Padres' plan could come to fruition in 2016

Veteran roster has potential to make Friars contenders in NL West

January 25th, 2016

Sometimes you can't judge a baseball recipe after one year. Sometimes it takes more than a year for the ingredients to blend together to produce the winning stew.

Consider the Royals, who were a popular pick for the 2013 season after adding James Shields. Or the Blue Jays, another hot choice for '13 after an especially busy offseason in which they imported Jose Reyes, R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and many others. It took them two years to deliver, but like the Royals they did, albeit a little behind schedule.

With that in mind, we shouldn't forget about the Mariners. They were the best team in Arizona last spring but didn't have a winning month until September. It cost the team's architects their jobs, but new general manager Jerry Dipoto and rookie manager Scott Servais could benefit greatly from the foundation laid by former GM Jack Zduriencik and former manager Lloyd McClendon.

Along those lines, is there a more fascinating team around than the Padres?

Bud Black, a universally respected manager, was the only high-level casualty from the 74-win season that followed GM A.J. Preller's audacious arrival to Petco Park.

Padres executive chairman Ron Fowler and team president Mike Dee haven't backed off in terms of their ambition. But the departure of free agents Justin Upton and Ian Kennedy and the trade of Craig Kimbrel has San Diego on track for a $98 million payroll, down about $10 million from the start of 2015.

Teams have been asking about Tyson Ross and, to a lesser degree, Andrew Cashner and Shields, throughout the Hot Stove season. But Preller didn't completely dismantle after the deals that sent Kimbrel to the Red Sox and setup man Joaquin Benoit to the Mariners. He knows there are teams that sneak up on the competition every year.

While the analytic view is that the National League West will be a three-team fight between the Giants, Dodgers and D-backs -- and FanGraphs' metrics project a 74-win repeat from San Diego -- a strong start could get the Padres out of the gate with the momentum that was lacking through 2015.

There are players whose influence on their teammates matters, and Shields is in the top five of those around Major League Baseball. If you don't believe it, you should talk to Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer and Ned Yost about how he changed the culture in Kansas City.

During the Winter Meetings, new Padres manager Andy Green said he's been impressed by the mentality of the Friars' veteran holdovers.

"My favorite part is sitting across from Tyson Ross having breakfast, finding out who he is as a person and how driven he is, coming in the day after Thanksgiving, seeing him dripping in sweat because he's working out. He has a passion to be the best he can be," Green said. "Seeing Shields and his intensity, and who he is as a person and how desperately he doesn't want to experience what happened last year in San Diego and how hungry he is to experience what Kansas City experienced. He had a hand in creating that culture there.

"Spent a few hours with Matt Kemp, just listening to him. All of these guys have inside of themselves a steadfast desire for this club to be way better than last year. And they have great ideas, things that went wrong last year that they don't want to see happen again this year.''

Neither Shields nor Cashner pitched as well as they should have last season, contributing to the Padres' 4.13 rotation ERA, which ranked right in the middle of the pack. Ross was solid (3.26 ERA over 196 innings, with a 2.98 FIP) but the teams trying to pry him away from Preller project he'll be better as he enters his age-29 season.

Ross, Shields and Cashner (who will be a free agent after the season) have to lead the way for the Padres to compete. Green and pitching coach Darren Balsley need to get better results from the bottom of the rotation, and Preller could help them out by stepping in to land one of the free agents on the market.

There's not a better team around to convince Buehrle this isn't the time to retire. He might go to San Diego for one year and stay for five. But barring an addition, the best hope is probably that Brandon Maurer can take advantage of a Spring Training chance to start. Others in the mix are 25-year-old rookie Colin Rea, lefty Robbie Erlin, Odrisamer Despaigne and maybe Drew Pomeranz (more on him later).

Upton was by far the Padres' most productive hitter last season. He'll be missed. But significant contributions from Kemp and Wil Myers (injuries limited him to 60 games) would more than make up for Upton's loss. Myers, miscast in center field, could benefit from Jon Jay having been acquired in a trade for second baseman Jedd Gyorko, whose place has been taken by Cory Spangenberg.

While Gyorko's power contributed to San Diego finishing eighth in the NL in home runs, he made more than his share of outs. The job for Green, bench coach Mark McGwire and hitting coach Alan Zinter is to create more scoring chances, as the Padres were last in the Major Leagues with a .300 on-base percentage.

The challenge is to improve enough to be average, not below average. The Astros did that last season, improving their team OBP from .309 to .315, and it played a role in their trip to the postseason -- albeit probably not as much as Dallas Keuchel's American League Cy Young Award-winning season or Carlos Correa's arrival. But still.

Jay could be a big help if he gets back to his pre-2015 form, as he has a .354 career OBP. But it's at shortstop where the Padres have the best chance for addition by subtraction. Alexei Ramirez is a streak hitter but had a .325 on-base percentage after the All-Star break last season. He'll get many of the at-bats that went to Alexi Amarista (.204 batting average, .257 OBP).

While Green faces decision in how to use his guys, it seems likely that Derek Norris will get more at-bats as a first baseman than a catcher. That assumes that Austin Hedges or newcomer Christian Bethancourt plays well enough to replace Norris as the primary catcher.

Perhaps no area of the Padres is more problematic than the bullpen. But you can't blame Preller for dealing away Kimbrel and Benoit for a truckload of good prospects, given that the 'pen was a mess even with them in it.

The hope is that Fernando Rodney, Pomeranz and holdover Kevin Quackenbush can lock down the last three innings, while a cast of newcomers including Carlos Villanueva, Cesar Vargas, Buddy Baumann and Rule 5 Draft picks Josh Martin and Blake Smith adds the depth that was missing last year.

Nothing's going to be more fun in the spring for Preller and Green than watching the prospects new to the organization. Manuel Margot, the headliner in the Kimbrel trade, is ranked No. 1 among San Diego prospects by He and 2013 first-rounder Hunter Renfroe, the No. 2 prospect, are knocking on the door. Ditto No. 7 prospect Travis Jankowski, the Stony Brook product who made his debut last season.

Twenty-year-old shortstop Javier Guerra (No. 3 prospect) and left-hander Logan Allen (No. 19) are further away, but it's easy to picture them drawing crowds to the back fields throughout the spring.

If things go badly in the first half of the season, there's no doubt Preller will be a major seller before the Aug. 1 non-waiver Trade Deadline. But he's not writing off 2016, and you can see why. Shields and his teammates have something to prove, and another season brings another shot. It's one of the beauties of the game.