Questions remain before Padres pack for international flight

March 6th, 2024

PEORIA, Ariz. – There’s one week until the Padres board their flight to Korea. They have some cramming to do.

Before they depart for their season-opening series against the Dodgers in Seoul, there are quite a few questions to answer. Namely, these:

1. Anyone else on the way?
Or is this roster the roster they’re rolling with?

Sure, it’s possible the Padres would add after the Seoul Series. They shouldn’t -- and don’t -- feel rushed into making transactions just because their season starts eight days before the rest of the league.

Still, they could clearly still use another outfielder or two and maybe another starting pitcher. When general manager A.J. Preller traded Juan Soto and Trent Grisham to the Yankees, he readily acknowledged as much.

In the three months since, Preller has done little to add to the outfield and rotation. There’s still time. But it’s running out.

2. Is Merrill ready? (And if so, where does he play?)
Entering Wednesday, had posted a .273/.360/.318 slash line in Cactus League play. If those numbers aren’t eye-popping, it’s because the Padres have regularly ensured he’s starting and facing the big league-caliber arms.

Merrill has played only 46 games above High-A ball, giving reason to wonder whether he’d be ready to make the jump. But the Padres’ outfield is thin, and Merrill’s plate approach is clearly refined for his age.

Merrill’s transition to the outfield has been smooth. He’s a candidate to open the season as the starting left fielder, and he recently began taking reps in center, too. The Padres are asking a lot of their 20-year-old No. 2 prospect. They staunchly believe he can handle it.

3. Who fills out the rotation?
No, this question doesn’t need to be answered by the time the Padres board their plane. They’re permitted to travel with an additional five players, and most of those extra players likely will be pitchers. The battle for the two available rotation spots will continue into the team’s two exhibition games against Team Korea and the LG Twins.

Still, there are finite spots available on that plane. Thus far, Jhony Brito and Matt Waldron have been the standouts. Randy Vásquez and Pedro Avila likely have one more Cactus League outing apiece to make their cases.

4. Who fills out the bottom of the lineup and the bench?
Another question that won’t get an answer until after those exhibitions. But there are still major decisions to be made in the next week, considering the bulk of those extra spots are expected to go to pitchers.

The Padres could travel with 14 or 15 position players. Right now, they have eight locks, leaving six or seven vacancies -- and more than a dozen players in contention. There are openings on the roster for a starting left fielder, center fielder and DH, plus three spots on the bench (with Jurickson Profar filling one of those roles).

Merrill, Jakob Marsee and Graham Pauley could earn a spot. But Shildt expressed an aversion to promoting his top prospects unless they’re going to play every day. (It should be noted, there are everyday jobs available for all three -- left, center and DH.)

As for the bench, José Azocar, Eguy Rosario and Matthew Batten headline what Shildt termed a “fierce” competition.

5. Can Machado play third base? (If not, who does?)
Coming off October elbow surgery, has served as DH in all six of his Cactus League starts. He has yet to play third -- though he has gone through all of his defensive drills, and he’s throwing regularly.

That said, Machado’s throwing progression is being closely monitored, and there’s a chance he won’t be fully built up to play the hot corner against the Dodgers. That would relegate him to DH, freeing up third base.

Pauley is an option, albeit with questions about his glove. Batten is an option, with questions about his bat. Machado, of course, remains an option -- but with the DH spot available, the Padres won’t rush him back defensively.

6. Is Matsui healthy?
was dominant in the Padres’ first game of the spring, striking out all three hitters he faced and prompting the Dodgers’ Gavin Lux to call his stuff, “Pretty damn good.” Then Matsui got hurt.

Matsui, who is likely bound for a prominent setup role, has been dealing with back spasms and hasn’t pitched since, though he threw a bullpen session on Tuesday. It’s a race against the clock to get Matsui ready for Opening Day. Right now, he appears on track to win that race. But any further setback would jeopardize his status.