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Padres' center-field race as wide open as ever

@AJCassavell
February 20, 2020

PEORIA, Ariz. -- The Padres entered February with question marks surrounding their center-field situation in 2020. And that was before they traded Manuel Margot to Tampa Bay.

PEORIA, Ariz. -- The Padres entered February with question marks surrounding their center-field situation in 2020. And that was before they traded Manuel Margot to Tampa Bay.

That deal left the Padres' center-field race as wide open as it’s ever been. It's arguably the team’s most intriguing positional battle in Spring Training, and the outcome will have a trickle-down effect on the entire roster.

It's possible general manager A.J. Preller makes a late-spring addition. It's also possible that top outfield prospect Taylor Trammell makes a push. But both of those scenarios are unlikely. If neither comes to fruition, these are the Padres' four options for center field:

1. Play Grisham every day
Ultimately, Trent Grisham might be the biggest beneficiary of the Margot trade. Margot was destined to start in center field against left-handed pitching -- forming a platoon with either Grisham or Franchy Cordero. Now, there’s a spot open for one of the Padres' young left-handed hitters to play every day.

Grisham is the safest bet for that role. Cordero has a long track record of struggling against left-handed pitching. Grisham wasn't great last season, but he's had plenty of success vs. lefties in the Minor Leagues. And if Grisham is playing every day, there's not much reason for him to play anywhere but center.

Thus far, his defense has impressed the Padres. He played mostly in the outfield corners in Milwaukee last season (because he wasn't about to supplant Lorenzo Cain in center). But Statcast pegged Grisham as having one of the best jumps in baseball last season, and he spent most of his Minor League career as a successful center fielder.

"I didn't realize how fast he was covering ground out there," said associate manager Skip Schumaker, who has spent some time working with the team's outfielders. "That's been, so far, a highlight [of Spring Training] for me."

2. Platoon Cordero and Lagares
If Cordero produces this spring, he could easily win the bulk of the reps in center field. But it's hard to envision a scenario in which he would play every day like Grisham could. Cordero is a legitimate weapon against right-handed pitching. But he owns a career .200/.226/.367 slash line against lefties, and that's not good enough.

If the Padres determine that Cordero is their strongest center field option, it might prompt another roster decision. San Diego inked Juan Lagares to a Minor League deal earlier this month, though the veteran center fielder can opt out of that deal if he doesn't make the club. In the past, Lagares has posted strong splits against left-handed pitching -- which could make him a worthy complement for Cordero in center.

(It's worth noting that Abraham Almonte checks most of the same boxes as Lagares as a potential platoon center fielder. Almonte isn't the defender that Lagares is, but he’s a switch-hitter and was excellent for Arizona after his September callup last season.)

"Those are guys that have had some big league time -- Almonte, Lagares," said Padres general manager A.J. Preller. "Jayce [Tingler, Padres manager] will do a really good job of mixing and matching that group, especially early in camp. It's a process, and as spring goes on, we'll start to whittle it down and determine the best mix."

3. Platoon Grisham and Lagares
The Padres would love to see Grisham seize the job by tearing it up against both lefties and righties this spring. It would set things up nicely in right field, where Wil Myers would share time with either Cordero or Josh Naylor.

But Grisham is only 23, and his big league experience is limited to 183 plate appearances. The Padres traded for him because they feel he could be an effective everyday outfielder. But if they aren't completely comfortable with his glove in center or his ability to hit lefties, Lagares would provide a security blanket.

Lagares' track record as a defender is excellent (though his metrics dipped last year, and he will turn 31 later this spring). He's a nice fit for the role of fifth outfielder -- and probably a much better fit than either Cordero or Naylor, because the Padres would prefer they get regular playing time.

Then again, the Padres might not want a fifth outfielder in the first place. Francisco Mejía, Jurickson Profar, Greg Garcia and possibly even Ty France could play outfield in a pinch. If the Padres carry four outfielders, they'd free up space for someone like Jake Cronenworth, a two-way player who can pitch and play middle infield.

4. Use Myers in center again
This is the most unlikely scenario of the bunch. The Padres seem content to use Myers primarily as a corner outfielder, and he'll continue to get reps at first base, where he'll be backing up Eric Hosmer. All things being equal, San Diego would prefer to avoid using Myers in center field.

"Probably going to be a little more in the corner outfield spots," Preller said of Myers' spring positioning. "He'll probably get a day a week at first base as well. Again, he's a versatile player. He's played all over the field. As Spring Training goes ... we'll start to look at exactly where he's playing and put him in spots we'll see him in at the beginning of the season. "

But offense is king. If Myers is hitting like the 2016 All-Star version of himself, the Padres will find a way to get his bat in the lineup. Ideally that's in right field. But if Naylor out-performs Grisham and Cordero, Myers is suddenly the only center-field option in that lineup. (The same holds true if the Padres want to give Mejía a day off behind the plate while playing him in right to keep his bat in the lineup.)

With Myers in center and either Mejía or Naylor in right, the Padres are sacrificing an awful lot defensively. Clearly, that isn't their preferred alignment right now. But they still have six weeks to figure things out.

AJ Cassavell covers the Padres for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.