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The Padres Optimist: Breakout Candidates for 2020

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If the Padres are thinking post-season in 2020, it’s because someone stepped up BIG.

Colorado Rockies v San Diego Padres
Who’s gonna bust onto the scene this year?
Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Given my career-field, I typically can’t afford to be much of an optimist. I tend to look at things based on what’s most likely to happen, what’s the worst case scenario, and make a plan that can (hopefully) address both situations while still remaining suitable, feasible and executable for leadership (it’s more fun than it sounds, I swear). But with Spring Training right around the corner, I figured I’d throw that mindset out for a minute and think optimistically about the Padres’ roster and see who is poised for a breakout this year. Simply put, if the Padres are thinking they can reach postseason this year in 2020, they will need several players to make a leap in terms of production. The players listed below are the guys that I believe can do that.

For the purposes of this article, I looked exclusively at the younger members of the Padres organization that can expect to see regular playing time this year. So veterans like Wil Myers, Austin Hedges, Tommy Pham, or Garrett Richards were out as “breakout” candidates; technically, they’ve all either broken out already in their career, or have been up for so long, we can reasonably expect what they will produce at this point. So, with that in mind, who is poised for a breakout in 2020? Here’s who I’m looking at right now:

Breakout Candidate #1: RHP Dinelson Lamet

Colorado Rockies v San Diego Padres Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Lamet burst onto the scene in 2017, flashing mainly a 2 pitch repertoire consisting of a high 90’s fastball and a wipeout slider. Lamet recorded a prolific K rate of 28.7% in his debut season, more than 7% higher than league-average. Unfortunately, Lamet’s balky elbow forced him to undergo TJ surgery in early in 2018. Upon his return in 2019, many fans were excited just to see Lamet back and pitching again, hoping he could shore up the back-end of the starting rotation. However, Lamet quickly showed that he hadn’t just sat around healing up; he had upped his game.

As mentioned above, Lamet was basically a 2-pitch “thrower” prior to surgery, struggling with his command to pitch deep into games. Not atypical for a young pitcher, but still, something that would limit his potential effectiveness. Upon his return, however, Lamet showed he was a different pitcher, in a good way. Lamet no longer threw just 2 pitches, he now also threw a “slurve” while also tightening up the movement in his slider. The East Village Times did an excellent breakdown already (which I am liberally stealing from), displaying the differences between the pitches which I highly recommend you read. Here’s Lamet’s new and improved slider:

The new and improved slider, against the Brewers’ Ben Gamel.
Baseball Savant

In contrast, here’s Lamet’s new “slurve:”

Lamet’s “slurve,” against the Brewers’ Mike Moustakas. Same game as above.
Baseball Savant

Obviously, the 2 pitches display very different breaks and vertical/horizontal movement. But the key here is that both pitches come out of Lamet’s hand the same way, and he throws both pitches at the same speed, roughly 88 MPH. That ability to mask what pitch is thrown is incredibly deceptive to hitters, and is a very big reason why Lamet generated an absolutely ridiculous 49.3% whiff rate on breaking balls in 2019. It’s also why I believe Lamet is poised for a breakout 2020 season. If Lamet continues to tighten up his control a bit more, he will not only go deeper into games, he’ll still generate an incredible amount of whiffs thanks to his slider and “slurve.” The Padres will still likely manage his innings in 2020, but Lamet looks like a force batters will have to reckon with going forward.

Breakout Candidate #2: C Francisco Mejia

Colorado Rockies v San Diego Padres Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

After being traded from the Indians to the Padres in 2018, Mejia came into 2019 with a chance to challenge starter Austin Hedges and become the team’s primary catcher. Unfortunately, Mejia displayed many of the poor habits at the plate that plagued him in his brief call-up at the end of 2018. Mejia just wasn’t very selective at the plate, often swinging wildly at pitches WAY out of the zone trying to make contact. As a result, even when Mejia made contact, it was often weak, as pitchers consistently threw him junk outside the zone, knowing that he’d chase. I posted these numbers from Fangraphs in a comment at the time, but they bear repeating: In the 1st half of 2019, despite seeing only 55.7% of his pitches in the zone (one of the lowest rates in the Majors), Mejia still swung at 45% of them, and only made contact on 66.7% of his swings overall, well below league averages. Additionally, he swung and missed on 14.6% of his swings overall, above league average rates. Add in the fact that his defense just wasn’t up to snuff yet, and you could understand why some folks were starting to see Mejia as a potential bust. His overly aggressive approach at the plate simply allowed opposing pitchers to take advantage of him, time and time again, and his defensive deficiencies were simply too glaring to justify giving him more playing time.

