In an offseason that was decidedly much quieter than the year prior, AJ Preller made many moves to better balance out a roster that underwhelmed last year even with plenty of glitzy signings. Preller's 2nd offseason with the Padres saw the departure of power-hitting Justin Upton, inning-eater Ian Kennedy and shutdown closer Craig Kimbrel, among others. In return AJ brought in veteran names such as Jon Jay and Alexei Ramirez and will look to rely on a young core of players such as Cory Spangenberg and Wil Myers. A fresh face now skippers the team: the analytically-savvy Andy Green. With a new season upon a Padres team being slated to finish below other teams in the NL West, what stories should fans look to follow as the season begins? Let's start with...
The Starting 5
New Padres manager Andy Green did not waste time this Spring Training in naming the pitcher who will start the first game of the season. His choice for ace of the Padres this year is Tyson Ross. A bit of a surprise to some, Ross will slot first for the Padres after having a very solid, if not almost career year last season. Ross spent Spring Training working on his secondary offerings and is looking to implement a better changeup alongside his 2 seam fastball. While there is some worry that his slider-heavy approach (44% of his pitches are sliders) will eventually lead to injury, many are expecting Ross to take another step forward and become a stalwart for the Padres rotation.
The biggest story revolving around Tyson Ross is if he'll remain with the team after this season, or even after the trade deadline. It was widely rumored last season that Ross was shopped around the league during the trade deadline. Preller did not find any takers with a proper offering for the right-hander. He may be shopped again this season should the Padres find themselves out of the running sooner rather than later. Ross may also be the team's lone All-Star (he was selected to the All-Star team in 2014) should he perform well this season.
Pitching second for the Padres is James Shields, now in year 2 of his 4 year contract. Shields performed decently last year as the ace of the staff though it was one of his worst career seasons overall. While Shields posted his best strikeout rate and worst walk rate, the biggest stat that jumps off the page is home runs surrendered (33), most in the MLB last year. Big Game James made his name on overall reliability (9 seasons of 200+ innings pitched) and solid pitching.
The story for James Shields this season is whether last year was an anomaly or the beginning stages of a pitcher succumbing to time and age. Shields' name was also included in trade rumors last season and will probably be thrown around again this season, especially at the trade deadline.
Up third for the Padres is Andrew Cashner, pitching in the last year of his contract with the Padres. Cashner did not have a great season last year and had a rough year in general, as he took time off to tend to his cancer-stricken mother. Cashner is widely considered to be the pitcher who could throw the Padres' first no-hitter with stuff that can touch triple digits and secondary pitches that, when working, could shut down entire lineups.
In a contract year, plenty of eyes will be upon Cashner to see if he can bounce back from a disappointing season and prove he's worth commanding a healthy salary from the Padres or elsewhere. With massive amounts of talent, it'll be interesting to see if Cashner can capitalize and prove that he belongs in the conversation for staff ace.
The fourth and fifth spots for the Padres' rotation is currently up for grabs, and there are plenty of names being tossed around as candidates to bolster the back of the rotation. The name making the most noise this Spring Training is a familiar face from last year in Colin Rea. The youngster made big strides last year, jumping from AA San Antonio to the big leagues. He's shown up to Spring Training with a healthy weight gain and an eye to crack the starting rotation. Robbie Erlin is also looking to fill a spot in the rotation, and makes a case based on his left-handedness and good command. Other names being thrown into the mix are veterans such as Carlos Villanueva, Drew Pomeranz and at one point Brandon Maurer (who is going back to the bullpen as of this writing). It remains to be seen who will stick to the back-end of the rotation or if the final 2 spots will be fluid for the time being.
The biggest story revolving around the pitchers making up the bullpen is simply this: will this group hold and save games? With the departure of several players such as Dale Thayer, Shawn Kelley, Joaquin Benoit and closer Craig Kimbrel, the Padres are starting the new season with some familiar faces and new veterans. The biggest addition to the bullpen is arrow-slinging Fernando Rodney, once dominant closer turned setup man now looking to return to his shutdown ways pitching 9th innings for the Padres. Should he falter, the Padres could turn to incumbents Kevin Quackenbush or Brandon Maurer to finish opponents off. Also in the mix are previously mentioned Carlos Villanueva and Drew Pomeranz along with returning slingers in Jon Edwards and Cory Mazzoni. Brandon Morrow could also find his way back into the mix as a reliever.
