Between now and Opening Day, we’ll be previewing each team by eavesdropping on an extended conversation about them. For the full archive of each 2018 team preview, click here.
San Diego Padres PECOTA Projections:
Runs Scored: 681
Runs Allowed: 754
AVG/OBP/SLG (TAv): .239/.299/.379 (.245)
Total WARP: 16.7 (5.7 pitching, 11.0 non-pitching)
Geoff Young: I know “he made an adjustment” is the new “best shape of his life” and it’s stupid to get giddy over four homers in eight Cactus League at-bats, but I can’t shake the feeling that this is the year Austin Hedges becomes a complete ballplayer. His top PECOTA comps are guys like John Buck and Mike Zunino, and yet, disturbingly realistic visions of Lance Parrish keep dancing around my head. Should I seek professional help?
Wilson Karaman: Catcher development is especially non-linear. This can never, ever be emphasized strongly enough, and we really should have developed a proper TINSTAAPPian moniker for the phenomenon by now. Hedges cracked his first BP top-101 prospect list way back before the 2012 season, but yeah, while the glove has shown as advertised at pretty much every level the bat’s been up, down, left, right, and sideways. The ballyhooed swing overhaul at Triple A in 2016 helped him catch up with heat a bit better and lift balls more often, but sliders absolutely kill him, and he got eaten alive by hard up/bendy down sequencing last year.
I still think we’re another couple years away from Hedges putting it together offensively if indeed he’s going to get there, but agree with you that there is indeed a next gear waiting for him. And I expect that he’ll continue to show flashes of it while he tries to figure out that consistency. Luckily, when you lead the world in Adjusted FRAA in your first season of majority-time reps (and project to save three times as many fielding runs as your next-best defensive teammate in your second) you don’t necessarily need to set the world on fire with your stick.
One guy on the other side of the ball PECOTA seems to adore quite a bit is Dinelson Lamet, on whom the system slaps a team-best expectation of improvement and near-best chance of true breakout. That would certainly be a welcome development given that the Padres were one of only two teams last year to produce a negative collective pitching WARP. Are you as bullish on Lamet figuring out lefties as the robots seem to be? And are there any other glimmers of pitching hope to be found anywhere near the top of the depth chart, or are we stuck waiting until the first of the organization’s phalanx of top-flight prospect arms start to trickle out of the pipeline?
Young: I’m cautiously optimistic about Lamet, although that’s primarily a function of his youth and my hope. But yeah, when lefties slug .500 off a guy and righties are just a few ticks below .300, that’s cause for concern. If you want to delve deeper into his history for signs of a possible turnaround, it’s worth noting that he exhibited extreme splits at Fort Wayne in 2016 before solving lefties at three higher levels the next year. I guess I’m not as bullish as PECOTA, but I can at least see where it’s coming from.
As for other arms, there are mildly intriguing projects at the highest level in Luis Perdomo (again) and Matt Strahm. I don’t know how exciting they are, but teams that send Clayton Richard out to the mound as their no. 1 have a lower bar to clear. Among actual prospects, Cal Quantrill could take a step forward and arrive in San Diego ahead of schedule. Maybe Eric Lauer? But it seems to me that most of the serious reinforcements are farther away.
What about position players? Is there anyone we might see at some point during the season that can make, say, the infield look a little less bleak?
Karaman: I’m generally fascinated to watch how Rule 5 guys who stick on rosters go on developing after that first season in the bright light’s glare, so Perdomo’s a guy I’ve got eyes on too. Perdomo’s chief problem is that the ample ground-ball contact he coaxes a) is hit really hard, and b) has been hit at one of the majors’ least efficient infield defenses in each of his two seasons.
One guy who’s certainly doing his best to force the issue of a potential infield upgrade on the sooner side of later is Luis Urias. Man can that kid hit. He had some of the best hand-eye I’ve seen come through the Cal League a couple years ago, and the season he put together as one of the youngest regulars in Double-A last year was extremely impressive. I wouldn’t get too excited about him for this year, as he remains very young and did struggle a bit after a scorching start in San Antonio. But he’s going to be a fun addition to the mix, and especially if they do bump him to the keystone full time. He can impact the game defensively in a way the club hasn’t seen for a while on the dirt.
