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Around the Horn: Is Margot still in line for CF?

January 23, 2019

With Spring Training on the horizon, MLB.com is taking an in-depth look at the 2019 Padres, breaking the team down position-by-position. Today, we preview the San Diego center fielders.Around the Horn series:C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | LFSAN DIEGO -- The Padres entered 2018 with their

With Spring Training on the horizon, MLB.com is taking an in-depth look at the 2019 Padres, breaking the team down position-by-position. Today, we preview the San Diego center fielders.
Around the Horn series:C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | LF
SAN DIEGO -- The Padres entered 2018 with their presumed center fielder of the future in tow. A year earlier, Manuel Margot had finished sixth in National League Rookie of the Year Award voting. He'd seemingly showcased the tools and the potential necessary to man the middle of the park in San Diego for a long time.
As things stand, Margot might still be the Padres' center fielder of the future. But it's no longer a sure thing. He's the same elite defender he's always been. But Margot took steps backward nearly everywhere else in 2018. He slashed .245/.292/.384, and despite his excellent speed, he was successful on just 11 of 21 stolen-base attempts.
What to make of such a sophomore slump? Well, Margot's early struggles forced him into a midseason swing overhaul. Some in the organization have wondered if, looking back, it would've been more prudent to give Margot time at Triple-A to work out those kinks.
Ultimately, the swing change manifested itself in better numbers for Margot during the season's final few months. But those numbers weren't convincing enough to indicate a definitive turnaround.

And the Padres need offense. They finished last in the Majors in on-base percentage and were bottom five in runs, hits, OPS and wRC+. Margot's offensive output must improve to justify his regular inclusion in the lineup.
If it doesn't, San Diego has another intriguing option in Franchy Cordero -- whose bat features much greater upside, but whose glove probably makes him a better fit in a corner spot.

For now, the Padres have made it very clear they're expecting a bounce-back season from Margot.
"What we saw as a rookie, what we saw in the Minor Leagues, that's the player we think he is," general manager A.J. Preller said.
Projected starter: Margot
Potential backups: Cordero, Travis Jankowski
Top 30 prospects: No. 12 Buddy Reed, No. 19 Jeisson Rosario, No. 27 Grant Little, No. 28 Edward Olivares
Best-case scenario
With an offseason and a Spring Training for Margot to hone his swing, the changes take full effect in 2019. The 24-year-old speedster is never going to be much of a power threat, but he sees a significant jump in his average and on-base percentage. That keeps him in the lineup regularly, and his defense continues to improve, putting him on the cusp of a National League Gold Glove Award.
Meanwhile, Cordero and Jankowski (both lefties) spell Margot against the occasional tough righty. But Cordero spends more of his time in right and left field. His ability to play all three positions allows the Padres to trade from their corner-outfield depth for a starting pitcher.

Worst-case scenario
Margot sees a repeat of his 2018 performance at the plate, making it harder to justify his inclusion in the everyday lineup. Eventually, San Diego moves to Cordero as its top option. But his glove lets him down, and he continues to strike out at too high a clip.
The Padres enter next offseason with an even bigger question mark surrounding their center-field plight. That could prove especially problematic if they're looking to make a run at contention in the 2020 season.
A reasonable prediction
Margot gets better offensively. Cordero gets better defensively. Both remain flawed.
Margot doesn't develop into the top-of-the-order threat the Padres once envisioned -- his on-base percentage simply isn't good enough. But he posts something like a .721 OPS and a 96 wRC+ (league averages for center fielders in 2018). That's enough for Margot to hit seventh regularly, while he continues to dazzle with his defense.
Cordero gets a chance in center field, too. But the Padres trade one of their three corner outfielders. That allows Cordero to platoon relatively evenly at all three outfield spots.
Jankowski also plays a key role, serving as the quintessential defensive replacement and speed threat that every team searches for in a bench option.

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