2015 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 2015 season. Next up: The San Diego Padres.

The Big Question: Who are these guys and what have they done with the Padres?

A.J. Preller was hired as the Padres general manager last August and he went into the offseason with a plan. Prior to the winter meetings, ESPN’s Buster Olney reported that the Padres were “aggressively looking for hitters who can help them contend for (the) NL West title immediately.” The report drew some laughs, as it seemed incredibly ambitious and even unrealistic for a team which ranked last in pretty much every major offensive category last season while finishing under .500 for the fourth straight year. We quickly learned that he wasn’t messing around.

The biggest changes came in the outfield, with trades for Justin Upton (from the Braves), Matt Kemp (from the division rival Dodgers), and Wil Myers (in a three-team deal with the Rays and Nationals), but Preller also acquired 2014 All-Star catcher Derek Norris from the Athletics. There’s something to be said for not being loyal to the players you inherit from a previous regime. As a new GM, Preller was uniquely positioned for this rapid and unexpected overhaul. The cherry on top of their offseason was signing James Shields to a four-year, $75 million contract in early February. Joaquin Benoit’s $15.5 million deal was the franchise’s previous record guarantee to a free agent, so this is some uncharted territory we’re dealing with here. The Padres also threw money at some low-risk, high-reward types for their rotation with Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow. Despite all the activity, the Padres’ payroll isn’t going to be much higher than what it was last year. It helps that the Dodgers are paying nearly all of Kemp’s salary for this season.

Pitching was already a strength for the Padres, partially due to their home ballpark, but the addition of Shields makes them even better. He can now slot into the No. 1 spot while Ian Kennedy, Andrew Cashner, and Tyson Ross all move down a peg. Odrisamer Despaigne held his own during his first season in the majors last year and should do fine as a fifth starter if Morrow and/or Johnson don’t pan out. Outfield defense is a concern, particularly in center field with Myers, but the Padres are hoping that what the trio does on offense offsets the deficiencies in the field.

Who knows if this is going to work out. Kemp is an injury risk and maybe all those innings finally catch up to Shields. Maybe Myers doesn’t bounce back and Upton (an impending free agent) becomes a trade candidate by midseason. But the Padres are trying something here and that’s pretty exciting. It’s always fun to be in San Diego, but even more so right now.

What else is going on?

  • It’s pretty remarkable that the Padres were able to make all of these moves and still managed to keep arguably three of their best prospects, right-hander Matt Wisler, outfielder Hunter Renfroe, and catcher Austin Hedges. I guess you could throw Rymer Liriano into that mix, as well. So they didn’t completely sell out their future this winter. You could also say that they still have the flexibility to make another big move if they really want to go for broke. Cole Hamels, perhaps?
  • My goodness, something has to give with these extra outfielders. The Padres dealt Seth Smith to the Mariners over the winter, but they still have basically their projected starting outfield from a couple of years ago — Cameron Maybin, Will Venable, and Carlos Quentin — under contract. Liriano also saw time at the major league level last year. Quentin could get hurt by the time I finish writing this sentence, but one would think we’ll see a trade soon to clear this logjam.
  • While right-handed sluggers Upton, Kemp, and Myers could put up big numbers in that outfield, the infield is another matter altogether. It’s a glaring weakness. Jedd Gyorko showed some potential during his rookie season in 2013, but he’s coming off a down year and he’s surrounded by the likes of Yonder Alonso, Alexi Amarista, Will Middlebrooks, Yangervis Solarte, Tommy Medica, and Clint Barmes. Not the most inspiring group. Perhaps Alonso or Middlebrooks can surprise, but that would require a leap of faith. This infield would be more interesting if they managed to outbid the Dodgers for Hector Olivera, but that ship has sailed.
  • With the additions of Upton, Kemp, Myers, Shields, and Norris, it’s easy to overlook the work that Preller did with his bullpen. Brandon Maurer came over in the Smith deal with the Mariners while Shawn Kelley was acquired from the Yankees for minor league right-hander Johnny Barbato. Both are intriguing potential late-inning arms. Padres manager Bud Black has a handful of interesting alternatives for the closer role if Benoit goes down at some point. I wouldn’t rule that possibility out, as Benoit will be 38 later this year and dealt with some shoulder issues down the stretch last year.
  • Saying “if he can stay healthy” should be obvious with any pitcher, but that’s especially the case with Cashner. The 28-year-old has flashed frontline potential at times, with a 2.96 ERA across 51 career starts, but he was limited to just 19 starts last season with elbow and shoulder issues and has never thrown more than 175 innings in a season before. This rotation has some questions — even Ross was shut down after a career-high 195 2/3 innings last year due to muscle soreness in his right forearm — but if things break right, they could be one of the best groups in the National League.

Prediction: I think it’s going to be close with the Giants, but what the heck, I’ll drink the offseason Kool-Aid. Second place, NL West and the second Wild Card spot.

The Cubs will try to clinch the NL Central on Tuesday

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The Cubs soundly defeated the Cardinals on Monday night, 10-2, sending their magic number down to one. They will try to clinch the NL Central on Tuesday with another win against the Cardinals. Alternatively, if they lose, they can still clinch if the Brewers also lose on Tuesday.

The Cubs, of course, won the Central last year en route to winning their first World Series since 1908. It wasn’t nearly as easy this year as the club was below .500 entering June and was exactly at .500 entering July. A 16-8 July, 17-12 August, and 15-8 September have helped put the Cubs back in position to return to the postseason.

Not to be forgotten, the Cardinals were eliminated from NL Central contention with Monday’s loss. Now they have their sights set on the second NL Wild Card slot and currently trail the Rockies in that race.

The matchups for Tuesday’s action:

Carter Capps to undergo surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome

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Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union Tribune reports that Padres pitcher Carter Capps will undergo surgery this offseason to address thoracic outlet syndrome, which doctors believe caused the right-hander’s blood clots. The Padres hope to have him ready by spring training next year.

Capps, 27, underwent Tommy John surgery last year and didn’t debut this season until August 7. He made 11 relief appearances, yielding nine runs on 12 hits and two walks with seven strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings. He went back on the DL on September 12 due to the blood clot issue.

The Padres acquired Capps from the Marlins last July in the Andrew Cashner trade which ended up having a lot of moving parts. Capps will enter his third and final year of arbitration eligibility this offseason. It’s quite possible the Padres choose to non-tender him.