Fortunately, Mejia reined himself in during the 2nd half of 2019, tightening up his swing path as well as making more solid contact at the plate, as displayed in the below video. In this at-bat, Mejia worked the count to his advantage, and even though the pitch was still out of the zone, his more compact, controlled swing allowed him to make solid contact, and, well, just watch what happens:

Once he locked in those changes at the plate, his offensive production surged. From August to the end of September, Mejia slashed .333/.376/.563 and hit 4 HRs, 7 extra base-hits, and scored 14 runs across 31 games (93 plate appearances). He still K’d 20 times in that span, but that was actually a reduced rate (albeit slight) from what he’d done prior to August. Just as important, Mejia also displayed some improvements behind the plate, likely because his improved bat allowed the team to play Mejia at catcher more often. He finished the year as a slightly below MLB-average defensive catcher, according to Fangraph’s defensive runs above average rankings (#46 of catchers with at least 300 innings caught). Overall on the year, Mejia accounted for 0 defensive runs saved, far better than he was projected to finish prior to August, when he was at -3 defensive runs saved on the year.

Mejia may never be the defensive wizard that Austin Hedges is (few in the game are), but his skill at the plate more than makes up for it, and that’s why I think Mejia’s ready to take the next step in 2020. Mejia’s dramatic improvements at the plate in the 2nd half, especially his BABIP of .397 during that timeframe, shows Mejia is poised to entrench himself as the Padres’ primary backstop going forward, thanks to a middle-of-the-lineup bat, while also providing league-average defense. Mejia will drive in plenty of runs in 2020, provided someone gets on base ahead of him.

Speaking of that...

Breakout Candidate #3: OF Trent Grisham

Ok, I’ll admit, I was not a fan of AJ Preller’s 27 NOV trade of INF Luis Urias. Urias was one of my favorite prospects to keep track of prior to his call-up. I felt Urias hadn’t gotten a fair shake in 2019, left to languish on the bench while Ian Kinsler got the starts he should’ve. I felt that, with a good off-season, Urias would be ready to show what he was really capable of in 2020. Preller’s trade of him to the Brewers felt very premature.

Then I got a look at the guy we got back for him. No, not Zach Davies, the other guy:

Alright, color me intrigued. But a highlight video can make anyone look like a star in waiting.

So I started dipping into his minor league stats, and that’s when I saw why the Padres acquired him. Simply, Grisham has shown nothing but excellent on-base skills, a skill the Padres have sorely lacked for a considerable amount of time. He’s recorded an OBP of .347 or better at every stop in the minors, largely thanks to excellent walk rates. Case in point: Grisham posted an excellent 0.93 BB/K ratio between AA and AAA in 2019, good for 16th among 616 players in the upper minors (AA/AAA) with at least 250 plate appearances. Add in the fact Grisham had finally tapped into his power (32 HRs across 3 levels of play in 2019), coupled with a naturally selective approach at the plate, and you’ve got a guy who projects to be the Padres’ 4th best hitter in 2020, according to ZiPS.

Now, I don’t believe Grisham will be much of a power hitter for the Padres (I think his 30+ HRs last year were more a product of last year’s “rabbit ball”), but I do believe he’ll be a consistent, patient hitter, working counts until he can attack his pitch while also accruing a ton of walks to seemingly always be on-base. That’s exactly the type of player the team’s lacked on offense for years. Add in deceptive speed which allows him to play at a league average level across all 3 outfield positions (yes, that was an egregious error in the playoffs last year, but that seems to have been an error borne out of rushing, causing him to overrun the ball, which more experience will temper), and we’ve got a player poised to establish himself as a top of the lineup MLB regular in 2020, if not break-out, while still playing league average or better defense in 3 OF spots. We all know how much we’ve needed a guy like that in the lineup the last few years. I still may not like that we traded Urias, but I’m very happy to have a young player like Grisham on the team, who fills some glaring holes.

So those are my picks; agree, disagree, got other suggestions? Fire away in the comments. This is your chance to be optimistic! But, just so you all don’t think I’m some pie in the sky optimist, I’m working on a list of the Padres’ most likely to regress in 2020. Expect that out sometime hopefully next week.

Until then, enjoy this dose of optimism, and go Padres!