2014 Preview: San Diego Padres

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The San Diego Padres

The Big Question: Can the Padres stay healthy enough to surprise?

The last two years with the Padres have followed somewhat of a similar theme. Along with a bunch of injuries, we have seen disappointment in the first half followed by a surge to finish the year. The result? Back-to-back 76-win seasons. Is there any reason to think they’ll buck the trend this year? If the events of this spring are any indication, the odds are against it.

The rotation, a potential strength, has taken a hit in recent weeks with Cory Luebke headed for a second Tommy John surgery, offseason acquisition Josh Johnson expected to miss five weeks with a strained flexor muscle, and Joe Wieland likely out until midseason following an elbow cleanup procedure. After being limited to just 14 games last season due to injury, Cameron Maybin suffered a ruptured biceps tendon this spring and is expected to miss the first couple of weeks of the regular season. Tough breaks for a team which could really use some luck on their side for once.

Injuries aside, there are interesting elements to this team. While Luebke is done for the year and the Johnson signing looks like a dud early on, Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy, and Tyson Ross are intriguing and Eric Stults has been quietly effective since arriving in San Diego. The loss of Maybin hurts from a defensive perspective, but the lineup should be respectable, especially if Chase Headley can return to form in his walk year, Everth Cabrera can pick up from where he left off last season, and Jedd Gyorko can build off his solid rookie campaign.

I’m being optimistic here, but there’s no question that this team is built on a shaky foundation. Cashner, who has frontline starter potential, has dealt with injuries early on in his career, and we can probably count on a disabled list stint for Carlos Quentin and Huston Street. It’s not hard to envision a scenario where a lot goes wrong and they finish under .500 again, but you can also squint and see a team in the mix for a Wild Card spot in September. A wide range of outcomes are possible here. The only thing is that you can say the same thing about a lot of (non-Dodgers) teams in the NL West.

What else is going on?

  • Make no mistake, PETCO Park is still a pitcher-friendly ballpark after the dimension changes, but last year it played as a better park for left-handed batters. Will Venable’s breakthrough season makes more sense through this prism. This should provide some hope that a progression for Yonder Alonso is still possible, perhaps as soon as this year.
  • Everth Cabrera batted .283/.355/.381 with four home runs, 31 RBI, and 37 stolen bases over 95 games last season prior to being handed a 50-game PED suspension for his connection to Biogenesis. There will naturally be some skepticism about his production-level going into 2014, but the speed, patience, and defensive ability have always been there. Don’t be surprised if the 27-year-old is still an impact player for San Diego.
  • As I mentioned earlier, Huston Street isn’t exactly a model of health. With that in mind, Padres general manager Josh Byrnes secured some expensive insurance for the ninth inning over the winter by signing veteran reliever Joaquin Benoit to a two-year, $15.5 million contract. If Street stays healthy, the Padres will have a potent one-two punch in the late innings. If not, manager Bud Black should have no issue trusting Benoit to close games. Still, it’s a bit surprising that Byrnes felt compelled to trade Luke Gregerson, who could have filled a similar role for slightly less money. It’s not like he got much in return in the deal, as Seth Smith will be an fourth/platoon outfielder if all goes according to plan this season. But hey, you can’t count on a full season from Carlos Quentin, either.
  • Yasmani Grandal looked like one of the best young catchers in the game just two years ago, but he served a 50-game PED suspension as the start of last season and hit just .216 with one home run and a .693 OPS in 28 games prior to undergoing surgery in August to repair a torn ACL in his right knee. It looks like he’ll be on the Opening Day roster, but the Padres could carry three catchers early on in order to ease him into things. Still just 25 years old, Grandal shouldn’t be forgotten.
  • We’ve heard Chase Headley’s name mentioned in countless trade rumors in recent years and things could ramp up again if the Padres are out of contention by midseason. A contract extension is unlikely, so he’s almost certainly testing the free agent waters this winter. Assuming they make a qualifying offer, the Padres would receive a draft pick if he signs elsewhere, but a trade could be more appealing for them if they get a big offer from a team desperate for production at third base. July could be dominated by Headley trade rumors, so be prepared.

Prediction: I really think this team could surprise some folks, but there are too many injury questions to put them above the Giants right now. Third place, NL West.

Yadier Molina will not enter contract negotiations during the 2017 season

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Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Cardinals’ catcher Yadier Molina is still open to extension talks during the last week of spring training. Once Opening Day rolls around, however, Molina has preemptively nixed any contract negotiations until the end of the 2017 season, when he’s scheduled to hit free agency.

Molina wants to stay with the Cardinals, or so he’s telling reporters, but he’s also “not afraid” to test the free agent market this fall should a deal fail to materialize. Via Goold:

I would love to stay, but at the same time I’m not afraid to go to free agency. I’ve still got many years in the tank. Believe me. I feel great. I feel like a 20-year-old kid. I’m not afraid to go to free agency.

The 34-year-old backstop is entering his final year under contract, though Goold points out that he has a $15 million option for 2018 that he can choose to decline in the event that it’s exercised by the team. He’s reportedly searching for a figure closer to those made by other top catchers like Buster Posey and Russell Martin.

The 2017 season will mark Molina’s 14th year in the Cardinals’ organization, building on a career that has spanned seven All-Star campaigns, nine postseason runs and two World Series championships in St. Louis. He batted .307/.360/.427 with eight home runs and a .787 OPS for the club in 2016.

Colby Rasmus could start 2017 on the disabled list

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Colby Rasmus isn’t ready to take outfield reps just yet. According to Rays’ manager Kevin Cash, that’s a red flag, one that could potentially postpone Rasmus’ debut as the club’s designated hitter and outfielder in 2017. Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times reports that Rasmus will need to prove he can play a defensive position before getting cleared for the active roster, something which the veteran outfielder has yet to do this spring.

Rasmus, 30, signed a one-year, $5 million deal with the Rays following his two-year run with the Astros. He batted a meager .206/.286/.355 with 15 home runs and a .641 OPS in 2016 and was shut down in late September with an unspecified hip/groin issue. Entering the 2017 season, he’s expected to work his way back to a full-time role after undergoing surgery to repair his core muscle and left hip labrum last October.

The Rays also finalized their one-year, $1.2 million deal with catcher Derek Norris on Saturday and will need to clear room for him on the 40-man roster. Topkin speculates that the move could send Rasmus to the 60-day disabled list, though the outfielder is not projected to miss more than a couple weeks of the regular season.