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Padres Spring Training: What I’m Watching For

Here’s what I’ve got my eye on as things get going.

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San Diego Padres Spring Training
Blake Snell throws during practice on February 17, 2021
Photo by Matt Thomas/San Diego Padres/Getty Images

Good morning all. I hope that you’re in a warm clime, and if you’re not, you’re safe and warm because, baby, it’s cold outside. I swear, I think I’ve shoveled more snow the last few days than I did during my entire 3-year tour in Germany.

So with that, I’m thinking warm thoughts. Specifically, I’m thinking about Padres Spring Training, and what I’ll be watching for as practices and games get underway.

What else can the $340 MILLION Man do?

Wild Card Round - St Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres - Game Two
The Phenom.
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

You’re pumped about this, I’m pumped about this. After literal decades of watching the Padres lose their best and brightest young stars to other teams willing to cut checks, the Padres shelled out $340 million, the largest pre-arbitration deal ever and 3rd largest deal in MLB HISTORY, to extend SS Fernando Tatis Jr.’s contract for the next 14 years. He’ll be a Padre until he’s 35 years old. Be still, my beating heart.

FTJ got that deal, because in 2020, he somehow showed that 2019 was just a taste of things to come for the once in a generation athlete. Commit 18 errors in only 83 games in 2019? Lock down possibly the toughest defensive position in the game and commit only 3 errors total in 2020 while leading all shortstops in MLB’s Outs Above Average metric. Finish as the runner-up for the NL Rookie of the Year? Improve on that by finishing in 4th-place for the NL MVP by raising his walk rate, dropping his strikeouts, and leading all qualified hitters in average exit velocity, hard-hit rate, and barrel rate, per Statcast measurements while smashing 17 home runs, one off the NL lead.

The stats alone justify the contract; thanks to his bat alone, FTJ’s already on a Hall of Fame trajectory. But FTJ is more than just numbers on the back of his baseball card. It’s his charisma, his swagger, the sheer spectacle with which he plays. Tatis celebrates. He exudes confidence. That’s what makes him one of (if not the) the Faces of MLB right now.

Is there risk to this deal? Sure, just like with any long-term deal. But honestly, this deal looks more like a steal, particularly when you account for further years of inflation, which will make the $29 million annually for a player of Tatis’s talents look like chump change. I personally can’t wait to see what’s next. Can he be MLB’s first 40-40 player since Alfonso Soriano did it with the Nationals in 2006? Can he be MLB’s first 50-50 man?? Can he become just the 2nd Padre ever to win the MVP, while leading the club to postseason glory??? Really and truly, I have no idea what FTJ’s limits are, but I know I’m going to love watching every minute of it.

Can the “other” Youngsters take the next step?

Wild Card Round - St Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres - Game One
CF Trent Grisham and 2B Jake Cronenworth
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Part of the reason so many people are high on the Padres isn’t just because of FTJ and our well-paid vets playing well (though that does help). No, the biggest reason so many pundits are high on the Padres is because they also have so many young players that have become viable MLB starters. Our own johnjprecoda pointed this out already, but it bears repeating: CF Trent Grisham, he of the Gold-Glove defense, already solid slashline, and F@#!-you-levels of Dodger Hate would be the talk of San Diego if we didn’t have FTJ, Machado, and a postseason run to talk about first. John already covered this well, so I’ll just reiterate: if Grisham, still only 23-years old, progresses just a little further and posts something like a .270/.380/.550 slashline while hitting 20-ish homers? The ownership group better have another cash call, because Grisham will need to get paid as well.

Jake Cronenworth is another young guy who paid immediate dividends for the Padres in 2020. Originally seen as the “least valuble” player in the deal that brought LF Tommy Pham to town, Cronenworth rapidly impressed the coaching staff, making the team as a utility infielder. The athletic Cronenworth continued to open eyes during the season, first with his defense at 1B covering for Eric Hosmer when Hos hit the IL, and then with his bat, hitting .333/.394/.617 in his first 20 games. In fact, Cronenworth’s hot start (his 1.011 OPS through 20 games is the best in Padres history) allowed him to supplant Jurickson Profar as the team’s 2B. Despite a late season swoon that likely cost him the NL Rookie of the Year award (he batted .183/.275/.268 over his final 23 games), Cro still led NL rookies in runs, extra-base hits (22), doubles (15), triples (3) and total bases (82) while finishing 2nd in RBIs (20), fWAR (1.4), hits (49) and walks (18). Even though Cro might lack a clearly defined position, given the acquisition of Ha-Seong Kim, he’ll likely open the season as the team’s starter at 2B, particularly against RHP. If he addresses his splits against LHP (he has a .218/.295/.255 slash against LHP so far), he’s the team’s starter at 2B for years to come. Even if he doesn’t take any steps forward, Cro’s worst case scenario is as a super-utility man who will log starter-level innings, maybe even getting another look as a 2-way player (in college and in the minors, Cro threw a low-90s fastball that could occasionally touch 94-96 MPH, an above-average split-finger fastball, and flashed a below-average slider and curve), which, I might add, would still be incredibly valuable to the team. Me, I’m betting Cronenworth, a lifelong baseball rat, will put in the work, and can’t wait to see it in Spring Training.

