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.

La Russa steps down as White Sox manager over heart issue

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CHICAGO — Tony La Russa stepped down as manager of the Chicago White Sox on Monday because of a heart issue, ending a disappointing two-year run in the same spot where the Hall of Famer got his first job as a big league skipper.

La Russa, a three-time World Series champion who turns 78 on Tuesday, missed the final 34 games with the underachieving White Sox. He left the team on Aug. 30 and doctors ultimately told him to stay out of the dugout.

La Russa has a pacemaker implanted in February and doctors later found another heart problem that he has not detailed.

“It has become obvious that the length of the treatment and recovery process for this second health issue makes it impossible for me to be the White Sox manager in 2023,” he said in a statement. “The timing of this announcement now enables the front office to include filling the manager position with their other offseason priorities.”

Chicago began the season with World Series aspirations but was plagued by injuries and inconsistent play. It was 79-80 heading into Monday night’s game against Minnesota.

“Our team’s record this season is the final reality. It is an unacceptable disappointment. There were some pluses, but too many minuses,” La Russa said. “I was hired to provide positive, difference-making leadership and support. Our record is proof. I did not do my job.”

Bench coach Miguel Cairo took over after La Russa stepped away. The White Sox showed a spark right after the change, winning 10 of 14. But they dropped eight straight in late September, dashing their playoff hopes.

La Russa, who is close friends with White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, was a surprise hire in October 2020, and he directed the team to the AL Central title last year.

But the White Sox sputtered throughout much of 2022, and there were chants of “Fire Tony! Fire Tony!” at Guaranteed Rate Field.

“At no time have I been disappointed or upset with White Sox fans, including those who at times chanted `Fire Tony,”‘ La Russa said. “They come to games with passion for our team and a strong desire to win. Loud and excited when we win, they rightly are upset when we play poorly.”

All-Star shortstop Tim Anderson and sluggers Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert missed significant time because of injuries. Catcher Yasmani Grandal and third baseman Yoan Moncada also had health issues, and they underperformed when they were on the field.

There were embarrassing breakdowns, too, like when the White Sox ran themselves into the first 8-5 triple play in major league history during a loss to Minnesota on July 4.

La Russa continued to be a lightning rod for fans who weren’t thrilled with his hiring in the first place. His lineups came under question as did his decisions in games.

Some fans chanted for La Russa’s dismissal following a strange call for an intentional walk to to the Dodgers’ Trea Turner despite a 1-2 count on June 9. Bennett Sousa had just bounced an 0-2 slider, allowing the runner to advance from first to second.

With the base open, La Russa chose to walk Turner even though there were two strikes. It backfired when Max Muncy smacked a three-run homer, propelling Los Angeles to an 11-9 victory.

Another moment that raised eyebrows happened early in the 2021 season.

During a 1-0 loss to Cincinnati, La Russa was unaware of a rule that would have allowed him to use Jose Abreu as the automatic runner at second base rather than closer Liam Hendriks in the 10th inning.

With a 2,900-2,514 record over 35 years with Chicago, Oakland and St. Louis, La Russa trails only Connie Mack on baseball’s career wins list. He moved past John McGraw last season.

But there were big questions about whether La Russa was the right person for the job when the White Sox hired him to replace Rick Renteria. He hadn’t filled out a lineup card since 2011, when St. Louis beat Texas in the World Series. There were doubts about how someone known more for his scowl than smile would mesh with a fun-loving team that had just delivered the White Sox’s first playoff appearance since 2008.

Then, shortly after his hiring, news surfaced of an arrest on misdemeanor DUI charges.

La Russa blew out a tire on the Lexus he was driving in a collision with a curb that February in Arizona, after going to dinner with friends. The case was filed on Oct. 28, one day before the White Sox announced La Russa’s hiring.

He ended up pleading guilty to a lesser charge of reckless driving and was sentenced to one day of home detention, a fine of nearly $1,400 and 20 hours of community service.

La Russa also pleaded guilty to driving under the influence in Florida in 2007 after police found him asleep and smelling of alcohol inside his running sport-utility vehicle at a stoplight.

La Russa captured championships with Oakland in 1989 and the Cardinals in 2006 and 2011. The former big league infielder and Sparky Anderson are the only managers to win the World Series in the American and National leagues.

He got his first major league managing job at age 34 when the White Sox promoted him from Triple-A to replace the fired Don Kessinger during the 1979 season. He took over that August and led them to a 522-510 record over parts of eight seasons.

The 1983 team won 99 games on the way to the AL West championship – Chicago’s first playoff appearance since the 1959 Go-Go White Sox won the pennant. But La Russa was fired in 1986 by then-general manager Ken Harrelson after the White Sox got off to a 26-38 start, a move Reinsdorf long regretted.