With plenty of veteran options and rookies such as Buddy Baumann making a case for playing time, manager Andy Green has his hands full in building a bullpen that will keep the Padres in the lead late in games.
Wil Myers and his health. Arguably the biggest story to follow and the biggest question mark lies in the player now occupying first base. When healthy, young Wil Myers has flashed moments of brilliance and immense talent, and the Padres are hoping for one full season of play from their former center-fielder. With the move to 1st base, the Padres are banking on Myers staying healthier and in a lineup where he can do damage batting behind Matt Kemp.
Another great story is the development of Cory Spangenberg and his first year as starting second baseman. Cory had an excellent second half last season and the Padres are looking to see the speedy Spangenberg keep up his production at the plate and on the basepaths in a full role. Also looking to capitalize on a solid prior season is Yangervis Solarte, who will now start at the hot corner. The switch-hitter was a step above the departed Will Middlebrooks and could hold down 3rd base for the Padres for years to come.
Is Derek Norris trade bait? Derek Norris had a hard-earned last season, marked with a dip in offensive production and a significant uptick in throwing runners out and much improved pitch framing. Being the almost-everyday catcher took a toll on Norris, as he spent small stints of time shelved with various injuries. The Padres signed former Braves catcher of the future Christian Bethancourt and also have their own dubbed future catcher in Austin Hedges. Though Hedges and Bethancourt have yet to develop their hit tools, their defensive capabilities are definite pluses. Derek Norris has become a fan favorite in San Diego with his grit and hustle, and it'll be worthwhile to watch the developing story behind who will man the dish for the Padres now and in the future.
Who will back up Alexei Ramirez at shortstop? The incumbent choice is super-utility Alexi Amarista, who played fair amounts of shortstop, center field and even pitched last year. Though Amarista had a fair season, he's largely considered a bench-level talent. Several new players for the Padres have played their ways into roster consideration, most notably Jemile Weeks, Nick Noonan and Adam Rosales. Weeks is having himself an excellent showing in Spring Training, leading the team in batting average and showing some skill in the infield. Both Noonan and Rosales are also capable of backing up Solarte or Spangenberg. Andy Green has a good crop of players to choose for his bench roles this season.
Will Matt Kemp remain a Padre for much longer and can he put together a full season of solid offense? Matt Kemp had himself a second half last season. The Summer of Kemp was aptly named after Kemp went on a hitting tear after the All-Star break, hitting season and league highs in slugging and utilizing that momentum to bat in over 100 RBIs on the season. Matt also got a collective monkey off the back of the Padres and their fans by collecting the first cycle in team history. Alan Zinter and Mark McGwire have been working closely with Kemp to prevent another cold bat to start the season. With his massive contract and overall talent for hitting a baseball, Kemp's name has been included in trade rumors, possibly as a DH candidate for an AL team. AJ Preller may pull the trigger should he find a taker that is willing to make the loss of Kemp worth the Padres' while.
With Jon Jay set up to lead off for the team and man center field, it's time to see if Melvin Upton, Jr. can regain his former All-Star form. The elder Upton showed flashes of his former self in limited action last year. With possible playing time in left field, fans should keep their eyes on Melvin to see if he can play up to his former standard. His contract is relatively hefty, and he too could be subject to a trade should he not perform to Preller's liking.
Can Jabari Blash make the roster? A rule 5 selection via the Athletics in the Yonder Alonso trade, Jabari is known widely for his power tool. He's shown his ability to take the cover off the ball in Spring Training, but still remains a bit of a question mark for the Padres. Will he be able to cut down on strikeouts and take walks? Will he be able to hit consistently at the major league level? Most importantly, is he worth freeing up a valuable spot on the 25-man roster? If he does make the roster, Blash looks to slot into left field or back up Kemp and could possibly be that power bat the Padres need in the lineup.
The Story So Far
The Padres are currently slated to finish in the cellar of the NL West, well below perennial contenders Los Angeles and San Francisco and surprising upstart Arizona. Some have the Padres finishing dead last, even below floundering Colorado.
The story for the Padres this year is this: Can this year's team compete even with the lack of apparent talent, or is this team primed for sale at the trade deadline or in the offseason? Optimists point to an improved Spring Training focus and chemistry under Andy Green, who is looking for gamers that can compete on a daily basis. Pessimists point to the losses of talent with departures in Justin Upton and Craig Kimbrel and lack of incoming talent capable of keeping the Padres on par with their NL West rivals. With plenty for fans to keep their eyes on this season, will the Padres 2016 story end with a championship or with hope for another season?