West is best: California teams primed to shine
Massive overhaul has Padres neck and neck with high-powered in-state foes
Baseball in the Golden State of California never has been so, well, golden. Coming off a 2014 season that seemingly couldn't get any better -- with four of the state's five teams making the postseason and the amazing Giants winning another World Series -- promise of an even more fascinating 2015 is in the cards.
The Padres no longer are the overlooked fifth wheel down by the border. They are most assuredly relevant, thanks to a stunning series of moves by new general manager A.J. Preller surrounding the industry's blockbuster Winter Meetings staged in their glorious city.
Starving for offense and high-profile names to excite the fan base, the Padres will send out a 2015 lineup featuring three of the most exciting weapons the game has to offer.
No matter where manager Bud Black slots them, Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers will have the attention of any starter who goes to work against the Padres -- including the National League West's dominant artists, Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner. Lefties, even the elite, will play into the strength of a Padres attack stacked with right-handed bats.
"If we score more and we pitch like we did last year, absolutely we can contend," Black said. "No doubt about it."
Should Myers be part of a rumored swap that would bring Phillies ace Cole Hamels home to San Diego, the Padres would have a rotation that could surpass those flaunted by the Giants and Dodgers within the division, as well as the Angels and A's in the American League West.
The Padres landed Kemp, Upton and Myers without uncoupling starters Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross and Ian Kennedy. Sturdy veteran Dan Haren, sent to the Marlins by the Dodgers, would love to alight in San Diego and provide veteran depth. Through the team's darkest stretches, the bullpen, adeptly managed by Black and pitching coach Darren Balsley, has been stellar.
As daunting as dazzling Petco Park has been for hitters, bringing in the fences has made it less intimidating than in the days when sluggers shook their heads in disbelief as drives fell into gloves short of the warning track.
Kemp, Upton and Myers swing from the right side and are all capable of taking advantage of a left-field wall that is approachable. Catcher Derek Norris, arriving from the A's, and third baseman Will Middlebrooks, bringing his raw tools from Boston, also boast muscle from the right side.
Kemp, more familiar with San Diego than the others as a division menace, has had no problem flourishing in his new home. The man from Oklahoma has put together a .322/.372/.495 line in Petco Park that suggests he has no issues with its dimensions.
Last season, the Padres' 3-4-5 hitters batted .225 with a .307 on-base percentage. The team was last in the Majors in average (.226), OBP (.292) and slugging (.342). Somehow, Black managed his runs-challenged outfit to a third-place finish in the NL West with 77 wins, ahead of the Rockies and D-backs.
The prospect of a sudden leap into contention is not unreasonable given the Padres' pitching -- second in the NL in ERA at 3.27 -- and the anticipated offensive upgrades.
While the Padres, dealing from their youthful roster and deep farm system, have taken several bold steps forward, fans of the four other California clubs are weighing changes, not quite as secure in the belief their teams are improved.
Altering their chemistry and upgrading the defense with the additions of shortstop Jimmy Rollins, second baseman Howie Kendrick and catcher Yasmani Grandal, the Dodgers will have to compensate for the loss of offensive firepower generated by Kemp, Hanley Ramirez and Dee Gordon. An opening has been created in center field for Joc Pederson, who has the full package of skills to complement Adrian Gonzalez, Yasiel Puig and Co.
Free-agent additions Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson bring above-average stuff, but also injury histories. The bullpen could use another dependable arm to go with the arrival of Joel Peralta from Tampa Bay. Andre Ethier, a left-handed weapon in his prime, should have appeal as a trade chip assuming the Dodgers consume a chunk of his salary.
The Giants lost the Jon Lester sweepstakes to the Cubs and watched Pablo Sandoval move to Boston, leaving concerns in the rotation and the heart of the lineup. Newly acquired Casey McGehee was durable and productive at third for the Marlins last year, and the hope is he can replace the Panda. Jake Peavy returns to assist Bumgarner in a rotation that could use returns to form by Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum. The bullpen remains rock solid with Sergio Romo staying home.
The Angels, who won more regular-season games (98) than any team in the Majors, must fill the void left by the departure of the consistently productive Kendrick. A comeback season by Josh Hamilton would be huge. Andrew Heaney, acquired in the Kendrick deal, should give the rotation a lively young arm to pair with Garrett Richards as Tyler Skaggs rebounds from Tommy John surgery.
Athletics fans are accustomed to change, but this latest extreme makeover -- notably the trade of Josh Donaldson to Toronto -- has been even more shocking than usual. GM Billy Beane is a master operator whose gamesmanship rarely has been so widely questioned. Scorecard sales will be on the rise in Oakland.