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2017 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 2017 season. Next up: The San Diego Padres.

The Padres went 68-94 last season, good enough for last place in the NL West. After an offseason in which the club did practically nothing, the Padres are expected to once again bring up the rear in the division.

The club did add veterans Jered Weaver and Jhoulys Chacin to a rotation that very well may be the least threatening starting rotation in baseball. Weaver, 34, has been in freefall the last two seasons. His fastball once sat in the high 80’s but has struggled to sit above 83 MPH lately. The right-hander struck out only 13.4 percent of the batters he faced last season, the second lowest rate among qualified starters. Pitching in the pitcher-friendly Petco Park will be nice but it won’t be enough to make up for Weaver’s batting practice fastball and inability to miss bats.

Chacin, 29, is trying to hang out in the big leagues. Injuries and ineffectiveness limited him to fewer than 70 innings in three of his previous four seasons coming into 2016, but he managed to stay healthy pitching for the Braves and Angels. Combined, he had a 4.81 ERA with a 119/55 K/BB ratio in 144 innings. Going forward, it’s quite possible he both stays healthy and returns to his solid level of pitching that he showed in 2011 and ’13 with the Rockies, but it’s not the likely outcome.

Clayton Richard is looking forward to what will hopefully be his first full season as a starting pitcher since 2012. Injuries and a move to the bullpen have hampered those dreams in the interm. Last year, he made nine starts and two relief appearances for the Padres after coming over from the Cubs and put up a 2.52 ERA with a 34/24 K/BB ratio in 53 2/3 innings. As one can see, Richard’s inability to miss bats and his less-than-stellar walk rate will both prove to be problematic unless he made some tremendous strides over the offseason.

Christian Friedrich will likely open the season in the rotation as well. The left-hander has been underwhelming over parts of his first four seasons in the big leagues, owning a career 5.37 ERA. Pitching in Coors Field certainly didn’t help, but even last year with the Padres, he only managed a 4.80 ERA with a 100/52 K/BB ratio in 129 1/3 innings. As far as potential goes, Freidrich likely has the highest ceiling of anyone in the Padres’ rotation, but it’s a relatively low ceiling.

Luis Perdomo is hoping to recover after an underwhelming debut last season. The 23-year-old put up a 5.71 ERA with a 105/45 K/BB ratio in 146 2/3 innings. Hard to be worse than that. Needless to say, this starting rotation is shaping up to be the worst in the league. In the event of injury or unacceptably poor performance, Trevor Cahill, Jarred Cosart, and Paul Clemens could move into the rotation. Yay.

Now let’s play, “Name that closer.” Name the reliever who saved 13 games for the Padres after the club traded Fernando Rodney last season? His initials are B.M. Still stumped? Brandon Maurer. Along with the 13 saves, the right-hander posted a 4.52 ERA and a 72/23 K/BB ratio in 69 2/3 innings last season. Maurer will once again open the season as the Padres’ closer, though it doesn’t look like he’ll get many save opportunities.

Carter Capps, still on the way back to 100% after Tommy John surgery, could supplant Maurer as the closer during the regular season if he can prove he is both healthy and effective. Prior to succumbing to injury in 2015, Capps had a 1.16 ERA and a 58/7 K/BB ratio in 31 innings for the Marlins. Capps has the potential to be one of the best relievers in baseball, but first things first as he has yet to make his Cactus League debut.

Brad Hand, Ryan Buchter, Kevin Quackenbush, Miguel Diaz, Buddy Baumann, and a revolving door of others figure to work out of the bullpen ahead of Capps and Maurer. Heh, Quackenbush. What a name.

Offense. The Padres’ offense will revolve around first baseman Wil Myers, who inked a six-year, $83 million contract extension with the club in January. The 26-year-old hit a solid .259/.336/.461 with 28 home runs, 94 RBI, 99 runs scored, and 28 stolen bases in 676 plate appearances last season. He was one of only three first basemen with double-digits in steals. Myers is no Anthony Rizzo, but he’s still young enough to have plenty of room to improve and that’s what the Padres will be counting on in 2017.

Ryan Schimpf impressed in 89 games in his first major league season last year. Soon 29 years old, he hit .217/.336/.533 with 20 home runs and 51 RBI over 330 PA. Schimpf, unfortunately, has been bothered by an oblique injury lately and those tend to be tricky injuries. In the event Schimpf can’t start the season on time, fringe prospect Carlos Asuaje would likely get the starting nod.

Luis Sardinas will return to shortstop for the Padres. He split last season between the Mariners and Padres, showing much better production in San Diego. Overall, he hit .244/.295/.356 while playing below average defense. Veteran Erick Aybar is on the team on a minor league contract and could end up beating out Sardinas for the starting job. Aybar, however, posted an uninspiring .623 OPS while also playing below average defense last year with the Braves and Tigers.

Oh, hey, what’s this? A good player? Yup, the Padres will have one at third base in Yangervis Solarte. The 29-year-old hit a solid .286/.341/.467 with 15 home runs and 71 RBI in 443 PA last year. The Padres thought about trading him before the new year, but ultimately wound up signing him to a two-year, $7.5 million extension in January. If the National League weren’t so rich with third basemen, I would suggest that Solarte has the chance to have an All-Star caliber year. But it’s safe to say the position will be well spoken for in the midsummer classic.

Travis Jankowski and Manuel Margot are battling for the right to start in center field to open the season. The 25-year-old Jankowski swiped 30 bases and played great defense, but his bat left much to be desired. He finished the year having hit .245/.332/.313 in 383 PA. Margot, one of the Padres’ top prospects, played in 10 games last year and hit for a .649 OPS. He has been hampered by a knee injury lately, but it’s not considered to be a serious injury. Margot certainly projects to be the better player, but the Padres might prefer to have him get a little more seasoning at Triple-A.

