It was shaping up to be another ho-hum winter for the Padres when first-year general manager A.J. Preller changed the complexion of the team with a dizzying series of blockbuster trades in just more than a week in mid-December. After eight seasons out of the playoffs, the Padres suddenly have a pulse following the acquisitions of slugging outfielders Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers, All-Star catcher Derek Norris and third baseman Will Middlebrooks. And he didn’t stop there, landing free agent starting pitcher James Shields in February. Preller’s attitude is to win now and win later after pumping up what had been the worst offense in the major leagues and luring one of the top arms on the market. The Padres are finally in position to spend some of the millions of dollars from their local TV deal. The moves will send the player payroll well into the $100 million range. Whether they’re enough to catch the Dodgers and Giants in the NL West remains to be seen, but they at least bring realistic expectations of success to Petco Park.
Preller was able to swing his big deals without losing the big three in his rotation, Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross and Ian Kennedy, and that was before he brought in Shields. Preller did deal Jesse Hahn, a young righthander who had been penciled into the rotation before being sent to Oakland in the trade for Norris. Even though he was viewed as one of the better pitchers available, Shields was one of the last to sign when he agreed to a four-year, $75 million deal to front the Padres’ rotation. Ross was more than durable in his first full season, going 13–14 with a 2.81 ERA and making the All-Star team. Cashner isn’t as durable, having spent the equivalent of half the season on the disabled list. But when he’s on, he’s hard to hit. Cashner (5–7, 2.55 ERA in 2014) has an active streak of allowing two or fewer earned runs in a franchise-record 18 consecutive starts at home dating back to June 11, 2013. Kennedy was mentioned in several trade rumors during the winter, but the Padres were able to keep him. Kennedy was one of 11 big-league pitchers and one of five National Leaguers in 2014 to log 200 or more innings and strike out 200 or more. Cuban righthander Odrisamer Despaigne won his first two starts before leveling off with a 4–7 record and 3.36 ERA. He will compete with Brandon Morrow for the final spot. Preller signed Morrow, who was never able to stay healthy while he was with the Blue Jays, to a $2.5 million, one-year contract that will allow him to earn up to $8 million if he starts regularly. Waiting in the wings are Casey Kelly and Cory Luebke, still rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Luebke had to have a second operation after the first one failed to take. The Padres are also bringing back Josh Johnson, who made $8 million last year but didn’t throw a pitch after sustaining an elbow injury in spring training that required a second career Tommy John surgery.
As solid as the rotation is, there’s a pretty good reason why Preller worked to keep his bullpen intact. Padres relievers went 21–15 with 41 saves in 49 opportunities, with a 2.73 ERA. The ERA was second to Seattle’s 2.59 in the majors and was the best mark in team history. Closer Joaquin Benoit was shut down for almost a month late in the season with shoulder discomfort, finishing with 11 saves and a 1.49 ERA. The 37-year-old enters the final year of his $15.5 million, two-year deal. In Benoit’s absence, Kevin Quackenbush stepped into the closer’s role during his first big-league season and gained valuable experience, earning six saves. Overall, Quackenbush was 3–3 with a 2.48 ERA with 56 strikeouts against 18 walks in 56 appearances. He held opponents scoreless in 46 of his 56 appearances. In late December, Preller acquired right-handed setup man Shawn Kelley from the Yankees for a minor leaguer. The Padres also obtained hard-throwing Brandon Maurer from Seattle for outfielder Seth Smith just before the New Year. Maurer was originally a starter for the Mariners last year but was exceptional once he moved to the pen.
The Padres are looking for a bounce-back season from second baseman Jedd Gyorko, who struggled at the plate and with foot injuries after signing a $35 million, six-year deal just weeks into his second full big-league season. He struggled to get his average up to .210 and finished with 10 homers, falling well short of his rookie numbers of .249 and 23 homers. His double-play partner will be either Alexi Amarista or free-agent pickup Clint Barmes, who turns 36 in March. Amarista filled in down the stretch for injured shortstop Everth Cabrera, who was not tendered a contract after the season due in part to off-field drug issues.
Yangervis Solarte had been penciled in at third base, where he took over after being obtained from the Yankees in the deal for Chase Headley, before Preller traded for Middlebrooks. The Padres are looking for a rebound season by Middlebrooks, who hit 15 homers as a rookie in 2012 and 17 in 2013 before injuries, a .191 average and shuttling up and down from Triple-A led to what he called “a rough year” in 2014. The Padres also need a bounce-back year from first baseman Yonder Alonso, who was limited to only 84 games due to injuries.
