What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, the Padres entered their offseason fresh off a last-place finish. They needed a new manager, a roster overhaul and answers up the middle of the diamond.
Check. Check. And check.
This offseason came too soon for their liking. But organizationally, the Padres are in a much better spot than they were a season ago.
Still, there are some important questions that need to be answered this offseason. Here are five:
1) What's the recovery status of the two aces?
The Padres will always be left with a wretched "what if" from their 2020 season. What if Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet hadn't sustained arm injuries in their final starts of the regular season? The two combined for just one postseason start, which resulted in Clevinger's exit after just 26 pitches.
More important: What happens next? Both Clevinger and Lamet saw elbow specialists after the season and neither will require surgery this offseason, general manager A.J. Preller said earlier this month. Both are expected to be at full strength for Spring Training.
"Everybody's been in agreement with both players that it's not something in either case that's surgical and needs to go the operation route," Preller said. "It's something that the doctors feel very confident that, a few weeks down, they'll be in a better spot and be able to come to Spring Training full-go. I think we got some really good news on that front with both guys."
Still, it’s worth keeping an eye on Clevinger and Lamet as they begin to ramp up toward throwing later in the offseason.
The Padres got assurances that Clevinger could do no further damage to the injury by attempting to pitch through it. But it's unclear what the recovery process might look like and whether it could require arthroscopic surgery.
As for Lamet, his injury status is even less clear, mostly because he never quite worked his way back to the point of pitching in games. According to Preller, Lamet had been sore in the "biceps, distal triceps area." While the Padres were still playing, Lamet was evaluated by an elbow specialist and was cleared to continue throwing, which is an undoubtedly positive sign.
2) What else is needed in the rotation?
Lamet broke out in a big way, posting a 2.09 ERA with 93 strikeouts in 69 innings this season. Clevinger, meanwhile, only made eight starts with a 3.02 ERA, but his 3.19 mark over the past five seasons is fifth among all qualifying starters.
But Preller isn't one to rest on his laurels, and if there's a major rotation upgrade within his price range -- whether via trade or free agency -- you can bet he'll pursue it.
“We continue to subscribe to the theory of: as many starters as possible,” Preller said. “That's a good problem to have. We can put guys in the 'pen. Guys can get optioned to the Minor Leagues. We're hoping there's not going to be injury, but that's always a possibility. For us, that would be the best scenario -- you look up and we have too many starters and we're deciding what to do.”
Of course there's another question that -- if answered -- changes the dynamic ...
3) How do you fix Paddack?
A year ago, the Padres knew Lamet was on the verge of a breakout. But his fastball was just too hittable. So they invested time and resources, sending staff to the Dominican Republic to work with Lamet -- strengthening to improve his velocity, mechanical tweaks to improve the pitch's efficiency.
Sure enough, Lamet's velocity and spin rate both ticked up significantly. The results were precisely what the Padres hoped for. Opponents batted .329 against Lamet fastballs in 2019. They batted just .225 in '20. Pairing that fastball with one of the sport's best sliders, Lamet became a certifiable ace.
This winter, the Padres are facing a similar task with Chris Paddack, who owns one of the sport's best changeups -- and plenty of swagger -- but a fastball that abandoned him in 2020. Paddack's spin rate ticked down significantly, and opponents hit .308 against the pitch, after they’d batted .204 against it during his rookie season.
For all the talk of Paddack needing a third pitch -- he has a passable curveball, and he's dabbled with a cutter -- he was successful with just two pitches in 2019. But Paddack certainly won't be successful if he only has one.
“He obviously has a great changeup and developing breaking pitches,” Preller said. “But the fastball command is the biggest thing, and we've talked about getting the fastball back to the dominant pitch that it's been for him in the past and try to figure out why it wasn't quite that this year.
“Again, you bet on people. He's an extremely hard worker. He's a very competitive person. … He started Opening Day for us, started the first playoff game for us. We see him as a front-of-the-rotation type.”
4) Who are the complementary pieces on offense?
Offensively, there aren't many lingering questions. The Padres had concerns up the middle last season. They answered those by trading for Trent Grisham, Jake Cronenworth and Austin Nola (and by getting a major defensive turnaround from Fernando Tatis Jr.).
The Padres declined Moreland's $3 million option for 2021, making him a free agent, but there's still a chance they re-sign him. It's possible they bring back Profar, too. But he's a 27-year-old versatile free agent coming off his best offensive season. That will be decidedly more difficult.
5) What happens to the two free agent closers?
For nearly three years, Kirby Yates anchored the Padres' bullpen. But his 2020 season ended early due to bone chips in his elbow, so the Padres traded for right-hander Trevor Rosenthal, who didn't allow an earned run in nine appearances down the stretch.
Both will become free agents, and the Padres’ most important task this winter might be stabilizing their bullpen.
If there's a major shakeup anywhere on the Padres' roster, it will almost certainly be in the relief corps.
“Every year, even if you've got a really successful 'pen, I think you've got to really reshuffle the deck or at least be open,” Preller said. “… We'll look at all our options here over the course of the next few months.”