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5 Padres storylines for upcoming season

@AJCassavell
June 30, 2020

SAN DIEGO -- The last time the Padres took the field for a baseball game feels like a lifetime ago. It was a drizzly Wednesday night in Peoria, Ariz. Luis Patiño and MacKenzie Gore, big-name prospects looking to make an impression, each pitched an inning. Tommy Pham was on the

SAN DIEGO -- The last time the Padres took the field for a baseball game feels like a lifetime ago. It was a drizzly Wednesday night in Peoria, Ariz. Luis Patiño and MacKenzie Gore, big-name prospects looking to make an impression, each pitched an inning. Tommy Pham was on the mend from an elbow injury, nearing a return to left field. Closer Kirby Yates was ramping up, set to enter a contract year.

A day later, the baseball world shut down. Spring Training was canceled and the season suspended as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded. Much much bigger storylines emerged globally. So you'd be forgiven for setting those Padres storylines on the shelf for a few months.

Padres FAQ: Details on the upcoming season | MLB FAQ

It’s time for a refresher course. With teams set to report to Summer Camp and a season slated to begin in late July, here's a look at five major Padres storylines and how they have been affected by an unprecedented 2020 season:

1. Let the kids play?
The most interesting subplot of Padres camp is suddenly the status of Gore and Patiño. There was almost no chance that the two 21-year-olds would have made the big league roster in March. But a shortened season might change things.

Gore has never thrown more than 101 innings. Patiño has never thrown more than 94 2/3. The Padres planned to send both to Minors camp shortly after that mid-March outing against Seattle. They would build up in the Minor Leagues, where they would have their workloads monitored closely. If everything went right, a midseason debut was in the cards.

Had the season gone according to plan, it's possible -- perhaps likely even -- that Gore and Patiño would already be Padres. Now, if they're among the 15 best arms, it would be hard for San Diego to justify leaving them off the roster for a 60-game sprint. They might not be throwing six or seven innings per start, but their presence could still be valuable.

"It's going to be an extremely unique year, and that will definitely factor into our decisions, roster-wise and strategically," said Padres general manager A.J. Preller. "Specifics -- we'll have the next few months to figure that out ... who's set up to help us throughout the year, when they're set up to help us."

2. A strange debut for Tingler
Jayce Tingler entered Padres camp with a relatively common task in front of him. A struggling ballclub had parted ways with its previous manager and turned to a new voice to spark a young team. That precise setting plays out across baseball every spring.

But how many of those managers ever had to do it with the backdrop of a global pandemic? Tingler spent the past three months making sure his players were safe, healthy and doing their best to stay in baseball shape. Now, he's tasked with a three-week camp to get his team up to speed for regular-season games that, based on the shortened schedule, will matter more than ever.

Padres' options at designated hitter

"It's definitely a challenge," Tingler said. "Besides COVID ... our biggest challenge is three weeks, getting our guys into shape and ready to play."

Some of the rule changes might prove advantageous for Tingler. His entire career, coaching and playing, came in American League organizations, and he gets to use a designated hitter this year. Plus, he's compared the 60-game sprint to his time coaching in winter ball, where each game takes on similar significance.

"I was really proud with where we were, building up, in Spring Training before everything hit, and it broke up," Tingler said. "Our expectation is still the same. We're preparing to be a playoff team."

3. What's next for Yates?
The Padres’ star closer is coming off one of the best relief seasons in Padres history. For a franchise with Hall of Fame closers galore -- Rich Gossage, Rollie Fingers, Trevor Hoffman -- that's no small feat. Yates led the Majors in saves, while posting a 1.19 ERA with 101 strikeouts in 60 2/3 innings.

The Padres hoped to come to an offseason agreement on an extension for Yates, who can become a free agent this winter. But if those talks were ongoing in Spring Training, they were shelved during the pandemic's transaction freeze.

Now, Yates sits at the back end of arguably the National League's best bullpen. It's a deep group with Emilio Pagán, Drew Pomeranz, Matt Strahm, Craig Stammen and José Castillo among the options to set up Yates. In a shortened season, with starters unlikely to be at full capacity on Opening Day, that bullpen could prove more valuable than ever.

"We're not going to be prepared to go eight, nine innings the first and second times around, once the season starts," Tingler said. "The use of some bullpen arms, [there's] value of having -- I don't want to say a deep bullpen -- but a deep pitching staff."

Yates is the anchor for that deep pitching staff. But he might have only 60 more games in that role.

4. A referendum on Preller?
The 2020 season once felt like a barometer for whether Preller's vision was working. He built the best farm system in baseball, then added Eric Hosmer and Manny Machado. That plan was supposed to come together with a string of perennial playoff pushes, beginning in 2020.

It's worth wondering whether the dynamic of this season changes that. There's bound to be more variance in a team's results amid a 60-game schedule, let alone a 60-game schedule with different roster parameters and in-game rules. The Padres were almost a playoff-caliber club over the first 60 games last season, sitting 31-29. But they were 14th of 15 NL teams over the final 60 games, going 22-38.

If the Padres slump to a similar mark this season, the team's brass might re-evaluate Preller's standing. But amid all the uncertainty surrounding baseball in 2020, it seems much likelier that ‘21 becomes Preller's benchmark.

5. Tommy John trio turned loose
The Padres' presumed 1-2-3 starters had serious limitations in 2019. Chris Paddack had his pitch counts monitored strictly and was shut down in mid-September. Garrett Richards and Dinelson Lamet missed the first half of the year.

There might not have been any restrictions on the three right-handers in 2020, all of whom underwent Tommy John surgery in the past few seasons. But if there was any doubt, the 60-game schedule makes it clear: Time to turn ’em loose.

"It probably puts them without any limitations, going through the season," Tingler said. "I don't want to say that too early, based on the fact that we've got to get through these next couple weeks, build up, have a clean bill of health. But I don't see us going into Game 54, 55 and having to spot start somebody because we've reached too many innings.”

AJ Cassavell covers the Padres for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.