It’s been said with reverence for 100 years that Tris Speaker’s glove was “the place where triples go to die.” In 2015, and possibly a century of nightmares to follow, Petco Park is likely to be remembered as “the place where triples go.”
With a flurry of defense-sacrificing transactions involving gobs of money and moving parts from across the continent, new Padres general manager A.J. Preller made headlines at baseball’s winter meetings last December. A little too much “Look Mom, no hands!” for my taste, but splash sought and splash accomplished.
The problem is, “splash hits” are a San Francisco thing. San Diego’s thing is an outfield that figures to be as fielding-challenged as advertised, and maybe a tad worse than that. Fans will quickly learn the uniform numbers of the team’s three new outfielders – Justin Upton, Wil Myers and Matt Kemp – mostly by watching them run, backs to home plate, chasing balls that got away.
The trade-off is offense and a quick fix. That’s the plan anyway, and in Justin Upton, San Diego has a legit stick. Preller sent four minor leaguers, including consensus top-50 prospect pitcher Max Fried, to Atlanta for Aaron Northcraft and one year of Upton at $14.5 million on December 19. And we’ll just see if the Pads re-up at huge dollars. Petco’s dimensions won’t deter Upton. There’s no park that can hold him.
Wil Myers, acquired in December in a three-team, 11-player deal, is supposed to play center field. And he can’t. With 88 games of .293/.354/.478 in 2013 as the Rays right fielder and 87 games of .222/.294/.320 last year, I’m not even sure he can hit, but there’s simply no way he can succeed in center. Not in San Diego, especially.
San Diego went all-in on December 18, when Preller sent Yasmani Grandal, Joe Wieland and Zach Eflin to Los Angeles for Kemp, Tim Federowicz and cash. A lot of cash: $32 million worth. Kemp has been the subject of some unfortunate media bashing over a period of time, with some of the more unnecessary slights coming from Dodgers sources, including one Don Mattingly.
The word “malcontent” was never appropriate, and as I said last year, Mattingly was careless in the handling of his star player, going as far back as 2011. Dave Stewart, Kemp’s agent at the time, couldn’t have been more correct with his “this guy ran into a wall, literally, for the ball club” line in 2014.
Kemp’s medical chart is a real concern going forward, but to the extent that he’s healthy, and with proper pacing from Bud Black, look for production at something below the level than San Diego is counting on. Perhaps on the order of .275/.340/.450 with 20 home runs and 75 RBIs.
The Friars have a fine catcher in veteran-like 26-year-old Derek Norris, late of Oakland, but an infield that has most observers scratching their heads. First baseman Yonder Alonso had a nice full season in 2012, and looked promising in the Reds’ organization the two years prior, but his last two seasons have been largely lost to injury. San Diego has Jedd Gyorko, who was MLB’s 57th best second baseman last year, glove man Alexi Amarista at short and Will Middlebrooks at third.
While some in the media were properly skeptical of Preller’s bold strokes, others bought in. Tyler Kepner, in his March thumbs-up New York Times piece, included this odd sentence: “Upton and [Ian] Kennedy can be free agents after the season, but nearly every other impact player is under team control for years.” Nearly every other impact player? What other impact player? Kemp – as he ages into his contract – held together by needle and thread?
Unless he’s referring to the starting pitching, which was never in question to begin with. Well, except for the worrisome injury history of the number two and three men, Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner. Ross, with his straight up-and-down, all-arm delivery, is a rotator cuff or Tommy John case waiting to happen, and Cashner, a total stud when he’s in there, has missed time with arm issues the past two campaigns.
James Shields is great, a $75 million bargain at today’s ace prices. The spacious parks of the NL West will help with Shields’ fly ball tendencies, and I expect him to thrive as a National Leaguer – if his arm doesn’t fall off as he passes 2000 innings over a 10-year period come summer.
San Diego is clearly in win-now mode, however, and if the top starters can manage to take the ball every fifth day – Kennedy’s a more-than-capable number-four man – it might just work for a season.
The last-minute trade for Craig Kimbrel was a game changer. Yes, the criticism that the Pads addressed a strength – a solid bullpen led by Joaquin Benoit – rather than a weakness (outfield defense, infield everything) is valid, and they’re taking on water in payroll. But California is in a drought, after all.
Preller and company deserve all the credit in the world for creating excitement in San Diego. Season and single-game tickets sold at a high clip and jerseys are flying off the shelf. The population is hopeful. The Padres will be better in 2015. They’ll move from dead-last in team batting to 25th place, and maybe a little higher. The pitching is great. They’ll improve upon last year’s 77-85 record and contend through the summer.
But a playoff team? Maybe.
Predicted record: 86-76