I suppose I’d be criminally remiss if I didn’t at least nod to the force of eventual nature that Fernando Tatis Jr. appears on track to become, and after he jumped to Double-A at 18 for a cup of coffee down the stretch last year it’s tempting to dive all-in on him Griffeying out and debuting this year. I’m a bit bearish on that timeline, but the idea of a Urias/Tatis middle infield a couple years down the line should be more than enough to keep Friars fans salivating through the rest of their time in the desert.
I guess that naturally brings us to the big elephant in the mission as well, which is the big-ticket addition of Eric Hosmer. His once-excellent defensive numbers have shrunk a bit over the past couple years, but I think we can still chalk him up as a solid upgrade over Will Myers at the cold corner. More broadly though, there have obviously been many takes generating assorted levels of heat on this signing. What are your thoughts on it, both from the standpoint of a straight-up baseball move as well as a reflection of where the franchise views itself competitively?
Young: The Hosmer signing baffles on many levels. I’d call him more of a marginal upgrade over Myers, but either way, first base was the one infield position that didn’t need improvement (although as you point out, those other infielders will be supplanted—the entire city of San Diego said hopefully and with no small amount of trepidation—by legitimate talent before long). Meanwhile, the guy Hosmer really replaces is Jose Pirela, who rides pine with Myers returning to the outfield, and who looked like a pretty darned good hitter in his first extended big-league trial.
Stepping back a little, it feels like much of Hosmer’s perceived value is tied into his reputation as a clubhouse leader. It’s difficult to quantify that sort of thing in any meaningful way, but I believe it matters, at least to a degree. Still, when the Padres have brought on “clubhouse guys” in the past—David Eckstein immediately springs to mind—it hasn’t felt like an overreach because the investment was modest enough to be justifiable. But the idea of spending big on intangibles as opposed to actual production, which in Hosmer’s case ranges from decent to pretty good (gee, that sounds a lot like Myers), doesn’t make sense to me.
In the end, how much difference can there be between a 27-year-old with a .254/.330/.438 career slash line and a 28-year-old with a .284/.342/.439 career slash line? Those extra 30 points of batting average are nice and shiny, but I wonder if the Padres could have used the money they spent on Hosmer to address an actual need like, say, the entire starting rotation.
As for where the franchise views itself competitively, that’s anyone’s guess. This is a team that went all-in a few years ago with old guys who couldn’t play defense. With their minor-league system being as strong as it is and their big-league roster being as weak as it is, it looks to me like they are (or should be) still in the rebuilding phase, but the Hosmer signing would seem to indicate otherwise. In other words, I’m as confused as the Padres appear to be.
I guess I’ll throw that one back your way. Where do you think they are? Perhaps more importantly, where do you think they think they are?
Karaman: I actually … kind of … like the Hosmer deal? Not including the pre-arb guys making a few hundred grand apiece (of whom there are many) the Padres had like $60 million in guaranteed salary for a team PECOTA projected to win 69 games. Now they’ve got $81 million committed to win 73. But realistically, who cares? They’re a more fun team to watch by an order of one player now, and as we’ve consistently referenced, the farm is stacked with enough volume of talent matriculating through High-A and above this year that even building in poorer-than-average attrition rates they’re still positioned to find a whole bunch of additional cheap, actually-good production as soon as two or three years down the line. Sure they’ll have sunk $40 million into Hosmer’s savings account by then, but again, who cares? Where else was that money going to go, outside of Ron Fowler’s savings account?
It’s not enough of an outlay to tie any anchors around future spending, and as the opening salvo on ever-so-slightly starting to crack a competitive window the team sees hopefully opening in a couple years, I think it’s a fine enough move. We tend to view free agent contracts myopically in terms of front-end value, but there’s plenty of opportunity here for this contract to “win” as a critical bit of infrastructure-building even if it doesn’t end up paying entirely for itself. Put another way, is 30- to 32-year-old Hosmer going to turn water into wine? Probably not. But between him and Myers now you’ve probably locked in five WARP at a wholly reasonable rate for that window, the Adventures of Wil Myers in Left Field notwithstanding. There are worse starting points, you know?
