It’s that time of year where the statheads post their projections for the 2018 season and the coaching staffs prepare for a busy trip to Spring Training. When we look at the projections, it appears unanimous that the Padres are once again expected to dwell in the cellar of the National League West, but there are always reasons for us fans to find a silver lining. I decided to take a look at last year’s incredibly weird Opening Day roster and compare it against the likely group this year, and there is improvement all around the diamond. Come with me and see what I mean.
Catcher: Austin Hedges should make his second career Opening Day start this March. His backups have changed, but the big thing here is that Hedges has another year under his belt and has room to continue to improve. Already one of the best defenders at his position in the game, he’s maturing as a hitter as well. As for those backups, the group of Luis Torrens, Hector Sanchez, and Christian Bethancourt (?!?) was an experiment in roster flexibility. With Torrens likely to spend all season in the minors, Rocky Gale and his 40-man roster spot appear to have the inside track, but keep an eye on Raffy Lopez this spring, and don’t be surprised to see another move to add more depth here.
First Base: Wil Myers should once again be at first base on Opening Day unless Eric Hosmer surprises us and decides to head west. Like Hedges, Myers has another year of experience manning the position, and he’s at the age where players tend to approach their peak years. His 2017 season production was a dip from his All-Star 2016 campaign. Expect him to bounce back this year, and those who dive deep into the numbers see evidence that he’s due for a breakout. Yangervis Solarte, Jose Pirela, and Hector Sanchez were his backups last year, and Chase Headley is a significant upgrade over any of them.
Second Base: Carlos Asuaje established himself as a legitimate starter at second base through the second half of last season, while Cory Spangenberg will come into camp vying for the job as well. While last year’s Opeing Day starter, Yangervis Solarte, brought more power and the versatility of a switch-hitter, both Asuaje and Spangenberg are better defenders with more range, better speed on the basepaths, and the potential for future improvement. Luis Urias will be in camp, representing the next wave to push these guys with his superb defense and unmatched contact hitting skills. He’ll break into the MLB club as soon as management deems him ready.
Shortstop: After a decade of futility at a critical position, the Padres are finally entering the season with a legitimate elite defender at shortstop. Freddy Galvis led the league in fielding percentage at the position and is a top-10 defender or better. At the plate, he has double-digit home run potential and is working with new hitting coach Matt Stairs to step his offensive game up even more. Compared to the production from Erick Aybar and a host of backups last year, league average would be a breath of fresh air. With Allen Cordoba probably heading to the minors for the season, Galvis’ backup is an open question that remains to be addressed this spring.
Third Base: Veteran Chase Headley is back with the Padres, and barring a trade he’ll be manning the hot corner on Opening Day. Ryan Schimpf was the Opening Day starter last year, and he hardly made it a month before earning a trip back to AAA, and now he’s with the Tampa Bay Rays. Cory Spangenberg got the bulk of the starts last year, and he had a decent season, but Headley is an upgrade on both sides of the ball. His 2017 stat line would have led all Padres hitters last year in Hits, doubles, and OBP, and he would have been near the top in several more categories. He’s as reliable a defender as they come at third base, which will be welcomed after the inconsistencies of Spangenberg and Solarte last year. Cory Spangenberg and Christian Villanueva are likely to be in the picture, but Headley will get the starts as long as he’s on the roster.
Leftfield: Jose Pirela came out of nowhere last year to become the Padres’ most productive player, and he’s the best bet to be the starter there to start the 2018 season. Franchy Cordero, Travis Jankowski, Alex Dickerson, Matt Szczur, and a few other guys will have something to say about that this spring, but it’s Pirela’s job to lose after his stellar .288/.347/.490 2017 campaign. Leftfield was a question mark all season, being manned by Allen Cordoba, Cory Spangenberg, Sczcur, Jabari Blash, and Franchy Cordero after Opening Day starter Travis Jankowski broke his foot and missed most of the season. Pirela played steady defense in his new position (naturally a 2B) while consistently battling out hard at-bats and showing surprising power. If Alex Dickerson and Travis Jankowski show up into camp healthy and in good form, and if Franchy Cordero can demonstrate that he can keep the K’s at bay, this group will form a position of depth and strength for the 2018 Padres.
Centerfield: Manuel Margot was the Opening Day starter last year, and he should be out there again this year. The difference is that he was a green rookie then, and he has matured significantly since. He should bring his elite defense and baseball IQ to another level, while progressing at the plate with his contact-heavy approach as he tweaks his mechanics to improve his offensive profile. Backing him up will be one or more of Jankowski, Szczur, and Cordero, but the vast expanses of Petco’s centerfield belong to Manuel Margot.
Rightfield: Hunter Renfroe started alongside Margot on Opening Day last year, and while the job isn’t certain, it’s his to lose again this year. While he struggled through the 2017 season as he worked through slumps at the plate and shaky defense in the field, he emerged as a better player at the end of the year. A late-season demotion to AAA let him work on shortening up his swing, resulting in better reactions to breaking balls and buying him a little more time to lay off the ugly stuff. He was always a premium defender throughout his minor league career, so some seasoning in the field should earn him the familiarity to let the game slow down so he can take better routes and make better decisions in the field. Jabari Blash was the primary backup last year, and he was tough to watch both at the plate and in the field. This year’s backups of Matt Szczur, Travis Jankowski, and others will complement Renfroe’s power with some speed and stellar defense.
2018 Austin Hedges > 2017 Austin Hedges
2018 Wil Myers > 2017 Wil Myers
Carlos Asuaje & Cory Spangenberg > Yangervis Solarte
Freddy Galvis > Erick Aybar
Chase Headley > Ryan Schimpf
Jose Pirela > Travis Jankowski
2018 Manuel Margot > 2017 Manuel Margot
2018 Hunter Renfroe > 2017 Hunter Renfroe
Yeah, the nerds say that this year’s team should lose a lot of games, just like last year’s teams, but when you look up and down the roster there is improvement all around the diamond. Not only are each of these players better than the men filling those shoes a year ago, but the return of this young core means that they are growing as a unit. Combine that with manager Andy Green’s emphasis on culture, accountability, and teamwork, and this unit is poised to outperform the predictions once again. The tide is rising at Petco Park. These kids are ready to make some waves.