The dynamic of the outfield changed 100 percent in just a matter of days, from an injury-prone group to three stars. Manager Bud Black envisions Upton in left, Myers in center and Kemp in right. All are right-handed hitters, and the hope is they’ll wear out left field at Petco Park. The centerpiece of Preller’s winter revamp is Kemp, who twice made the All-Star team during his time in L.A., as well as winning two Gold Gloves and two Silver Slugger awards. Although Kemp has a history of shoulder and ankle injuries, he had a strong second half in 2014, finishing the season with a .287 average, 25 home runs and 89 RBIs. Myers was the 2013 AL Rookie of the Year with Tampa Bay. A wrist injury limited him to 87 games last year. Upton hit 29 home runs and drove in 102 runs last year. Even after moving Smith, Preller still has a surplus of outfielders, including oft-injured Carlos Quentin, who is owed $8 million this season and has a full no-trade clause, and Cameron Maybin.
Preller has gone for a total overhaul behind the plate, acquiring Norris from the A’s while dealing Rene Rivera and Yasmani Grandal during his big pre-Christmas shopping spree. Norris set career highs in nearly every offensive category in 2014, including batting average (.270), on-base percentage (.361), runs (46), hits (104), doubles (19), home runs (10), RBIs (55) and walks (54) en route to being named to his first AL All-Star team.
Preller still has some tough decisions to make before settling on a 25-man roster. His crowded outfield includes Quentin and Maybin, both of whom have been limited by injuries. Quentin has a no-trade clause and one year at $8 million remaining on his contract. Maybin still has two years and $15 million left on his deal. Then there’s Will Venable, who struggled with a .224 average. Tim Federowicz, who came over from the Dodgers with Kemp, will be the No. 2 catcher. Barmes and some combination of Solarte, Tommy Medica and Jake Goebbert will comprise the rest of the bench.
Preller came in with a reputation of being a hard-working, hard-charging executive, a trait that showed during his remarkable run of trades in December. Ownership is finally loosening the purse strings and spending some of the increased revenues from its local TV contract. One of Preller’s next big decisions will be whether to extend Black, who enters the final year of his contract and has yet to get the Padres into the playoffs during his tenure.
Some people thought the Padres would contend for a wild card spot last year, only to watch them post historically awful offensive numbers in the first half. After Preller’s shopping spree, this might finally be the season when the Padres break through. The NL West is still tough, with the Dodgers’ and Giants’ pitching, but the Padres will at least have a chance.
2015 Prediction: 3rd in NL West
SS Alexi Amarista (L) Utility man settled in at shortstop the last month of 2014; now he’ll try to hold position on everyday basis.
CF Wil Myers (R) After winning AL Rookie of Year in 2013, was limited to 87 games, six homers, 35 RBIs due to wrist injury.
RF Matt Kemp (R) Centerpiece of offseason moves looks to build on strong second half in 2014.
LF Justin Upton (R) One of game’s top right-handed power hitters had 29 homers, 102 RBIs last season with Atlanta.
C Derek Norris (R) Padres like 26-year-old All-Star’s offense: 10 home runs and 55 RBIs in 127 games last year.
1B Yonder Alonso (L) Hand, forearm injuries limited him to 84 games, fewest in three seasons with the Padres.
2B Jedd Gyorko (R) Struggled mightily after signing big deal; Padres hope he can return to form of his rookie year.
3B Will Middlebrooks (R) Hit 32 homers his first two big-league seasons combined before dropping off to two last year.
OF Carlos Quentin (R) Padres are handcuffed by his no-trade clause and perennially troublesome knees.
SS Clint Barmes (R) Played in only 48 games in 2014 with 102 at-bats, hitting .245 with seven RBIs. Will be 36 on Opening Day.
3B Yangervis Solarte (S) Played in 56 games after coming over from Yankees in Chase Headley deal.
C Tim Federowicz (R) Came over from Dodgers in Kemp deal; played parts of four big-league seasons with L.A.
OF Will Venable (L) One of many Padres who slumped in 2014; .224 average was 44 points below his career-best set in 2013.
RH James Shields New ace has posted eight straight seasons of 200 or more innings, making 264 starts for Rays then Royals during this span.
RH Andrew Cashner Hard-throwing, injury-prone former first-round pick of the Cubs had a 2.55 ERA, 1.127 WHIP in 2014.
RH Tyson Ross First-time All-Star threw 195.2 innings in 31 starts, struck out 195 and went 13–14 with a 2.81 ERA.
RH Ian Kennedy Workhorse was 13–13 with a 3.63 ERA and 207 strikeouts against 70 walks.
RH Brandon Morrow Free-agent pickup signed $2.5 million, one-year contract that jumps to $8 million if he starts regularly.
RH Joaquin Benoit (Closer) Was limited to 11 saves in 53 appearances due to shoulder discomfort in first season in San Diego.
RH Kevin Quackenbush Fan favorite went 3–3 with six saves, 2.48 ERA in 56 appearances as a rookie.
RH Dale Thayer Set career-bests with four wins, 2.34 ERA, 65.1 innings and 70 appearances.
RH Nick Vincent Had career-best 25-game, 23.1-inning scoreless streak from July 23 to Sept. 12.