Alex Dickerson will handle left field. The 26-year-old hit a solid .257/.333/.455 with 10 home runs and 37 RBI in 285 trips to the plate last season. He tweaked his back early in spring training and has yet to make his Cactus League debut as a result, but he’s expected to be ready to start the year.

Finally, Hunter Renfroe will open the season in right for the Padres. The prospect wowed in 11 games near the end of last season, hitting .371 with three doubles, four homers, and 14 RBI in 36 PA. The Padres have a few players that will be fun to watch, especially with Renfroe and Margot. They might even have multiple All-Stars. But the pitching figures to be abysmal and it will prevent the Padres from making any real strides record-wise. That’s why I’m predicting them to equal last year’s record.

Prediction: 68-94 record, 5th place in division

Astros, Red Sox look ahead in wake of sign-stealing scandal

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Players from two teams at the center of baseball’s sign-stealing scandal faced their fans on Saturday for the first time since the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox ousted their managers amid the fallout from the investigation into Houston’s elaborate scheme.

The Astros and Red Sox held their annual fan fests on Saturday, and instead of discussing preparations for the season, players from both teams were left to answer questions about the cheating that resulted in both teams’ managers being fired.

“It’s a tough situation and as a team we have to stay together and go through this as a team like we’ve been doing, always,” Houston star second baseman José Altuve said. “We have to talk about it at spring training and try not to let things in the past distract us for for next year.”

Houston manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for a year by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred on Monday after he found illicit use of electronics to steal signs during the Astros’ run to the 2017 World Series championship and again in the 2018 season. Team owner Jim Crane then fired both Hinch and Luhnow. Manager Alex Cora left the Red Sox on Tuesday after Manfred’s report identified him as the ringleader of the sign-stealing scheme when he was the bench coach for the Astros in 2017.

Many Red Sox players talked Saturday about how much they liked and valued Cora and hated to see him go.

“I’m heartbroken about it,” Boston designated hitter J.D. Martinez said. “I understood his side of it. He definitely didn’t want to be a distraction. He was one of my favorite, if not my favorite, managers I’ve had.”

The Astros were fined $5 million, which is the maximum allowed under the Major League Constitution, and must forfeit their next two first- and second-round amateur draft picks.

The investigation found that the Astros used the video feed from a center field camera to see and decode the opposing catcher’s signs. Players banged on a trash can to signal to batters what was coming, believing it would improve the batter’s chances of getting a hit.

MLB is also looking into whether Cora installed a similar system in Boston after arriving the following year, when the Red Sox won the World Series. No conclusions have been reached and there is no timetable; the Astros investigation took two months.

Martinez hopes MLB wraps up the investigation into the Red Sox soon so they can put this behind them.

“I’m excited for the investigation to get over with, so they can see there’s nothing going on here,” he said.

While the Astros were meeting with fans in Houston, Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Randal Grichuk called for MLB take away their World Series championship, now that it’s been proven that they cheated.

“I mean, I would like to see that obviously. I bet the Dodgers would like to see that,” Grichuk said. “I’ve got a few friends on the Dodgers that are very disappointed that possibly two years in a row they lost due to a team going against the rules.”

Many Boston players are trying not to focus on the investigation or what could be coming for the team, but instead simply trying to prepare like it’s any other season.

“MLB’s going to do what they have to do to look into it,” pitcher Nathan Eovaldi said. “I’m just trying to focus on baseball. I feel like it’s going to pass, and everything’s going to be fine.”

While Altuve didn’t have a problem answering numerous questions about the scandal, Houston third baseman Alex Bregman refused repeated attempts by reporters to get him to address what happened and kept repeating variations of the same phrase.

“The commissioner made his report, made his decision and the Astros made their decision and I have no further comment on it,” Bregman said in some variation again and again.

After being pressed on if he plans to discuss the sign-stealing in the future, Bregman finally gave an answer that didn’t seem as rehearsed.

“I think in the 2020 year our actions will speak louder than our words,” he said.

Altuve and Bregman were the only two stars at Saturday’s fan fest in Houston who were part of the 2017 championship team. Many of the other big names who helped the Astros win their first title, including World Series MVP George Springer, ace Justin Verlander and shortstop Carlos Correa, did not attend the daylong event where fans can interact with players.

Altuve was the AL MVP in 2017, and since the sign-stealing scandal broke, some have questioned whether he deserved the award. In recent days he’s also been accused of wearing an electronic device under his jersey to tip pitches, which he vehemently denies. He was asked how it feels for people to call him a cheater.

“You don’t want anybody to call you that,” he said. “But … I have two options. One is cry and one is go down and play the game and (perform) and help my team. And you know what one I am going to do.”

MLB’s investigation of Houston began after former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, who played for Oakland last season, told The Athletic about the team’s scheme to steal signs. Martinez said he has spoken to Fiers and gets why he came forward.

“I understand his side of it, being in that division, going against those guys. It’s an uncomfortable position for him, but I understand why he did what he did,” Martinez told reporters in Springfield, Massachusetts. “He obviously felt like he needed to and I understand it.”

In Houston, as the Astros try to put the scandal behind them and focus on the future, Altuve, who has often been described as the heart and soul of the team, is confident it won’t derail the Astros from another successful season.

“Everything will be fine,” he said. “We’re going to be in the World Series again. People don’t believe it. But we will.”