Merrill in CF? Here's where Padres' OF race stands

March 4th, 2024

PEORIA, Ariz. -- In the aftermath of the December trade that sent Juan Soto and Trent Grisham to New York, the Padres were left with glaring holes in their outfield. It’s been nearly three months since that deal, and they’ve done little to address those vacancies.

The Padres arrived at Spring Training last month with a blend of unproven prospects and non-roster invites vying for those spots. It seemed a near certainty that they’d be adding to that mix. And while they still might -- an offensive addition before Opening Day is the likeliest outcome -- the early performance from their internal options has hugely been encouraging.

“It’s a balancing act, you don’t want to over-evaluate Spring Training,” said Padres manager Mike Shildt. “But nonetheless, we are here in Spring Training. Guys are competing for spots and playing well in the games. We can’t ignore what we’re seeing.

“These guys are making it tough. They’re all playing well.”

Here’s a look at where things stand in the Padres’ current outfield picture.

Who’s still in the mix?
Among the current outfielders, there are two locks for the Opening Day roster. Fernando Tatis Jr. will be the team’s starting right fielder, and Jurickson Profar would ideally serve as a versatile bench bat.

José Azocar appears to have a leg up on the competition for a roster spot. He’s already proven himself a useful bench outfielder, capable of pinch-running, pinch-hitting and serving as a defensive replacement.

Azocar is having a nice spring. Then again, so has the entire group of outfield contenders. Óscar Mercado and Cal Mitchell have been non-roster standouts. Tim Locastro, signed to a Minor League deal last week, has five hits in his first six at-bats.

Two prospects have turned heads, as well. Jakob Marsee, the reigning Arizona Fall League MVP, is staking his claim to center field. Jackson Merrill, the No. 12 prospect in baseball (per MLB Pipeline) and a career shortstop learning the outfield this spring, has made a seamless transition.

Which jobs are up for grabs?
Three of them: center field, left field and a bench spot.

Azocar, Marsee and Mercado are vying for that center field job, and perhaps there’s a platoon available to Shildt, featuring, say, the lefty-hitting Marsee and the righty-hitting Azocar. Lately, however, Merrill has been starting in center, too, and the Padres clearly want a hard look at him there.

Mercado and Merrill are also in the mix for the left-field job, joined by Profar, Locastro and Mitchell. Most of that group is in contention for bench places, though Shildt recently made it clear he’d prefer to avoid calling up a prospect -- like Marsee or Merrill -- for them only to get sporadic playing time.

Is Merrill really an option in center?
If he wasn’t, the Padres wouldn’t be starting him there so regularly.

Ultimately, it might be too much of an ask for Merrill -- or anyone -- to take over a premium defensive position with so little experience. (Under general manager A.J. Preller, the Padres have learned hard lessons from fielding unproven center fielders. Namely, Wil Myers.)

But maybe Merrill’s ceiling in center is enough. He’ll be flanked by a Platinum Glove Award winner in right field, after all. Still, Shildt’s standards for the position are high.

“Championships are won up the middle,” Shildt said. “You look at teams that compete at high levels for championships, they’re really good up the middle.”

The likelier option is that the Padres want Merrill getting reps in center because it’s a position he needs to know, even if he’s not starting there. If Shildt were to pinch-hit for his starting center fielder, there are benefits to Merrill being able to move from left to center in-game.

“I don’t think it’s a challenge,” Merrill said of learning multiple outfield spots in one camp. “I just think it’s really about: Whatever they need, whenever they need it.”

Could they still look to add?
Yes. They’re looking right now, as you read this. No matter how well the current group of outfielders is performing, the Padres remain active in searching for another bat, team sources have indicated.

The greatest need is in center field. But center fielders are hard to come by. The easiest path to an acquisition is a corner outfielder. (Which, perhaps, is where Merrill’s flexibility comes into play.)

The group of available free-agent corner outfielders includes Tommy Pham, Adam Duvall and Eddie Rosario. A trade remains possible, as well. With 10 days until they land in Korea, the Padres are active in search of upgrades.

Their internal options are giving them plenty to think about, too.