Will the Sherriff return to form?

Wild Card Round - St Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres - Game One
RHP Chris Paddack.
Photo by Matt Thomas/San Diego Padres/Getty Images

After a dominant 2019 that saw him post a 3.33 ERA in 140.2 IP with a 9.8 K/9 and only 2 BB/9, 2020 proved to be a major step backwards for young RHP Chris Paddack. The interrupted start of the season apparently caused some mechanical issues or bad habits to fester. Paddack seemingly lost the ability to consistently locate his fastball in 2020. Compared to 2019, Paddack’s fastball dropped and ran more. Additionally, he also threw his fastball very predictably. Despite incorporating a cutter and throwing his changeup and curveball more in 2020, he still threw his fastball nearly 60% of the time. Add it all up, and opposing batters could sit back and wait for Paddack to throw his fastball, and tee off (which they did). Opponents posted a .308 batting average against and slugged .658, just off Paddack’s fastball. In fact, of all of Paddack’s pitches, only his changeup posted a solid run value, but he only threw that pitch 31% of the time. Add it all up, and Paddack was essentially a 2-pitch pitcher, with only 1 of them being effective.

Fortunately, the Padres have a model for helping Paddack, and that’s the work they put in with RHP Dinelson Lamet after the 2019 season. The Padres sent several members of their coaching staff to work with Lamet, specifically on his mechanics for his fastball, slider, and “slurve.” We saw the results in 2020, where Lamet moved into veritable ace status, particularly by riding his slider to an insane .080 BAA, and a .120 SLG rate, all while throwing it more than 50% of the time.

Even if Paddack doesn’t achieve quite the dramatic turnaround that Lamet did, even returning to 2019 levels of effectiveness would be remarkable, and would turn the Padres’ starting rotation into a veritable 4-headed monster. I personally believe Paddack will reinvent himself as a more-talented version of now-departed Zach Davies, using his change-up as his primary pitch, and operating almost mostly down in the zone. Spring training will be our first chance to see whether Paddack has made the changes needed to return to elite status. I know I’ll be watching.

Which of the Kids will force their way up?

San Diego Padres Summer Workouts
LHP MacKenzie Gore
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Much of the attention the last few years has focused on the pending emergence of the Padres’ young talent, and for good reason. The Padres’ farm system is one of the deepest in MLB, while also boasting numerous prospects with potentially high ceilings. Even with all of GM A.J. Preller’s wheeling and dealing, the Padres still landed as many or more prospects on Top-100 MLB prospects lists, whether that was ESPN’s list, Baseball America’s, or FanGraphs. We got a taste of some of that talent last year, when LHP Ryan Weathers made his MLB debut by pitching in the NLDS against the Dodgers, throwing 1.1 scoreless innings. We also saw guys like OF Jorge Oña and C Luis Campusano make appearances with the club, smashing their first homers at the big league level. All that happened despite top prospect and presumed future ace MacKenzie Gore being left at the practice site throughout 2020.

It’s no secret that the pandemic limited or even hindered the development of many prospects in 2020. But this is a hungry bunch, and many of the team’s top prospects spent 2020 at the team’s alternate site, getting high-level reps and development they otherwise wouldn’t have received. Add in some of the intriguing offseason signings/acquisitions like C Victor Caratini, INF Ha-Seong Kim, and OF Brian O’Grady, and the Padres have a plethora of versatile, intriguing players looking to establish themselves as contributors on a playoff contender.

The best part of all this? The team returned all 8 of their defensive starters from 2020 (9 if you count LF/2B Jurickson Profar, which you should). Gone are the days where the club would stash talented but ultimately not MLB-worthy players on the active roster; every player, from Yu Darvish down to the 26th man on the active roster, will be expected to contribute at an MLB-level. Me, I’ll be interested to see if the kids force the issue, especially in our bullpen and on our bench, since both are areas I have some concerns with. Can Weathers, Gore, and/or Morejon earn a rotation or bullpen slot? Does Campusano or Oña hit so much that they force the team to part ways with Jorge Mateo or another veteran? Do any of the young kids like Robert Hassel III or CJ Abrams show that they’re much closer to the MLB-level than anyone could’ve dreamed by now? Probably not, but hey, it’s spring; anything’s possible!

So that’s what I’m watching for this Spring Training. What about you guys? Let me know what you’re watching for in the comments.