LH Alex Torres Stranded 39 of his 44 inherited runners (88.6 percent), tied for the fourth-best rate in MLB.
RH Shawn Kelley Went 3–6 with four saves and a 4.53 ERA in 59 appearances as setup man for Yankees in 2014.
RH Odrisamer Despaigne Cuban defector had fast start to rookie season that ended with 4–7 record, 3.36 ERA, 65 strikeouts. Will compete with Morrow for final rotation spot.
Beyond the Box Score
All-Star Game In January, the Padres were announced as the hosts of the 2016 All-Star Game, one of Bud Selig’s final acts before handing over the commissioner’s office to Rob Manfred. The City Council has approved spending a maximum $1.5 million for police officers, firefighters and other services during the game and five days of related events. The city expects a total economic impact of $80 million. San Diego hasn’t hosted an All-Star Game since 1992.
Padres in HD The Padres are spending more than $10 million to install a high-definition video board in left field. At 61 feet tall by 123 feet wide, it will be the third largest in MLB and the biggest in the National League. It will be nearly five times the size of the old video screen, which has been in place since Petco Park opened in 2004.
Sir Paul at Petco The Padres were able to lure Paul McCartney to play their downtown ballpark on Sept. 28, the third California stadium the former Beatle played on his “Out There” tour. One problem, though: McCartney gave a shout-out to the Chargers, who won their game earlier that day, but he didn’t give any props to the host team. That’s OK — in November 2005, Mick Jagger gave David Wells a shout-out during a Rolling Stones concert at Petco.
A Sinatra man Matt Kemp drew chuckles at his introductory news conference when he called Preller “a GM rock star right now” because of all the big deals he was making. Later, Preller, a native New Yorker, said he listens to Frank Sinatra most mornings, “but I don’t know if that characterizes me as a rock star.”
Job security issue New hitting coach Mark Kotsay, who retired following the 2013 season, isn’t swayed by the fact that the previous six Padres hitting coaches were either fired or resigned before they could be dismissed. “It’s a difficult task. It’s a role that in some regards is not necessarily rewarding,” he says. “Being recently retired … my connection to the game and the players that I’m going to be leading is very close, very new, very fresh. I think that I will have an understanding of what they’re going through as players, based on my career, and the different roles that I played as an offensive player on different teams, the successes, the failures.”
2014 Top Draft Pick
Michael Gettys, OF
Gettys was the Padres’ second-round pick, selected behind shortstop Trea Turner, the PTBNL dealt to Washington as part of the 11-player, three-team trade that brought Wil Myers to the Padres. Although Gettys, from Gainesville (Ga.) High School, is a potential five-tool player, concerns about his hitting caused him to drop into the second round. Gettys’ first pro season, in the Arizona Rookie League, played out as expected. He was touted as having speed and raw power, and that he would struggle to make consistent contact. He hit .310 in 213 at-bats, with 66 strikeouts and only 15 walks. Still, he has a strong arm, and the Padres hope he can make a rapid climb.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Hunter Renfroe, OF (23) Former Mississippi State star made a quick jump from Single-A to Double-A, where he hit .232 with five homers, 23 RBIs in 60 games. Has raw power and strong arm.
2. Austin Hedges, C (22) Is considered the best defensive catcher in the minor leagues, but his bat is still catching up. He hit .225 with six homers and 44 RBIs at Double-A San Antonio in 2014.
3. Matt Wisler, RHP (22) Made quick jump from Double-A San Antonio to Triple-A El Paso, where he went 9–5 in 22 starts with a 5.01 ERA. Will continue to develop in AAA.
4. Rymer Liriano, OF (23) Played 38 games in first big-league stint. Showed off his raw power by homering into the top deck of the brick warehouse in left field corner of Petco Park.
5. Michael Gettys, OF (19) Second-round pick out of high school hit .310 with three homers, 38 RBIs in 52 games in rookie league.
6. Jose Rondon, SS (21) Hit .319 in two stops in High-A ball and should open season with Double-A San Antonio.
7. Zech Lemond, RHP (22) Third-round draft pick in 2014 bounced back from elbow inflammation in final season at Rice to go 2–3 with a 3.43 ERA combined at Single-A Eugene and Double-A San Antonio.
8. Tayron Guerrero, RHP (24) Intriguing, slow-developing 6'7" prospect was added to 40-man roster to protect him from Rule 5 draft; posted 1.45 ERA between Low-A and High-A in 2014.
9. Justin Hancock, RHP (24) Was not put on 40-man roster after going 3–2 with a 4.12 ERA in 12 starts plus one relief appearance for Double-A San Antonio. Had 6.19 ERA in the Arizona Fall League.
10. Ryan Butler, RHP (23) Seventh-round draft pick last June was 1–1 with a 2.76 ERA in 23 games combined between Low-A and High-A.