You mentioned spending on the rotation, and there certainly are a couple of interesting arms even now floating around in free agent waters. So let’s assume they are indeed a couple years away from their next run, assuming things on the player development side break reasonably. Is it crazy to suggest that they make a run at a Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, or Lance Lynn right now to replicate that first-step/stability model of the Hosmer signing? Is that the next step next winter? Where do they go from here in what’s highly likely to be another fairly unproductive season at the big-league level?
Young: I get what you’re saying about Hosmer, and I suppose it becomes a question of how much one is willing to pay for “fun” at the expense of more pressing and tangible needs. Again, Eckstein was fun. Going back further, so was Wally Joyner, who was probably as productive as we can hope Hosmer will be. Still, the whole thing feels a little like buying a vanilla soy latte from some hip cafe when you literally haven’t eaten in days. Why not just grab a cheap Logan Morrison/Lucas Duda-type snack while you’re figuring out the next move?
As for the pitching market, I have no idea what these guys are actually willing to take, but my suspicion is that Arrieta will be too expensive. The others might not be, and though Cobb and Lynn both come with risk, they also help fill a gaping hole rather than create a redundancy. So no, I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest the Padres make a run at those guys right now, though I’m guessing that Hosmer was the big move and we won’t see another significant splash at this point. Whether they do it this year or next, eventually they have to address the pitching shortage; the kids on the farm are a great start, but attrition being what it is, they’re not enough.
And where the Padres go from here, I think, returns to what you touched on earlier about the youngsters. They give it a shot for a few months, showcasing their tradeable commodities in the process, and then look to clear paths for guys like Quantrill, Lauer, Tatis, and Urias. Not all of those kids will come up right away, but there’s a decent chance one or two do later in the year, similar to how Manuel Margot and Hunter Renfroe got looks at the end of 2016. Maybe they show initial success, maybe not, but the important thing is they’ll be getting reps at the big-league level and learning valuable lessons that they can hopefully apply later, when it matters. And you know, maybe Hosmer is a guy who can help teach those lessons? That might not be the type of infrastructure building you had in mind, but yeah, there are worse starting points.
A breakout from one of the young position players would also help. I’ve already betrayed my bias, but do you see any of Hedges/Margot/Renfroe taking a step or two forward?
Karaman: We’ve touched on Hedges, who’s a five-win player waiting to happen with even a modest step forward at the plate. Margot, meanwhile, had a weird first full season relative to all of the scouting reports. A 40 game-power guy, he slugged 13 homers. A 70-speed guy, he was only okay stealing bases and tracking balls into the gaps. An allegedly plus glove translated to just middle-of-the-road defensive numbers. All of that said, I’ve long been a fan of the breadth of his skillset, and see him wholly capable of developing into a solid three- or four-win player in his own right.
I’m less bullish on Renfroe, whose approach has never really shown any signs of growth and development, and whose primary skill (unmitigated, leveraged, raw power) just isn’t the meal ticket it once might have been. But again, he can be a useful enough complimentary piece with a couple steps in the right direction. So where are we left, then? We’ve got Hosmer, Myers, and that trio all more or less capable of collectively producing what, marginally above-average value between their five roster spots? Is that enough of a foundation to where you find cause for cautious optimism for the franchise going forward? Is the “rebuild” working?
Young: Margot did have a weird season, but given that he’s still just 23 years old I’m inclined to chalk up any difficulties he had to the growing pains associated with transitioning to the big leagues (although I once similarly excused Cameron Maybin, so what do I know). I like Margot’s skill set and his baseball intelligence, and think he’ll be fine once he finds his comfort zone. As for Renfroe, the late power surge after his recall from Triple-A is encouraging, but I share your concern about his continued insistence on worshiping at the altar of Jeff Francoeur‘s Boundless Strike Zone. Still, if Hedges and Margot become who we think they can become, and Renfroe at least turns into a useful cog, that’s not so bad.
Those guys—plus Hosmer and Myers, plus Tatis and Urias—could provide a solid foundation, though many unknowns remain even among that group. And the Padres still need more than a few of their young arms to develop as hoped. It’s nice to dream, but at some point reality beckons: For every Jake Peavy there’s at least one Dennis Tankersley. Still, I find cause for cautious optimism, with the emphasis heavily on “cautious.” And yes, I think the rebuild is working, inasmuch as I can figure out what exactly the Padres are trying to accomplish. Maybe this year they shouldn’t outperform their Pythagorean by 12 wins so they can land a better draft position?
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