Despite a valiant effort to improve their Major League team through the acquisitions of household names such as Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, Craig Kimbrel, and James Shields, the Padres stumbled to their fifth straight losing season in 2015. Last season's Padres now serve as a cautionary tale for any team claiming to have "won the off season". While none of the team's major additions completely tanked, the Padres overestimated the degree to which the rest of their roster was prepared to contend.
Padres fans enter 2016 with a much more grounded assessment of their team's short-term potential. There are obvious holes on their roster that not even the most optimistic supporter of the team can ignore. While it is possible that some of the pieces of their next winning team will be playing in San Diego this season, there is a disturbing level of aging mediocrity here as well. The Padres have all the makings of a team that will have plenty of opportunities available for young players looking to establish themselves at the big league level. Here we will examine a few players hoping to do just that.
Top Candidate: Colin Rea. One of the few examples of a Padres player who exceeded expectations in 2015, Rea spent time at both Double A and Triple A before making his Major League debut with a win against Cincinnati on August 11. In the minors, Rea combined to throw 101.2 innings with a 1.95 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, and 2.0 BB/9. In the Majors, he made six starts with reasonably similar peripherals of 7.4 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9 feeding into a solid 3.45 FIP. He finished the season with the big club, although he did not make an appearance after September 8 as the team opted not to rush him back from a sore elbow.
The 6'5", 220 pound right-hander uses a solid four pitch mix to keep runners off the bases and the ball in the park. His fastball will touch 93 and he leans heavily on his cutter and curve while mixing in a split-change to combat lefties. His arsenal is not overpowering, but the potential to command four pitches that should be at least average, gives Rea a very high floor.
A 12th round pick who was never regarded as a high prospect, Rea feels like the type of pitcher who could easily sneak up on people. His quick mastery of the upper minors and solid introductory performance at the Major League level show he is ready to hold a spot in the Padres rotation. For a team desperately trying to determine who will carry the load beyond James Shields and Tyson Ross, Rea has a chance to be a very pleasant surprise in 2016.
Dare to Dream: Jabari Blash. It feels like we're due for a classic, Rule 5 underdog success story, doesn't it? Doesn't it??? Blash was selected by the Athletics in November's Rule 5 Draft and then dealt to the Padres to complete the Drew Pomeranz for Yonder Alonso deal. Despite consistent offensive production in the minor leagues, Blash has never risen beyond the level of 'moderately interesting' as a prospect. Concerns over the contact issues, and resultant low batting averages, in his game led to tempered enthusiasm as he climbed through the Mariners system.
Blash then proceeded to erupt in the high minors in 2015, splitting the season between Double A (155 wRC+) and Triple A (157 wRC+) and combining for 32 homers. His availability in the Rule 5 Draft was far more surprising than his selection as players with this type of offensive potential are rarely left unprotected. He steps into an interesting outfield picture in San Diego as he will compete with three veterans, and at least that many prospects looking to make their mark. In a situation like this, Blash carries the advantage of needing to be retained on the Major League roster lest he be offered back to Seattle. It's easy to like his chances to stick. Padres fans can #daretodream that they have found the cost-controlled masher that has eluded them for so long.
Rookie Watch: Beyond Blash, the Padres have a host of other outfielders in the high minors that figure to spend 2016 knocking on the door to the big leagues.
A former first round pick out of Mississippi State, Hunter Renfroe has been one of the great hopes of the Padres faithful since 2013. After a mediocre showing in Double A, he finished strong by clubbing six homers in 21 games at Triple A El Paso in the last month of the season. He has big power potential, but also plate discipline issues.
Acquired from Boston in the Craig Kimbrel trade, Manuel Margot has a broad base of tools and skills including a plus speed/defense profile in center field, and the hitting ability to project a potential five tool contributor at the big league level. After finishing last season at Double A, Margot could debut sometime this year.
The number three prospect in the system according to John last off season, Rymer Liriano looked poised to take advantage of his proximity to the Majors and establish himself before the next waive of prospects came on. Unfortunately, he struggled mightily in a 2014 cup of coffee and despite a solid showing at El Paso, he never made it back to the Majors in 2015. He has a fairly similar profile to Renfroe.
A 2011 third round pick out of Indiana University, Alex Dickerson was acquired in a prospect swap from the Pirates two off seasons ago. He is a polished left-handed bat who figures to give back some of his value in the field where his below average speed costs him in the outfield corners. Has a good chance to be a nice complimentary piece.
Travis Jankowski has more Major League time under his belt than any of the prospects he is competing with, but 62 wRC+ in 96 plate appearances can hardly be classified as an advantage. He does provide a different skill set from his competitors headlined by 70 grade speed. His offensive ceiling is up for debate, but he's not completely hopeless. He should make a nice National League reserve outfielder.
Final Notes: Luis Perdomo and Josh Martin join Blash as players acquired through the Rule 5 Draft who will need to stick with the Major League roster or be returned to their original clubs. Martin has a shot at being a useful reliever and has been very good in the minors. Perdomo is a pure upside play who has only pitched 26.1 innings at High A, but can touch 97 and has a chance to start in the long run. They join several interesting arms from San Diego's affiliates in the high minors as possible cheap, effective bullpen options.
For me, the interesting part of the Padres roster picture is in the outfield. There are a ton of average and better Major League tools attached to those players in the high minors. I look forward to seeing which of them emerge from the pack and which ultimately disappoint us.