult teammate?
  • Turner and Ross are very talented, and losing them to Washington (the third partner in this 3-team swap) could end up haunting them down the road.

Time will tell if the Padres made the right move. A lot will depend upon whether Myers can tap his amazing potential, and not make fans rue the day they traded Turner and Ross.

Grade: B+

Justin Upton

On the one hand, this may be the best trade the Padres made. On the other hand, it could be the worst.

It could be the best because of all the three outfield acquisitions, he is both the healthiest and most established. At age 27, he has already hit 164 career home runs, hitting 20 four different times, with a solid career slash of .274/.354/.476, and two Silver Slugger awards.

So then, why might it be the worst trade? Because he could just be a one-year rental: after 2015, Upton becomes a free agent. If he plays true to form, Upton will get a lot of money next offseason from a big-market club. Sure, the Padres can make a run at him, but given that most big hitters would prefer not to play half their games at Petco Park, I wouldn’t bet on it.

In exchange for Upton, the Atlanta Braves received left-handed pitching prospect Max Fried, who missed all of 2014 due to Tommy John surgery, AAA infielder Jace Peterson, and lower level prospects Mallex Smith and Dustin Peterson. This is a pretty talented bunch to surrender for one year of Justin Upton.

If it had been me (and yes, I know it wasn’t), I don’t know that I would have made this trade. I would have preferred that they kept Seth Smith, a left-handed bat who is cheaper, who was signed to a two-year extension, and handles his bat very well.

Of course, the prospects sent to Atlanta could fizzle (returning from rotator cuff surgery is hard so Fried could be out for a while, and Jace Peterson was not impressive in a mid-season call-up), and Upton could have a career year and lead San Diego to their first World Series championship. There are so many intangibles on this trade, but given what they gave up, my grade for Preller is…

Grade: B- (A in the short term, C- in the long term).

Derek Norris

Like the Myers trade, this was something of a surprise. Since Norris is not known for his defensive skills, Preller obviously only had one thing in mind when he acquired him: offense.

Norris made the All-Star team for the first time last year, hitting 10 home runs to go with a .270/.361/.403 slash. But when you look a little deeper, there is reason for concern:

  • Most of the damage he did was against lefties (.863 OPS, vs. .699 against righties).
  • He slumped badly in the second half (8 home runs, .879 OPS in the first half, vs. 2 and .638 in the second half).

Also, the Padres surrendered some very solid pitching prospects for him: Jesse Hahn, 25, who went 7-4 with a 3.07 ERA in 14 games (12 starts) for the Padres, and reliever R.J. Alvarez, who flashed a 1.13 ERA in ten late-season appearances.

But since the Padres are stocked pitching-wise (again, they still have their top three starters, closer Joaquin Benoit, up-and-comer Kevin Quackenbush and others), Preller obviously figured the trade was worth it.

And don’t forget, as the former longtime assistant G.M. of the Texas Rangers, Preller got to see plenty of Norris when they played against the A’s, and so has an inkling of what he is capable of doing as he matures. He’s still just 26, and figures to only get better offensively.

Grade: B+

Will Middlebrooks

This trade will either be remembered as either a huge steal or largely insignificant. Hence, it was worth the risk of trading away career backup catcher Ryan Hanigan.

A star in the minor leagues, Middlebrooks had a promising rookie season in 2012. He hit 15 home runs with 54 RBI, a .288 batting average, and .835 OPS in 75 games.

Since then, he has struggled mightily. In his sophomore campaign, he regressed to .227 with just a .271 OBP. Last year, he batted only .191 in 63 games.

At 26, what will Middlebrooks do? Will he continue his downward trend? Or, will he find his untapped potential in the lower pressure environment of San Diego?

Either way, this deal was worthwhile, given (a) the small price, and (b) the fact that Yongervis Solarte is waiting in the wings, should Middlebrooks fail.

Grade: B+

Overall

On the whole, this is a vastly improved Padres baseball team. For the first time in nearly a decade, this team is relevant in terms of high expectations.

Yes, they are heavily right-handed, but first baseman Yonder Alonso’s health is improving. With the added hefty bats, the pressure on him to perform is diminished, and if he can remain injury-free, he can provide the left-handed extra base power the team was always hoping for.

Also, Alexi Amarista figures to see the bulk of the starts at shortstop (barring another trade), and Will Venable will get in some spot starts as the fourth outfielder.

It is true, however, that another dependable left-handed bat would bring some needed balance.

Yes, the outfield defense will take a hit. But if you want to contend, you need offense, an area where the Padres were sorely lacking.

No longer will manager Bud Black be depending upon Venable and Maybin to provide production that they simply are not capable of providing; now, their most likely role will be in providing late inning defense, spot starts, and/or pinch running, which they’re best suited for anyway.

All told, the 2015 San Diego Padres will be a contender. Yes, some of these moves are risky. But all trades are. Yes, they have depleted their farm system.

But don’t forget that a prospect merely means that a player has potential. They don’t always work out.

Remember the names of the two prospects the Padres sent to Chicago to obtain Carlos Quentin (keeping in mind how good he was then)? Neither do I.

Remember the four prospects the Padres acquired for Jake Peavy? There’s Clayton Richard who was mediocre at best, and…who?

Remember the three prospects the Padres got for Adrian Gonzalez just four years ago? Only one of them, Casey Kelly, is still on their roster, and he’s coming back from Tommy John surgery.

Remember the package the Padres procured from the Reds for pitcher Mat Latos? Three years later, only one of them, Alonso, is still on the team, and unless there is substantial improvement, he may be hanging by a thread.

Lesson: Unless his name is Ken Griffey Jr. or Chipper Jones (i.e., can’t miss), prospects are for trading. With a good scouting system, the farm clubs will replentish themselves in almost no time at all. Preller knows this. He cashed them in, and now, the San Diego Padres are a team to be reckoned with.

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