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Padres 2015 Preview: Great Expectations!

SB Nation 2015 MLB Preview For the first time this century the Padres got people across the country talking about them during the offseason. It was an honest attempt to rebuild a team that had stalled in the midst of mediocrity, but it also served to refresh the psyches of those that play for, work for and follow the team. With that momentum comes great expectations.

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The players from the San Diego Padres’ NL Champion 1998 team will tell you that something felt different back in December 1997 when then Padres General Manager Kevin Towers traded for Marlins ace Kevin Brown. The team knew they had something good going with future HOFer Tony Gwynn, sluggers Greg Vaughn and Ken Caminiti, seasoned vets like Steve Finley and Wally Joyner and plenty of players like Trevor Hoffman, Quilvio Veras and Andy Ashby in their prime. But a big move in December for a player like Brown set the tone for the club. For the 2015 season, new Padres GM A.J. Preller is once again attempting to set a tone in the December that can carry over to the season. A tone that tells everyone that this season means something. That the front office has confidence in the players, that fans’ expectations should be higher and in-turn the players should use that to push themselves.It worked then and it could work now.

Unlike with Towers in December 1997, Preller knew that this team needed a lot of moves if he was going to set a tone. However, it was still his first big move that sent the biggest message. Trading for Matt Kemp signalled a sea change for the organization. Bringing a star from the Dodgers south to San Diego is not a new concept, but it has been over 30 years since the Padres signed Steve Garvey away from L.A.. However, the context surrounding this latest move is important to consider. The Padres have a reputation for letting some of their top players get big money elsewhere over the last decade. Jake Peavy, Adrian Gonzalez and most recently Chase Headley are the names that come to mind. With Kemp the Padres acquired a player in the midst of a large contract to come be their star and face of the franchise. That alone set a tone, but more moves were needed to back it up with a much improved team.

Preller proved he had no intention of making the Kemp acquisition merely a symbolic message. He needed to makeover much of the offense to transform this team. He quickly made moves to bring 2013 AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers and 2014 All Star catcher Derek Norris into the fold. Those 3 established a legitimate core of the club that would be under team control through at least 2018. We also snapped up Red Sox 3B and change of scenery candidate Will Middlebrooks as an upside play, again with eye towards building both a present and a future for this club. Finally, he put the finishing touch on his tone-setting December by trading for Justin Upton, a hired gun one year away from free agency who could cement the offensive turnaround.

Now, no smart GM would make bold moves like this if he did not have a foundation to build upon. In Preller’s assessment, the rotation and the bullpen are the building blocks that make up that foundation. Many had thought that the trio of Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross and 2016-free-agent-to-be Ian Kennedy were the kind of assets that could be used in trade to rebuild the club, but Preller doesn’t always see things as others do. He saw them as a solid middle of the rotation that needed more help. They were already helped by a solid bullpen anchored by new, but aging, closer Joaquin Benoit, young arms Kevin Quackenbush, Nick Vincent and Alex Torres plus an old standby in Dale Thayer. However, the first year GM knew that wasn’t enough. Depth was acquired initially in comeback candidates Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson as well additional bullpen arms Shawn Kelley and Brandon Maurer. A finishing touch was needed for this pitching group. That touch came in the form of the largest contract the Padres have ever given to a free agent signing. Preller signed SP James Shields to a 4 year, $75 million contract fresh off of Shields helping the Royals to an AL Championship. If the Kemp and Upton trades are akin to Shields’ good fastball and effective cutter, then this signing was like Shields’ knee buckling curveball to finish off a hitter.

You have to give something to get something and all the trades and there were certainly a lot of players the Padres had to part with to make these trades. From last year’s major league roster the Friars had to send away Yasmani Grandal, Jesse Hahn, Seth Smith, Rene Rivera, Joe Wieland and R.J. Alvarez. Players like Will Venable and Cameron Maybin were also marginalized due to these moves. Grandal, Hahn, Wieland and Alvarez all could have promising careers elsewhere, while Rivera and Smith were coming off career years with the Padres. Venable and Maybin will have to carve out roles as reserves, which brings up a common criticism that the outfield defense has been diminished by switching to an offense-first set of sluggers including a new CF in Wil Myers who is still learning that position. On top of that the infield lost quality defenders in Chase Headley (trade preempting his free agency) and Everth Cabrera (released). A key component of this team will be how the makeover of the offense and the upgrades to pitching can overcome what seems like substantial downgrades on defense.

The minor league depth also took a hit due to the offseason’s many trades. Fortunately, depth was perhaps the strongest quality for the Friars’ farm system. They did have to deal away former high draft picks like Joe Ross, Max Fried, Trea Turner, Zach Eflin, Dustin Peterson and Jace Peterson, promising prospects like Burch Smith, Jake Bauers, Mallex Smith and Johnny Barbato and additionally sacrifice a 1st round pick in order to Shields. Despite all that the trade-happy Preller did not part with some of the organization’s most prized young players. SP Matt Wisler, OF Hunter Renfroe, OF Rymer Liriano and C Austin Hedges all still remain and should be able to help the big club a lot sooner than many of the youngsters who got dealt. Potential role players like INF Cory Spangenberg, 1B/OF Tommy Medica, 1B/OF Alex Dickerson, RP Tayron Guerrero and SP Robbie Erlin also stuck around to keep the upper minors far from barren. The still healthy state of the farm system serves as a great testimony to completeness of Preller’s plan to reform the club into one that can win both now and later.

With the headlines published, the roster remade and the tone purposefully and effectively set for the 2015 season everyone who follows the club will now have elevated expectations. That was the goal to get the owners, the front office, the coaches, the players, the media and the fans to all buy in to these Padres. But, with a home run yet to be hit, a win yet to be earned, a series yet to be taken, where should those expectations realistically be? If you’re a player on the team or a fan of it, then they should be sky high because why not? If you seek a more objective standpoint, then the first conclusion should be that it’s obvious that the team is improved and barring some catastrophes a .500 season would seem to be a given. With a little good fortune an upper 80s win total seems reasonable. The elephant in the room is that the Padres division has an elephant sitting on it. The Dodgers have assembled perhaps the best roster in the major leagues and their expectations begin with at least a 90 win season. That creates an upstream paddle for the Padres. It puts them in a better position to place as a runner up and a wild card contender where they’ll battle with teams like divisional foe and defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants. A one game playoff is a scary scenario for a team that has put so much into making this year their push year like the Padres have. Especially, for a fan base that remembers a one game shootout with the Colorado Rockies in 2007 that did not go their way. Scary. Wait, what am I saying? For a team that has been stuck in neutral and practically accepting mediocrity over the last few seasons any sort of fight for fortune at the finale should be exceedingly welcome. Such fight seems feasible thanks to tone-setter A.J. Preller.